The Harvey Weinstein scandal and the advent of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements has forever changed Hollywood going forward. Should older films be reevaluated under the new rules, and is there a place for subversive comedy anymore? Molly Ringwald, teen star of John Hughes’ classic ‘80s coming of age trilogy Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club, has written an article in the upcoming The New Yorker in which she re-watched her beloved films and was pretty horrified.
She credits Hughes for building films around female leads, and showing the troubles of disillusioned teens. That pride is tempered upon further review as she acknowledges his work “could also be considered racist, misogynistic, and, at times, homophobic. The words “fag” and “faggot” are tossed around with abandon; the character of Long Duk Dong, in Sixteen Candles, is a grotesque stereotype.” It has also been noted to Ringwald by young people that her films were lily white with no representation of of LGBTs.
Ringwald’s task of re-evaluating her 30-year-old work was complicated by doing it in the company of a daughter roughly the age when Hughes made Ringwald his screen muse. That in itself sounds about as punishing a way to make a freelance buck as the time George Plimpton auditioned for the Detroit Lions for a book deal.
Ringwald found plenty of reason to cringe at signature moments of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, and came away realizing that movies of that era in general were pretty appalling in their depiction of women.
She writes: “The teen horror flicks that flourished in the seventies and eighties had them getting murdered: if you were young, attractive, and sexually active, your chances of making it to the end were basically nil (a trope spoofed, years later, by the Scream franchise). The successful teen comedies of the period, such as Animal House and Porky’s were written by men for boys; the few women in them were either nymphomaniacs or battleaxes. (The stout female coach in Porky’s” is named Balbricker.) The boys are perverts, as one-dimensional as their female counterparts, but with more screen time.” She noted that even one directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “still made room for a young male’s fantasy of the actress Phoebe Cates striding topless in a soft-porny sprinkler mist.”
Back then, Ringwald and her mother persuaded Hughes to omit one racy scene from Sixteen Candles, and got dialogue changed in the running storyline that involved her lending her underwear to a geek who wanted to win a bet by telling pals they had sex. She was caught short reevaluating another scene in which Jake, the dreamboat her character pursues, gives the geek his gorgeous blonde girlfriend, and his car, in exchange for that underwear. There is a clear invitation he can have sex with the zonked out girl.
Ringwald writes: “The Geek takes Polaroids with Caroline to have proof of his conquest; when she wakes up in the morning with someone she doesn’t know, he asks her if she “enjoyed it.” (Neither of them seems to remember much.) Caroline shakes her head in wonderment and says, “You know, I have this weird feeling I did.” She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.” When Ringwald sought out the actress who played the drunken girl, Haviland Morris, she initially told Ringwald she wasn’t that troubled by it. After all, her character bore some responsibility by being so drunk. Later, she reconsidered and agreed it was pretty despicable. “Jake was disgusted with her and said he could violate her 17 ways if he wanted to because she was so trashed, but he didn’t,” she told Ringwald. “And then, Ted was the one who had to ask if they had had sex, which certainly doesn’t demonstrate responsible behavior from either party, but also doesn’t really spell date rape. On the other hand, she was basically traded for a pair of underwear . . . Ah, John Hughes.”
Just as troubling was the progression of her character’s growing romance in The Breakfast Club with Judd Nelson’s bad boy character. “Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film,” she writes. “When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her “pathetic,” mocking her as “Queenie.” It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol. Claire acts dismissively toward him, and, in a pivotal scene near the end, she predicts that at school on Monday morning, even though the group has bonded, things will return, socially, to the status quo. “Just bury your head in the sand and wait for your fuckin’ prom!” Bender yells. He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Ringwald ultimately comes around to believe it’s okay to continue to appreciate films that didn’t seem so irresponsible upon first viewing, but that they should be reevaluated. I walked away from her article wondering if it would be possible to make subversive comedies like Blazing Saddles, Animal House, Risky Business, and Fast Times At Ridgemont High after all that has happened in the last six months in Hollywood.