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Molly Ringwald Takes an Honest Deep Dive into the Misogyny of John Hughes’ Movies

molly ringwald john hughes sexism john hughes

In the 1980s, Molly Ringwald wasn’t just a successful actress. She wasn’t just famous. She was a cultural icon. That was due to her starring roles in three movies that largely came to define an era of young romantic comedies: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, all John Hughes movies. But in an essay for The New Yorker, Ringwald revisits the movies that made her a legend as well as the man who made them, through the lens of the current era, the #MeToo era.

Ringwald had what could be considered an ideal working relationship with writer/director John Hughes. They had what she calls a “symbiotic relationship.” He called her his muse, and he actually listened to her and respected her input. (Often, she says, though not always.) On top of that, she describes having an ever-present mother who fought not just for her daughter to be treated respectfully, but would challenge Hughes on dialogue that felt “creepy,” like a line in Sixteen Candles when her character Samantha’s father asks her why she’s not wearing underwear. Apparently, John Hughes didn’t realize it would be weird if a father could somehow know that his daughter was going commando. It’s to his credit that Hughes cut the line, like he did a nude scene in The Breakfast Club that Ringwald objected to. (It wasn’t her character that was nude, but she argued that it didn’t fit the tone of the film.)

But there were plenty of other lines and scenes that Ringwald objected to that stayed. And even more that she didn’t realize were so offensive or callous until far later. Like Bender’s constant sexual harassment of her character Claire in The Breakfast Club. “When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her ‘pathetic,’ mocking her as ‘Queenie,'” she writes. “It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol.” Or the scene in Sixteen Candles where the dreamboat love interest, Jake, “essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek, to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear.” The next day, the Geek asks Caroline is she “enjoyed it,” since neither of them remember much, though the Geek took polaroids of his exploits.

Ringwald writes, “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.”

“It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity,” Ringwald says, “and also have such a glaring blind spot.”

So she decided to investigate. She found a bunch of National Lampoon magazines from the late 70s/early 80s, where Hughes got his start in comedy. In looking at his early writing, she says, “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.”

She also contacted the actress who played Caroline in Sixteen Candles, Haviland Morris. Her conversation with Morris is fascinating. She’s reluctant to accept that her character might have been the object of any clear wrongdoing, insisting that what happened was “not a one-way street,” and that Caroline isn’t free of responsibility for the nonconsensual sex because of how much she had to drink. It was only after she and Ringwald talked, and later emailed, that she seemed to finally realize that, at the very least, her character was traded for another girl’s underwear, and that that is a pretty gross thing for John Hughes to have dreamed up.

Ringwald might not come to any clear conclusions in her exploration, but the questions are maybe more important anyway. She writes:

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? Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.

I encourage you to read Ringwald’s essay in its entirety. It’s an honest, nuanced look at an era in her life–in all of our lives–as well as a very real man whom she clearly loved, but acknowledging that that love doesn’t erase the dark bits. It may be difficult, but it is possible to still love and respect someone and his works, even while exploring the parts you wish didn’t exist.

(via The New Yorker, image: Universal)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.