In the latest New Yorker, still-adored 1980s film star Molly Ringwald has an essay about filmmaker John Hughes. His beloved films such as The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty In Pink made Ringwald famous.
Hughes’s cultural impact is immeasurable, not just on film comedies but his sensitive portrayals of teenagers, and teenage girls especially. Hughes practically invented the genre that’s become known as “YA,” or young adult fiction.
In many respects, it’s an excellent essay, and Ringwald is a thoughtful and talented writer by any measure, not just grading on a celebrity curve. However, it seems that 30 years later Ringwald has some very mixed feelings about Hughes’ work. The subhead of Ringwald’s essay is “Revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo.” I have some issues with critiquing Hughes’ work through a revisionist and politically correct lens the way Ringwald does here.
Admittedly, some things in Hughes movies haven’t aged well at all. The Asian “Long Duk Dong” character in “Sixteen Candles” is, well, yeesh. Not good. Although I think the portrayal could be defended as funny (a credit to actor Gedde Watanabe), there’s no getting around it’s a very broad and regrettable stereotype. As Watanabe has noted, “I was making people laugh. I didn’t realize how it was going to affect people.”
Ringwald points out that the upskirt scene under the desk in The Breakfast Club, as well as the implied encounter with passed-out girl in Sixteen Candles, were troubling. I want to believe that in context it quite clearly was not meant to be anything but tomfoolery, and any menace is largely a retroactive view. These things were part of a widespread cultural insensitivity certainly not unique to Hughes, even if I hope contemporary films not do such things to female characters.
Still, Ringwald is clearly justified in pointing out these aspects of the films and offering her objections. The premise of the essay is that she’s now old enough to watch these films with her daughter, and a number of these issues would also make me uncomfortable watching the films with with my own daughters.
My big problem with Ringwald’s essay is that she dwells on the problems with Hughes’s films, but doesn’t spend nearly enough time cataloging the abundant exonerating evidence displaying his work as compassionate and unifying. Aside from respecting women enough to write the kind of complex characters that made Ringwald famous, if you want to understand Hughes’s attitudes toward teaching young boys about sex, his film Weird Science speaks pretty loudly.
Of course, I don’t think a film that involves horny teenage boys wearing bras on their heads will be taught in womyn’s studies anytime soon, but in contrast to similar movies of the time it’s the anti-Porky’s. The message for teenage boys couldn’t be clearer: Your pornographic fantasies aren’t helpful, and you’ve got to build real relationships with women.
So many other popular and contemporary films such as Revenge of the Nerds, Porky’s, Risky Business, Hardbodies, H.O.T.S., Screwballs, Losin’ It, Class, Zapped!, Last American Virgin, Spring Break, My Tutor, Private Resort, Hot Resort, Last Resort, etc. and the HUGE swath of R-rated ’80s sex comedies were clearly marketed to teens at the time. They didn’t have an iota of the redeeming characterization and morality Hughes provided. Thus, to bash Hughes for his portrayal of women given this context is rather undeserved. (To be fair to Ringwald, she does discuss Porky’s et al. and concedes as much, even if Hughes still deserves a lot more credit for swimming upstream culturally than she gives him.)
The essay also leaves the clear impression that Ringwald’s not a disinterested observer, and how could she be? She clearly seems uneasy that a middle-aged white guy became beloved for defining who she is in the popular imagination, when in fact she’s her own person, as this essay clearly demonstrates.
Being personally defined by popular roles has long been a standard celebrity complaint, only now with the novel twist that Ringwald justifies her privileged resentment by inviting others to see it as feminist wokeness. That may be an uncharitable take, but I am also concerned that, whether she means to or not, she is creating a pretext to begin dragging Hughes’ justly beloved work through the mud.
Having said all that, I was heartened that by the end of the essay, Ringwald acknowledged Hughes’s work has value that transcends the complaints. It turns out people still find a great deal of meaning in the films, despite it not getting a perfect score from the Ministry of Cultural Hygiene. She might be admitting this for purely selfish reasons — if the films define her in ways she resents, they also made her rich and famous. Her own image and self-worth are probably more wrapped up in those films than she wants to admit.
There’s nothing wrong with that, either. She did stellar work in those films, and she should be proud. Because Ringwald and Hughes are to some degree inseparable in the public imagination, the idea that Ringwald still privately values Hughes’ work on some level doesn’t provide much comfort. But considering the urge toward cultural defenestration these days, you take what you can get. (If you want a more wise and acerbic, if not always agreeable, take on why the cultural mores of ’80s teen comedies can be unfortunate in retrospect, I recommend Jonathan Bernstein’s book of criticism, Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. Bernstein doesn’t spare Hughes, to put it mildly.)
But if the revisionist attacks on Hughes go much beyond what Ringwald has done here, I will be putting a knife in my teeth and flinging myself over the trenches and leading the charge in the culture war. Hughes simply must be defended, both because he was a singular talent and because he could be considered the most overtly America-loving filmmaker since Frank Capra.
In this respect, an unstated issue here explains why Ringwald might be looking back and seeing herself in these films at the center of a worldview she doesn’t like. Hughes was allegedly a Republican, but as anyone familiar with the personalities coming out of National Lampoon in the 1970s knows, he most likely had a very libertarian perspective that was really a counterculture to counterculture.
Center-left baby boomerism was already intolerable by the ’70s, and it defined everything by the ’80s. Like his National Lampoon peers, Hughes had zero use for self-righteous liberalism. This is nearly perfectly encapsulated by a bit cut from the original Ferris Bueller screenplay:
FERRIS: My uncle went to Canada to protest the war, right? On the Fourth of July he was down with my aunt and he got drunk and told my dad he felt guilty he didn’t fight in Vietnam. So I said, ‘What’s the deal, Uncle Jeff? In wartime you want to be a pacifist and in peacetime you want to be a soldier. It took you twenty years to find out you don’t believe in anything?’ (Snaps his fingers.) Grounded. Just like that. Two weeks. (Pause.) Be careful when you deal with old hippies. They can be real touchy.
Hughes had liberals’ number, and these themes run throughout his work. Ferris Bueller is celebration of pure individualistic liberty, though it deftly stops short of hedonistic because an undercurrent forces the audience to enjoy and appreciate all the things life in America bestows on us — art museums, baseball games, the wealth generated by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange — while rejecting the worst about it, such as turning public education into bureaucratic institutions that prize conformity and punish fun. As Ben Stein put it, “John Hughes — Republican — saw that potential, saw that the individual still had the ability to transcend whatever was weighing him or her down and come out leading a parade down Michigan Avenue.”
Fortunately, Hughes was the opposite of didactic when approaching his themes; he always handled his critiques of liberalism sensitively. So you end up with a film such as Mr. Mom, which affirms that men can, in fact, stay home and take care of children while the wife is the breadwinner, but derives its humor from feminists having to wrestle with the fact that gender roles exist for good reasons.
Then there are his general views on inclusiveness and pluralism. The Breakfast Club is about learning to see people as they are, both good and bad, and understanding that the only true way to respect each other’s individualism is after everybody openly lays his faults on the table for all to see. Then you can come together in mutual respect. Basically, “the brain, the jock, the basket case, the princess, and the criminal” spend the day in detention and all arrive at e pluribus unum.
This is the exact opposite of the resurgence of identity politics among millennials, where you get to self-define who you are and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge 100 percent of exactly how you want to be perceived is disrespecting you, or worse. Ringwald notes gay acquaintances and other so-called outcasts that didn’t fit the mold of the whitebread characters in The Breakfast Club still love “The Breakfast Club” as if it’s some quirky contradiction, and I submit it’s the exact opposite. When they see it, people are innately touched by portrayals of genuine, as opposed to forced, acceptance.
Hughes wasn’t blinkered about the need to address inequality in an individualistic society, either. The heartbreaking ending of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles resonates not just because we learn that John Candy’s character’s wife has died and he’s got nowhere to go, but because Steve Martin’s character recognizes that because he is more fortunate, he has a moral duty to see the best in Candy’s obnoxious character and take him into his home to celebrate Thanksgiving with his own family. With great Ferris Bueller-style individualism comes great responsibility.
Then there’s Hughes’ great critique of American culture’s assault on families. As I noted in my 2009 obituary for Hughes in National Review:
Hughes’s first big hit, National Lampoon’s Vacation, is practically an extended meditation on the importance of family values. Sure, the film is clearly absurd and far from wholesome — but its premise mines comedy from the fact that seemingly all the forces in contemporary life are geared toward undermining the traditional family. Whether it’s inner-city crime or shady relatives giving his kids pot, everyone seems to be conspiring to keep Clark Griswold from having the old-fashioned family vacation that he so desires.
Particularly telling is the appearance of Christie Brinkley as the temptress in the red Ferrari. While the producers no doubt thought that having the Sports Illustrated cover girl strutting around in a white bikini wouldn’t hurt ticket sales, she appears in the film not really as a flesh-and-blood character. Rather, Brinkley appears mostly as a mirage illustrating how the oversexualization of the culture undermines families — before Griswold wisely returns to the arms of his long-suffering wife.
Now I don’t want to pretend any of these themes were Hughes trying to be overtly political. Like any good writer, Hughes was an astute observer and good at pointing out contradictions that made us laugh, and I think that’s all he was trying to do. But I do think that a lot of the reasons his movies are still loved map neatly on to an idealized form of cultural conservatism and traditional American Judeo-Christian civic values, currents that still run deep and, looked at honestly, represent ideals that are far more humanistic than the contemporary left wants to admit.
Maybe Hughes’ 1980s-era moral vision wasn’t perfect, but compared to the toxic, and yes, un-American, zero-sum visions of identity politics and privilege being presented today, Hughes deserves to be celebrated.
If anything, the danger for kids these days — I’m in my forties and have two kids, so I’m entitled to use that phrase unironically — is ignoring real injustice and failing to make real-world connections with others because they’re taught that social justice enforced with anything less than puritanical zeal is insufficient. Accordingly, it becomes okay for us to cease enjoying generally well-intentioned works of art because we’re too busy navel-gazing about perceived slights.
That’s a terrible lesson to learn, because if we’ve learned anything from John Hughes films, it’s that life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.