For anyone who miraculously hasn’t seen the movie already, the gist of John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles is simple: sixteen-year old Samantha (Molly Ringwald) would give anything to be noticed by her crush, Jake Ryan. Jake—whose crinkled brow suggests he must have been flunking senior year for a decade—is the most popular guy in school with a beautiful girlfriend who also looks way too old for a Letterman. Jake finds out in first period one day that Samantha wants to lose her virginity to him (perhaps the most contrived and overused MacGuffin in 1980’s rom-com cinema). Cue “the chase,” embedded in sincere commentary on peer pressure, feelings of insignificance, and now-questionable fashion choices.
According to IMDb, Sixteen Candles is “one of 15 films that changed American cinema,” which is heavily ironic considering it is the kind of film–in a very literal sense–that would not make it now as Hollywood is routinely policed by the public for social justice violations. The most obvious issue that no doubt gnaws on every millennial with a social media account is the fact that representations of diversity are largely absent, offensive, or, at it’s worst, detrimental. LGBT slurs as synonyms for predatory creeps honestly feel more at home in the movie than the prolific amount of flammable polyester and high ponytails. Representations of non-white race/ethnicity are even worse, with the sub-character, Long Duk Dong (whose name is always followed by the clash of a gong……..), serving as the most obvious hit job from the writers who almost come across as self-congratulatory for how many damaging stereotypes they manage to force onto just one of the multiple thankless characters in the movie.
And then there’s the gender representations. Ringwald is magnetic, but even Samantha is written like a counter-ego to Jennifer Grey’s Frances Houseman, in which Baby is not only left in the corner, but is told by the high school hierarchy that should aspire to be there. The male images in this film fair worse, especially “dreamboat” Jake, who reminds “The Nerd” at one point (Anthony Michael Hall) that he could rape his unconscious girlfriend and therefore shouldn’t be preoccupied with a girl whose virginity is allegedly up for grabs. The subtext is flat-out text here–Jake has the power and any outcome of Samantha’s future sex life rests in his ability to find her the next day and say, “Yeah, you!” outside a church. Seriously, if Jake was “the chase” in the 80s, he’s the kind of guy we tell girls to run from in 2017.
I acknowledge there may be critics who argue that the derivative archetypes and cultural stereotypes featured in the film serve as intentional societal commentary for how ridiculous and harmful they are in the first place; however, the movie never once evidences the depth or self-awareness to convey this intention. That is, arguably, the biggest problem of movie–the incessant insults occur without even the slightest indication or acknowledgment that not everyone is in on the “jokes”. Sixteen Candles is, of course, far from the only film guilty of these traits, and there is sincere commentary on adolescent growing pains. In this way, I can understand how the movie was considered influential for its time in its respective genre, at least (more certainly) to the straight white audience that Hollywood continues to bestow unearned precedence. However, like most pre-millennium films based on teenage angst and ennui as communicated through overt discrimination, its time is up.
All my criticisms of the movie aside, it is also ridiculous to claim that Hollywood has evolved past stoking the flames for the problems these kinds of films encouraged in the first place. In many ways, it feels like much of the film industry has largely turned Jake’s text to subtext and attempted to sell the same product as sustained change. While said overt discrimination appears to be no longer accepted by (most) movie-going audiences, including those of the unearned precedence, we are so far from ending the broad cycle of racist, sexist, xenophobic (etc.) portrayals and practices in film–and our culture. And, if there’s any take home point from the holistic framework of this site, it is no coincidence that the two are related.
While the ever-evolving social justice “movement” in the film/media community still has a (very very) long way to go, there is, however, an undeniable increase in emphasis on becoming aware of the problems these films present–covert included. In addition, there’s also more encouragement in many circles to start advocating to those who either miss the subtext or legitimately still think Long Duk Dong and crew is HI-larious. In the spirit of this growth (if not yet sustainable change) it might be time to relabel Sixteen Candles from an “iconic” film to one that serves as another cinematic baseline for progress.
Watch it When: You need an example of “cinematic baseline” for the water cooler chat.
While You Watch: Since this film, what do you notice most about the evolution of–and continued hindrances to–social justice in movies and/or movie industry?