Robbie Delany reflects upon the questionable politics of John Hughes’ teen movies, and how we should approach them in 2020. But non-problematic Weekend at Bernie’s lives to fight another day!
When Cady (Lindsey Lohan) returns to the US after a twelve year hiatus in Africa, Karen (Amanda Seyfried) politely asks “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?”. Karen is of course the airhead member of the “plastics” clique from Mean Girls. Obviously, this dialogue is not reflective of high school mentality (at least not in New Zealand). It is comedic and not to be taken seriously. However, the antics, rituals and hierarchies displayed certainly are. A Regina “Bitch” George exists in every school, as do the school nerds, jocks, stoners and princesses. Teens crave sex, but fear social pressure and parental guidance. Mean Girls is a study of the teenage persona, examining their heartaches, peer pressures and anxieties, at least from a filmmaker’s point of view. Yet, the teen comedy is only a recent genre entry in the canon of cinema. In fact, it is only as old as millennials themselves. Enter John Hughes, a man who changed your life more than the iPod, McDonalds and Nike combined. As a director, he was responsible for crafting ‘80s gems like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, as well as writing Home Alone. He dissected the teenage mind, unveiling its true thoughts and feelings to adults. In other words, he gave them a voice. While Hughes is revered as a genius, I look back on his films through a 2020, #MeToo appropriated lens. They have not aged well. So, should we continue to cherish them?
Visually, you would not think John Hughes understood teenagers. He was raised in the 60’s and sported thick rimmed glasses, a haircut from supercuts, with a face as punchable as Simon Bridges. It would bruise like a peach sunbaked in the Northland sun. Yet, Hughes took teenagers seriously. With a few notable exceptions, like 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, movies about youth tended to be light and comedic, focusing on make-out sessions, fast cars and wild parties. Yet these behaviors represented only a fraction of the young adult. Hughes infused his films with the subtleties of the teen. The Breakfast Club is perhaps the best example of this. Released in ‘85, the film explores five teenagers spending a Saturday detention together. Each student is from a different clique: the “criminal”, “princess”, “nerd”, “basket case” and “athlete”. Each teen is adamant in letting those adjacent know their place in the school hierarchical system, naturally leading to clashes between each other. The Assistant Principal (Paul Gleason), who supervises the detention, represents authoritarianism, driving the characters to eventually reveal who they truly are, and not who they are supposed to be, exposing their insecurities. The AP insults Andrew “athlete” Clark, stating “I expected more from a varsity”. With each dig at their own insecurities, each member of the ‘club’ better understands each other’s similarities, taking comfort in their likeness. They ease into genuine teenage discussions about sex, drugs and parental expectation. This dialogue reveals more about their characters than the façade of their stereotypes ever could. If fact, it is the stereotypes they possess which have been instilled by their parents, reflecting the incongruent understanding between parent and child. This identity crisis of the teens leads to rebellion, signaling the end of the film.
This gap between the teens and their parents (“boomers”) is a consistent theme across his films. His condemnation appears in the first shot of the film, as parents drop off their kids in cars of the nuclear age, from Mercs to Cadillacs. Each parent has clear disdain for their kids, but expects their full potential. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the supporting character Cameron passes through an arc of standing up to his neglecting father and living the life he chooses. This revolt climaxes when he starts to destroy his father’s beloved car towards the third act. His films could hint at a possible anti-conservative nature, to rebel instead of listening and conforming. Question the orders one is given, or at least raise a concern.
Despite these positive notes on what seem like unapologetically raw and heartfelt films, they do possess distinctly un-soulful elements. 1984’s Sixteen Candles is particularly unwatchable in 2020. One of the supporting characters, Long Duk Dong, is of Asian descent. Unfortunately, with each uncomfortable on-screen appearance, as his name alone provides pause, he is accompanied by some stereotype. This ranges from the subtle sound effects of gongs when he appears in the camera frame, to the completely unsubtle screaming of banzai when he jumps from a tree. The offensiveness further extends to date rape. After a party scene, Jake tells Farmer Ted that his girlfriend Caroline is “in the bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” Whether this condones rape is a matter up for debate, but it is undisputedly inappropriate. Moving onto 1985’s Weird Science, two teenage boys accidentally create a cybersex doll and attempt to impress the girl at school with their apparent sexual prowess. The examples are endless and inexcusable. However, is this a trope only of Hughes, or of the time period?
Many films from the ‘80s are problematic. Bill Murray’s character from Ghostbusters electrocutes male students to impress underage females, and the 13 year old in Tom Hanks’ body in Big has sex with a 30 year old. This leaves us in a slightly awkward position. John Hughes was unique as he was writing about the minutiae of high school life, from both the male and female perspective. His films conveyed the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel, providing them a voice. Yet, is this enough to make up for the offense and impropriety of his films? How are we supposed to react to art that we love yet should not. There is no easy answer to this, but altering history is a dangerous sport. Changing culture is essential to improve livelihoods, but so is reflecting on the past to remind us why progress is important. How far we have come, and how much further is needed. Hughes’s films should not be dissected and evaluated based on these unfortunate scenes and potential circumstances of the time, as holistically he wanted people to take teenagers seriously. And people listened.
His films have a legacy beyond comprehension, expanding the coming-of-age genre and creating the teen comedy. His ideas have influenced everything from Gossip Girl to Normal People. More recently, Sex Education is about capturing how it feels to be young, exploring their mood swings and motivations. And like Hughes’s films, the kids seek each other for guidance, not their parents. His films are taught in schools because the teachers want their students to have an opinion, feel important and be listened to. Hughes made it possible to create screen heroes out of misfits and slackers. Those of us who aren’t too sure where we belong. Yes, his films are not politically correct, but neither is Friends, nor Shawshank or even Snow White through a 2020 lens. Cultures shift, but period art is essential to enable us to move forward.