As kids head back to school, it is a good time to revisit the teen films of John Hughes.
Hughes was in his 30s when he wrote (and often directed) his perennial series of teen films starting with 1984's “Sixteen Candles” and concluding with 1991's “Career Opportunities,” but he was perhaps more attuned than any other filmmaker to what it was like to be young. In films like "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty in Pink," he understood the confusion of adolescence and how emotionally intense everything felt.
In the wake of the #metoo movement, there has been somewhat of a cultural re-evaluation of some of Hughes' films. Even Molly Ringwald, Hughes' muse and star of “Sixteen Candles,” "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink," has weighed in.
In an essay that appeared in The New Yorker in April 2018, Ringwald took Hughes writing to task stating, “If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was.”
She challenges aspects of “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” that could be construed as problematic.
In “The Breakfast Club,” the bad boy John Bender (Judd Nelson) verbally abuses Ringwald’s Claire, and, in one case, may have touched her in a sexually inappropriate manner.
“Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film,” Ringwald wrote. “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 f------ prom!’ Bender yells. He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Certainly, the implication of this ending is a terrible message for teen girls. But is the message to not only accept but reward abusive behavior?
None of Bender’s behavior is portrayed in a positive light. It is heavily implied that he’s mirroring the behavior of his abusive father. Bender isn’t necessarily a bad person, but he’s had terrible modeling. Similarly, Claire comes from a family where her parents are in a loveless marriage. Are Bender and Claire destined to repeat the cycle of abuse? Not necessarily.
Claire seems to be innately aware of what she’s doing. Bender asks her “Remember how you said your parents use you to get back at each other? Wouldn’t I be excellent in that capacity?” Claire is using Bender and he’s happy to be used by her, so it isn’t as cut and dry as “he gets the girl in the end.”
“The Breakfast Club” still remains relevant because it shows teens being genuinely terrible to each other, but also peels away their facades to get to the core of why they’re acting that way.
As for Ringwald’s objections to “Sixteen Candles,” they are harder to justify narratively or thematically.
In “Sixteen Candles,” Ringwald’s Samantha has a crush on the dreamboat Jake (Michael Schoeffling), who, as Ringwald put it, “essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline (Haviland Morris), to (Ted) the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear.”
There’s an undenible date-rape vibe with this subplot. The Geek even takes photos with the unconscious Caroline to have proof of his conquest. When they wake up in the morning, neither has any concrete memories of having sex. But when asked if she enjoyed herself, Caroline replies, “You know, I have this weird feeling I did.”
That line doesn’t really make all of it OK, but what at least softens the blow is when Caroline notes that the best part was, “Waking up in your arms.” It points to the sex being, at some level, consensual and, perhaps more meaningful than any previous encounters she has had.
Ringwald reached out to Morris and asked her thoughts on the scene. At first, she was uneasy with it, but became less uncomfortable about it the more she thought about it.
“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,” Morris wrote. “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.”
Ringwald wrote in The New Yorker, “It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot.”
Hughes was making movies during a period when teen films were exploitative and shallow. “Sixteen Candles” was his first film and he had to give the studio at least some of what they had come to expect of the genre. It is to his credit that it was also a carefully observed portrait of adolescence. This was a compromise that dissipated in subsequent films.
Hughes presents the teen years in all of their warts. Teen behavior isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, in fact, it can often be ugly, hurtful and sexually inappropriate. It is that honest, unfiltered approach that helps make Hughes’ films significant and applicable to today’s youth despite being products of the 1980s.