Last week, The New Yorker published a personal essay by Molly Ringwald reflecting on the movies of John Hughes through the lens of the current #MeToo movement.
#MeToo is a national trend of women and some men who are speaking up about sexual harassment that they have suffered or endured from powerful men who have either had power over their career or just power over their current situation. Unable to speak up at the time of the event, their voices have built upon the momentum of others and there is a tidal wave of stories that are both confession and accusation.
John Hughes is famous for directing several films in the 80s starring Ms. Ringwald that spoke to teens of the eighties. Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captured the spirit of the times. Kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream crowd but who embraced their misfit identity (Pretty in Pink) found comraderie and kindred spirits in unexpected places with unexpected people (Breakfast Club) or who bucked the system, refusing to play by the rules made by the out of touch adults (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
In her essay, Ringwald is fixated on a scene in The Breakfast Club where John Bender, the “bad boy” of the group, ducks under a desk and sneaks a peek up her skirt. Ringwald is quick to insist that the underwear shown was not actually hers but a stunt double (“I was quick to point out to my daughter that the person in the underwear wasn’t really me, though that clarification seemed inconsequential”) as if because a stunt double was used she wasn’t responsible for that scene. Then she’s quick to back that up by saying that her mother also spoke up about the scene but was ignored.
In the context of watching the movie with her young daughter, I can understand where she would not want her daughter to think she was endorsing that behavior. Trying to convince the readers also that she was separate from that scene, as if it were beneath her according to her mother at the time and herself now as an adult seems both disingenuous and out of touch. Afterall, the eighties were a different time and also we are adults reading the New Yorker, not children on the couch watching with her. We don’t need her to defend her virtue. We aren’t even thinking about that.
Many of us grew up with her, grew up just like her, we get it. Feigning innocence to other adults who have been there, done that seems insincere at best and patronizing at worst.
Her essay suffers from the same affliction many of the current MeToo stories have: they are coming years and decades after the fact and suffer from amnesia about the time in which the event happened. Looking back on the eighties through a modern lens distorts the movie and its intentions so significantly it’s hard to believe Ringwald was even a part of those times? Has she forgotten what it was like? Has she forgotten the whole reason teens connected with Hughes was because of his honesty in portraying what life was like without moralizing or spin?
The eighties were a time of materialism, cocaine, wall street, money and slick superficiality that was rejected, for the most part, by the youth subculture focused on authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty. John Bender wasn’t right to look up her skirt but he was honest. Who could resist the temptation of seeing what we weren’t supposed to see? Of taking or wanting to take part in the forbidden? Afterall, these kids were in suspension because on some level they were all rule breakers. Did they break the rules intentionally or was the pull of the forbidden so strong they couldn’t resist it?
As teens in that day, we all felt that. Perhaps that is a universal teen feeling, wanting something you shouldn’t have and succumbing to your desire. When sexuality is new and overwhelming, a desire to fit in seems like the most important thing and friendships are ride or die, an honesty about these internal and external conflicts felt revolutionary in a world of moralizing after school specials.
She says, “ If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time.” She doesn’t seem to understand that this lack of awareness about how an adult, a moralizing adult, would see this scene was part of the magic of Hughes’s films.
She revisits Hughes’s earlier writing through the MeToo lens, through the modern progressive liberal lens where we prize equality over individuality, where men and women who are too masculine or too feminine are deemed toxic, where fitting in to the group identity is celebrated over being yourself — unless yourself is gender neutral and fits the group identity. It’s a brain twister of conforming by being “different.” In the eighties, the rebels really were different. They really were individuals who connected because of their authenticity and not their similarity.
That’s why John Hughes’ movies resonated with a generation of kids in the eighties. They were fighting to stand out, to be themselves despite the fact that there was no in-group, no mass identity to welcome them. It took courage to be who they were and it took honesty. Honesty about their strengths and flaws and honesty about what it was like to be young, striving for authenticity in a time when flash and money and drug-induced confidence were the status quo.
Ringwald recognizes the repulsive sanctimony of after-school specials to the teens of her generation but is completely blind to her own sanctimonious tone moralizing and rewriting history through the eyes of a mother who doesn’t want to be seen as flawed or fallible by her daughter.
Ringwald struggles to remember why the movies were so important. After revisiting the unacceptable scenes, she recounts “And yet I have been told more times than I could count, by both friends and strangers, including people in the L.G.B.T. community, that the films “saved” them.”
The movies didn’t save the outsiders and misfits because of the moralizing Ringwald seems to wish was present; the movies saved the outsiders and misfits specifically because it lacked moralizing. Hughes showed the world and teens as they were: complicated, conflicted, bravely standing up as individuals in a society that was promised success and wealth to those who kept up with the Jones’.
Here’s the biggest problem with art and entertainment right now.
The groundbreaking thing about John Hughes was that he showed teens as they were, in a realistic environment with relatable problems. The audience is asked to think for themselves and not follow the pre-determined acceptable thinking dictated by adults. Ringwald has become the tone-deaf, moralizing adult her younger self rebelled against.