Your first crush. Detention. The prom. That time your entire extended family was horrendously racist toward a foreign exchange student. In Episode 8, When We Were Young takes you back to simpler times (and a song from Simple Minds) with a Molly Ringwald teen trifecta brought to you by the legendary John Hughes.
From the panty-sniffing hijinks of Sixteen Candles to the shattering teen angst therapy of The Breakfast Club to Duckie’s heartbreaking snub in Pretty In Pink, we’ll discuss the many highs and lows of Hughes’ comedy stylings and marvel at Ringwald’s sweet but short-lived star power.
Consider this your trigger warning, because we also examine offensive cultural stereotypes, homophobia, and an explicit endorsement of date rape… and that’s just in the first movie!
May 4, 1984
Budget: $6.5 million
Box Office: $23.7 million
Unlike many in my age group, I had not seen any of the films in John Hughes’ “Molly Ringwald teen trifecta” (as I like to call it) prior to doing this episode. I caught scenes from The Breakfast Club as a kid on cable TV, which is more than I can say for Sixteen Candles or Pretty In Pink.
Of course, I was well aware of who Molly Ringwald was. I felt like I had seen her in some movies, even if those were just a handful of roles in later films that played on her former star power (like Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Not Another Teen Movie). From being pop culture savvy, I also knew that there was something offensively racist (but probably overblown) in Sixteen Candles and that Molly controversially did not choose Duckie at the end of Pretty In Pink, which many fans regard as a mistake.
As it turns out, I had underestimated just how offensive a 1980s teen comedy could be — Sixteen Candles was shockingly racist for a movie released in my lifetime, mostly thanks to the gong that sounds nearly every time the Long Duk Dong character appears on screen.
We still have a ways to go when it comes to depicting all races with equality on screen, and Asian cultures still get some of the worst of it, but man oh man have things changed since 1984, at least. Many critics rightly called Sixteen Candles out at the time, so it’s not like everyone was so tone deaf at this time, but it still takes a moment to process just how bad this movie is to that poor exchange student. Nearly as problematic is the film’s shruggy endorsement of date rape; it’s also a bit stunning to hear the word “faggot” dropped so casually by characters we’re meant to like.
The Breakfast Club
February 15, 1985
Budget: $1 million
Box Office: $51.5 million ($45 million in U.S.)
It’s a shame, because Sixteen Candles is an otherwise sensitive portrayal of teen angst. It’s a great debut for Ringwald, who commands the screen admirably for someone who really was about 16 upon its release.
The Breakfast Club holds up so much better, remaining a landmark teen movie, if not the landmark teen movie. After being cast as a likable outsider in Sixteen Candles, Ringwald gets to play “the princess” here, and she makes the character completely relatable.
The entire cast is pretty stellar — it’s hard to imagine the movie without any of these characters, or claim that one is more iconic than the other. They’re meant to represent stereotypes we know well, and then transcend them — and they do. Ringwald had maybe the toughest job, however, as the most privileged and spoiled character of the group, maybe the one who — as written — could have come off as least sympathetic. Hughes typically didn’t give popular girls much nuance in other movies, hence the bimbo types who populate the other movies discussed here. The wrong casting could have thrown this whole thing out of whack. Instead, Ringwald shines and so does the movie. It’s full of indelible moments, even if Ally Sheedy’s final makeover remains an unfortunate cop out.
Pretty in Pink
February 28, 1986
Budget: $9 million
Box Office: $40.5 million
I enjoyed Pretty In Pink as well, particularly the friendship between Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer, which I recognize now as emulated in so much teen fare from my youth — like Xander and Willow in Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Dawson and Joey in Dawson’s Creek. Most of the teen stuff I loved back then couldn’t exist without the trail John Hughes blazed. Buffy couldn’t break that mold if John Hughes hadn’t made it.
Unfortunately, Pretty In Pink‘s ending lets us down the same way the other two movies do. The Breakfast Club at least has four other characters we care about who don’t totally sell themselves out, but it’s kind of a shame to see Ringwald once again end up with a dreamy but generic stud. Yeah, that’s a little more realistic than the “geek gets the girl” angle we might have gotten if she chose Duckie, although “geek girl gets the hunk” is just as much a fantasy. Fortunately, Pretty In Pink has a lot less misogyny and racism than Sixteen Candles, with about the same level of highlights.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed filling in this blind spot in my viewing, and learning plenty more about Hughes and Ringwald in the process.
When We Were Young is a podcast devoted to the most beloved pop culture of our formative years (roughly 1980-2000). Join us for a look back to the past with a critical eye on how these movies, songs, shows, and more hold up now.
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