Actress Molly Ringwald’s New Yorker Commentary on the Movies of John Hughes
The Breakfast Club star Molly Ringwald has “reevaluated” the Eighties films she starred in as a teenager in the wake of the#MeToo movement and didn’t like the result.
From the New Yorker, by Molly Ringwald:
by Molly Ringwald
… But I kept thinking about that scene [in The Breakfast Club in which a male character apparently touches Ringwald’s character inappropriately]. I thought about it again this past fall, after a number of women came forward with sexual-assault accusations against the producer Harvey Weinstein, and the #MeToo movement gathered steam.
If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.
I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius.
His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools.
There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.
When my daughter proposed watching “The Breakfast Club” together, I had hesitated, not knowing how she would react: if she would understand the film or if she would even like it. I worried that she would find aspects of it troubling, but I hadn’t anticipated that it would ultimately be most troubling to me.
…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. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.
I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles,” when the dreamboat, Jake, essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek, to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear.
The Geek takes Polaroids with Caroline to have proof of his conquest; when she wakes up in the morning with someone she doesn’t know, he asks her if she “enjoyed it.” (Neither of them seems to remember much.)
Caroline shakes her head in wonderment and says, “You know, I have this weird feeling I did.”
She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.
Thinking about that scene, I became curious how the actress who played Caroline, Haviland Morris, felt about the character she portrayed. So I sent her an e-mail. We hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since she was twenty-three and I was fifteen.
We met for coffee, and after we had filled each other in on all the intervening years, I asked her about it. Haviland, I was surprised to learn, does not have the same issues with the scene as I do.
In her mind, Caroline bears some responsibility for what happens, because of how drunk she gets at the party. “I’m not saying that it’s O.K. to then be raped or to have nonconsensual sex,” Haviland clarified. “But . . . that’s not a one-way street. Here’s a girl who gets herself so bombed that she doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
There was a time in my early twenties when I had too much to drink at a party and ended up in a bedroom sitting on the edge of a bed with a producer I didn’t know, lightheaded and woozy.
A good friend, who had followed me, popped her head in the door a couple of minutes later and announced, “Time to go now, Molly!” I followed her out, trying not to stumble, and spent the rest of the night violently ill and embarrassed—and the rest of my life grateful that she had been there, watching out for me, when I was temporarily incapable of watching out for myself. I shared the story with Haviland, and she listened politely, nodding.
Haviland, like me, has children, and so I decided to frame the question hypothetically, mother to mother, to see if it changed her point of view.
If one of our kids had too much to drink, and something like that happened to one of them, would she say, “It’s on you, because you drank too much”? She shook her head: “No. Absolutely, positively, it stays in your pants until invited by someone who is willing and consensually able to invite you to remove it.” Still, she added, “I’m not going to black-and-white it. It isn’t a one-way street.”
After our coffee, I responded to an e-mail from Haviland to thank her for agreeing to talk to me.
Later that night, I received another note. “You know,” she wrote, “the more I think of it this evening, oddly, the less uncomfortable I am with Caroline. Jake was disgusted with her and said he could violate her 17 ways if he wanted to because she was so trashed, but he didn’t. And then, Ted was the one who had to ask if they had had sex, which certainly doesn’t demonstrate responsible behavior from either party, but also doesn’t really spell date rape. On the other hand, she was basically traded for a pair of underwear . . . Ah, John Hughes.”
It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online.
They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.
“A Dog’s Tale” has a boy watching his mother turn into a dog. “Against His Will” features an “ugly fat” woman who tries to rape a man at gunpoint in front of the man’s wife and parents because she can’t have sex any other way. “My Penis” and “My Vagina” are quasi-magical-realist stories written from the points of view of teen-agers who wake up in the morning with different genitalia than they were assigned at birth; the protagonist of “My Penis” literally forces her boyfriend’s mouth open to penetrate him, and the male in “My Vagina” is gang-raped by his friends once they discover he has one. (The latter story ends with him having to use the money he saved for new skis on getting an abortion.)
The “Hughes Engagement Guide” is an illustrated manual on how to protect yourself against women. It gives examples of women “bullshitting to not put out,” and teaches readers how to do a “quickie pelvic exam,” how to detect “signs of future fat,” and how to determine if a woman has any ancestors of different races, based on what her relatives look like—there is an accompanying drawing of an Asian person and an African-American—and on and on.
It’s all satire, of course, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not the chauvinists who are being lampooned but the “women’s liberation movement.” Women had begun to speak out, in the mid-seventies, against harassment in the workplace. (The beloved movie “9 to 5,” in which three women get revenge on a sexist boss, was released in December of 1980, two months after the Hughes-Mann piece ran.)
…John’s movies convey the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel, and seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teen-agers experience. Whether that’s enough to make up for the impropriety of the films is hard to say—even criticizing them makes me feel like I’m divesting a generation of some of its fondest memories, or being ungrateful since they helped to establish my career. And yet embracing them entirely feels hypocritical. And yet, and yet. . . .
How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it?
Read more of that editorial by Ringwald here.