Molly Ringwald, star of your childhood in the 1980s, has penned an essay for The New Yorker, and in it she grapples with something we’ve all been confronting recently: the uncomfortable flaws in the art you love. But it’s one thing for us to re-examine the movies we grew up on — like, say, The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles — and acknowledge the currents of racism, sexism, and harassment that were socially acceptable when they were made. It’s another thing when the star of those movies confronts all of that, and her own complicity, herself. But Molly effin’ Ringwald tackles it brilliantly, as someone who was a willing contributor to those movies, someone with intimate knowledge of the mind behind those movies, and as a mother faced with introducing those movies to her own daughter.
How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it? Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.
What Ringwald doesn’t do is erase her history, or discard the films she made with John Hughes. Instead, she examines her love of them, and their cultural impact, while also exploring the more questionable aspects that haven’t aged well in the #MeToo era.
I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles,” when the dreamboat, Jake, essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek, to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear. 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.
She talks about her mother objecting to certain scenes when she was a child, on set, filming them, and also about the experience of explaining those scenes while watching the movie with her own daughter. And she even reaches out to Haviland Morris, the actress who played Caroline, to see how her impression of the above-mentioned scene might have changed now that she herself is a mother. But even when the films were “racist, misogynistic, and, at times, homophobic”, as Molly puts it, they still mattered to people.
And yet, I have been told more times than I could count, by both friends and strangers, including people in the L.G.B.T. community, that the films “saved” them. Leaving a party not long ago, I was stopped by Emil Wilbekin, a gay, African-American friend of a friend, who wanted to tell me just that. I smiled and thanked him, but what I wanted to say was: “Why?” There is barely a person of color to be found in the films, and no characters are openly gay. A week or so after the party, I asked my friend to put me in touch with him. In an e-mail, Wilbekin, a journalist who created an organization called Native Son, devoted to empowering gay black men, expanded upon what he had said to me as I had left the party. “The Breakfast Club,” he explained, saved his life by showing him, a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the eighties, “that there were other people like me who were struggling with their identities, feeling out of place in the social constructs of high school, and dealing with the challenges of family ideals and pressures.” These kids were also “finding themselves and being ‘other’ in a very traditional, white, heteronormative environment.” The lack of diversity didn’t bother him, he added, “because the characters and storylines were so beautifully human, perfectly imperfect and flawed.” He watched the films in high school, and while he was not yet out, he had a pretty good idea that he was gay.
Perhaps most interestingly, however, she looks at Hughes himself — trying to reconcile the man who believed in her and elevated her and created such sensitive portrayals of teenagers with the man who also created Long Duk Dong. She tracks down some of Hughes’s early work in National Lampoon for comparison (and she’s “taken aback by the scope of the ugliness” in what she reads). But she also finds an interview that she herself conducted with Hughes in Seventeen magazine in 1986:
In the interview, I asked him if he thought teen-agers were looked at differently than when he was that age. “Definitely,” he said. “My generation had to be taken seriously because we were stopping things and burning things. We were able to initiate change, because we had such vast numbers. We were part of the Baby Boom, and when we moved, everything moved with us. But now, there are fewer teens, and they aren’t taken as seriously as we were. You make a teen-age movie, and critics say, ‘How dare you?’ There’s just a general lack of respect for young people now.”
Reading a passage like that now, it’s hard not to look at the teenagers rising up and leading national movements around us today. Time moves on, and the cultural conversation does as well. The work of John Hughes doesn’t have to be simply good or entirely bad. His movies helped a lot of kids at one point in time, and we can use them today to have different conversations — not just about outsiders, but about consent. That’s the beauty of art, after all — it exists in the mind of the viewer.
What I’m saying is — has anyone got a teen I can borrow? I wanna sit down and watch The Breakfast Club with them, and see what they think.