Salon discussion on "Sixteen Candles" date rape scene (14 August 2009)
It wasn't long after John Hughes died that online commenters began to poke holes in his legacy: There was, of course, the unforgivable issue of Long Duk Dong, but even on Broadsheet, letter writers brought up a different dark moment from "Sixteen Candles." As commenter Nona put it: "Let's not forget the barely conscious drunk girlfriend the Jake Ryan character sends off to be raped by the Geek in Sixteen Candles. I believe he says 'be my guest.'
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Were the John Hughes movies progressive? In terms of their sexual politics, they were often not. They merely reflected some of the prejudices of their time. Considering the horror of Long Duk Dong, the Jar Jar Binks of the '80s and one of the worst Asian stereotypes ever committed to film, maybe we should be grateful that in his best films, Hughes rarely tried to move past what he knew: white, suburban Chicago teenagers. But he did class better than almost anyone else. In the middle of the hedonistic '80s that glorified all things yuppie, he made heroes out of working-class teens and and villains out of wealthy kids, who were often callously exploiting their peers in ways that reflected what some thought their corporate parents were doing to the country." (Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene,” August 11 2009)
Long Duk was hardly Jar Jar: he was all over the place, but fun and competent (we cheered him on!); Jar Jar was just all over the place. The "date rape" scene in Sixteen Candles read just as the boyfriend's disgust at his drunken girlfriend, the whole mess of a party. For it to have read differently, different people would have to have been cast in the roles and it would have had to have been directed by someone else. Anthony Hall's character is sweet, and when they wake up in the car together later, the film is WITH both of them--not trying to break either of them down, but rather, lift them up--wake them up to their potential, to the possibility of moving beyond past life-roles. Blane in "Pretty in Pink" is reserved, but not bland--he is charming. Characters do often end up with 80s bland, though; I think because as "objects" they possess some sense of WASP ever-lastingness/solidness: their blandness has something to do with their legacy spanning generations, with them not being in any special hurry to accomplish anything. They can take your heat, if not fully understand it, and carry on. The characters with "character" tend to be less fixed, less oriented. Makes them strong with huge potential, in "Breakfast Club." But perhaps elsewhere--and especially with Ducky--makes it seem easy enough for them to spiral out of control, fall apart. Characters need something "sure" to help settle/calm them down--they need security. Big element in Hughes films.
Hughes wanted people to do well. The date rape bit from you does show just how mean and off-course we've become. The truly mean, but more deceptive, will see in many these days, ripe sport for immediate ready agreement and inevitable glorious betrayal.
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re: “And it wasn't Bender's sexual aggression that won Claire over, it was his dropping his mask and revealing a softer side.” (EdwardDunne, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)
I think it fair to say, though, that Claire did at some level appreciate Bender's sensitivity, even when used aggressively. He had a good sense of bullshit, of how people work (so did the others, mind you), and was fascinating--to Claire too, me thinks--in how he could make use of his understanding of people, of the situation he was in, to draw people out, to make something--even if it just turned out to be discord--out of what would otherwise have been silent, constrained students, waiting through the hours. Claire was both fascinated and horrified at Bender's willingness to draw upon himself the whole of the principal's anger, vengeance. Her plea that he cut it out! registered she cared for him even then.
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re: “But with Bueller--here is a very rich kid, who takes his very rich friend out for a day on the town. And how do they have fun? By taking advantage of every middle/lower class guy around. The maitre'd at the fancy restaurant. Principle Rooney. Bueller uses his privilege to get everything he wants, every day, while working stiffs are left holding the bag, looking pathetic for standing in Bueller's way.” (electro87, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)
Electro: Rooney is played quite a bit by Bueller, and to loud effect, but is savy to him (unlike Ferris' parents) (and is over-all shown to be alert, not dim), and comes within a hair's breadth of getting him (if maybe not ever getting TO him: this is not Bender and "I've got you for the rest of your natural born life" empowered principal). At the end of the day, my thoughts stay with Rooney: at the end of the movie, he seems not to far from being worn-down enough he could have joined the "Breakfast Club" circle and chatted it up--Ferris Bueller is always to advantage, ever aloof, and never so recognizably sapien.
Enjoyed your post.
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re: “Claire runs that school, and she's not a complete bitch - not like the girls in Heathers, who were mean just for the sake of it. In 16 Candles, Molly Ringwald makes a deal with the nerd - it's a give and take situation - he just gets her panties. In Ferris Bueller, Sloane is the loved, respected, even-keeled character who tempers Ferris' boistrousness and Cameron's neurosis.” (suzeqzee, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)
re: "Claire runs that school, and she's not a complete bitch - not like the girls in Heathers, who were mean just for the sake of it."
In my judgment, the film makes it seem more like school is composed of various fiefdoms, with no Ferris in view, with no one person able to rise too far beyond group norms. She is near the top of the richies, but it is not clear this makes her amount to evidently more than any particular top Varsity jock, for instance. The potential status equivalence of these two groups is registered in the film by Andrew Clark asking Claire if she's going to such-and-such a party, and in the nature of her reply--i.e., she reacts as if it a matter-of-course the two groups would mingle.
re: "In 16 Candles, Molly Ringwald makes a deal with the nerd - it's a give and take situation - he just gets her panties."
Yeah, I like that. It is to a certain extent played to show-"up" her status, too: she's no popular, but a trophy way beyond the reach of geeks (it's not JUST because she's a girl that she's a draw). There is play in this. Play with humiliation--yes. Play with playing along with the weird, advancing King of the Geeks, adventuring along with him. There is experimentation, gamesmanship, adventure, friendship. She's of a world/class where varied, unusual, dizzying, humiliating, remarkable, catastrophic, experiences can occur. She can be the Alice in Wonderland. More popular than she, and none of this is possible/available. It's too much for all of life, but for awhile, it's varied mix--nutrient soil.
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re: “I was a teenager in the 1980s...
...and I was not a fan of John Hughes films. It always seemed to me he was superimposing his experience as a teenager in the 1960s onto the 1980s. There's a kind of inherent nostalgia in his films for the innocence of his own youth; I can't think of a single Hughes movie that dealt with teen pregnancy, or the actual drug trends of the 1980s, which in my white, suburban high school included MDMA, methamphetamine and the beginnings of the neo-hippie thing (the Dead's "Touch of Grey" was being circulated in bootleg form my senior year). Now I can appreciate his work, though I would argue that Risky Business - Tom Cruise and all - is singularly better than any John Hughes movie.” (JaceFreely, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)
JaceFreely: If it was all Hughes lost in his own past, why would it have connected with so many 80's teens? Mustn't it have played to something WE ourselves had experienced too?
This said/asked, I think I connected to his films because there was some carry-over in his films of the 70's joie-de-vivre, sense of possibility--yummy-candy. (I probably like Forrest Gump and the rest of Zemenkis's films for the same reason.) There is a chill, mercilessness, possibility of devastating abandonment, evoked in Risky Business, that was also true to 80's (and on and on) life, but amounted to an argument against any hope for Jim Henson-style love, warmth, community, in our future. It was cold sweat of fear--real, but not the whole of it. Hughes remains a source of life, as Henson has (though unfortunately, I am hearing less and less of his works, just now).
It seems so apropos to compare the great Risky Business with Hughes' films. Thanks for doing so.
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re: @Patrick McEvoy Halston
Thank you for your respectful response.
Hughes is a great writer, and as such can bring out a certain universality in whatever story he's telling (I actually read "Vacation '58" when it first appeared in National Lampoon, and loved it). I have close friends my age that consider his movies integral to their teen years, so yes, there's no doubt he had a rapport with the 80s generation. As to the larger discussion at hand, I think his orientation as a baby boomer needs to be taken into account when addressing his sensibilities regarding teen sexuality and racial stereotypes. Even his musical taste betrays his boomer-ness.
As to Risky Business: I just remember every kid I went to high school with talking about how they were going to major in business, or economics. It was the Reagan era. For me the period is embodied in First Lady Nancy's prescription for the drug epidemic ravaging the inner cities: Just Say No. As if it were that easy. Someday "Just Say No" will go alongside "Let them Eat Cake" in the Upper-Class-Detachment hall of fame...anyway, Hughes had a keen eye for the ways class politics entered the halls of high school (Rush's "Subdivisions", anyone?), and for that alone he deserves high praise. (JaceFreely, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)
Everyone was going into business/economics--how true. My sense was that it was in the 80s where the smile was wiped off everybody's face, replaced by the blank (emotionless) stare, the "i can't hear you"/ you can't get to me ipod/walkman in the ear. Hughes tried to break this down--the journey was from cast/group identity to individual expression/empowerment/realization. The journey right now seems to be the other way. Test the limits, but in the end you can be sure it's off to Yale/Princeton belonging/protection (so long, sucker!).
Regarding the article: There is in it some sense of how we are more comfortable with the barren, skeletal, cruel, than we are with fleshy warmth, true radiance. Every film now is much more closed to, armored against, possible attack--of the kind offered here. "Nick and Nora's Endless Playlist" tries for the expressive/ebullient, but is aware all the way of being caught off guard. Claire, before her Bender.
I'm thinking about your baby-boomer claim. In mind is that the huge Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction divide, was not principally one of generations. I'll think about it.
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re: “RE: the Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction Divide...
...referred to earlier: I grew up around and play music with a lot of self-described Punks who view the world very much in terms of this divide, according to which baby boomers kept the alternative rock and punk movements underground through the 80s by using their power to endlessly stroke the Springsteens and Stones of the world, even as they (the latter, at least) descended into creative malaise while the Meat Puppets and REMs were quietly making great music - a phenomenon that began in the early 70s with the rejection of bands like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper by Rolling Stone magazine and the culture it represented. John Hughes could be said to be the film equivalent of this boomer mainstream-dominance, while more anarchistic film-makers like David Lynch were relegated to art houses. The 90s, in this view, represented the leveling of this field a bit, as the post-punk sensibility finally entered the mainstream in the form of Nirvana, etc, and commercial success for Lynch and yes, Quentin Tarantino. Personally, I acknowledge some validity in this way of seeing the past two decades, but I don't entirely buy it. In reality, the hippie/punk dichotomy is much more ambiguous than most Black Flag fans would like to believe. Kurt Cobain loved the Beatles and Led Zeppelin; even Joey Ramone professed in interviews his love of Janis Joplin, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead...generational shifts are certainly a component of artistic movements, but I find that aesthetic sensibilities transcend differences of age. Every era has its anarchists. Antonin Artaud was punk before there was punk, and for all his violence, Tarantino can be as sentimental as Cameron Crowe...” (JaceFreely, response to post, Amy Benfer, “The ‘Sixteen Candles’ date rape scene”)