I recently re-watched Sixteen Candles, the classic 1984 John Hughes movie that I loved as a teenager. I was of the brat-pack generation and loved, loved, loved all the Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe teen angst films I could get my eyes on. When I was younger, I read Judy Blume books and felt secretly naughty doing so. Then I started reading S.E. Hinton and was convinced that she had special powers of understanding teenage feelings more than anyone else in the world and as a result she inspired me to become a writer.
I watched films like The Outsiders all the way to St. Elmo’s Fire and sat snugly in the 80s niche greedily gobbling up the messages produced for me and my generation.
So, it was a stunning revelation for me when I recently re-watched a daytime TV commercial broadcast of Sixteen Candles starring the chiselled Matt Dillon-esque actor Michael Schoeffling as the hero Jake and the benchmark of 1980s cool, Molly Ringwald as the heroine Samantha. I remember loving the brooding hero and aspiring to be as fashionable as the heroine.
What an eye-opener this trip down memory lane has turned out to be.
It turns out that Jake our hero leaves his intoxicated and passed out girlfriend in his car and in the hands of the virgin-nerd Ted. Not only that, he also demeans her, shows more concern about his parents’ Rolls Royce car which he has lent Ted than her and then encourages his new young friend to have fun.
Here’s an excerpt of this exchange between Jake and Ted from the script:
Shit, I got Caroline in my bedroom right now, passed out cold.
I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.
What are you waiting for?
I don’t know.
She’s beautiful, and she’s built and all that.
[Sighs] I’m just not interested anymore.
She’s totally insensitive. Look what she did to my house.
She doesn’t know shit about love.
Only thing she cares about is partying.
I want a serious girlfriend.
Somebody I can love, that’s gonna love me back.
Is that psycho?
(Ted reacts to Jake’s revelation…)
I’ll make a deal with you. Let me keep these (meaning Samantha’s underwear) I’ll let you take Caroline home. But you gotta make sure she gets home. You can’t leave her in some parking lot somewhere. Okay?
Jake, I’m only a freshman.
So? She’s so blitzed, she won’t know the difference. Okay.
(Cut to up-the-skirt shot of Caroline’s underwear asTed carries the unconscious Caroline, slung over his shoulder, to the car)
[Chuckles] She’s totally gone.
What a dreamboat.
So, Jake has given his drunken girlfriend to a guy he just met at his party in order that Ted can lose his virginity in exchange for the undies of a girl Jake wants. None of this is said, it is all implied. We are made to believe he is a good guy because he wants a serious girlfriend and he asks that Ted not leave her in some parking lot somewhere. In fact, Ted thinks his speech is ‘beautiful’.
This young woman is portrayed as the popular / party girl who is the predatory type and she is going to get her formidable claws into the rich / good looking / no doubt going to be a success, young man. Hughes sets it up for the (then) audience to not care if she is violated somehow. And violate her he does. He has her hair cut off in a doorjamb and then she is offered up to Ted as a deal in exchange for Samantha’s underwear. Ted then manoeuvres her into various unconscious positions while his nerd buds take photos. But it is ok because Ted is a sweet, nerdy virgin and Jake has asked to make sure Ted takes her home. So, you know, it’s ok.
The fact that she drinks and wants to party and that the people whom she invited to the party have wrecked Jake’s parents’ house are all used to allow her to be violated because, you know, she’s a party girl.
I couldn’t believe what I was watching.
It is not an exaggeration to say my mouth was hanging open.
How could I have watched this film in the 1980s and think it was ok?
Because everything else in the 1980s was pretty much saying the same thing: my parents, family, teachers, books, television shows…I’m not sure which is more surprising, that I am aghast at what I now see as a blatant and horrific message of misogyny and violence or that I was so numb to it in the 1980s.
I felt slightly nuts at the end of the viewing for my new-found feelings of rage and disbelief where once there was nothing. Luckily I am not nuts nor am I the only one feeling suitably enraged.
I just looked up the film and found two completely different readings of the film. Two articles whose line I follow and the other whose line is a manexplantion of excuses as to reasons why the film is not offensive.
No points for guessing gender.
I am so relieved to have just found two other voices of reason on this topic: Sara Doran’s (2016) blog post on having watched the film for the first time as an adult and Sara Stewart’s (2015) New York Post (2015) article which is also brilliant. Then there is Mike McPadden’s (2015) article that makes many lame excuses for the many (I haven not even gotten around to discussing the rampant racism, ageism and unfettered celebration of consumerism and greed) horrible incidents in the film. But he does it as way of explaining to millennials why it was ok.
The mind boggles at how horrible these messages were that we happily gobbled up but the heart warms to see how much wiser we have become at saying, “Not ok.” “Patriarchal bullshit alert!”
I keep searching now while writing this and I find that I am coming quite late to the discussion as many others were talking about this very thing a few years back.
However, it is never too late to talk about injustice, especially injustice which so blatantly makes others and lessers of women, minorities and the have-nots. These toxic messages were liberally served up as thick as peanut butter spread on white bread and the legacy is as toxic as type-two diabetes.
As Sara Stewart (2015) says, “Gather round, kiddies, and check out how rape and racism used to be hilarious punch lines.”
I say here’s to punching back.