Movies

Hang Up the Phone: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Part 3: Sixteen Candles

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Hang Up the Phone: Introducing a Teen to the Teen Canon of the 1980s

Previously, we’ve established John Hughes as fair game for the 14-year-old. The Breakfast Club was starting to propagate its way into the viewing queues of several members of her local Geek Squad, and Grace’s post Pretty in Pink comment about the ’80s being the “last optimistic decade” was resonating uncomfortably. This was partly because of the reasons why I disagreed—partly because of the part of me that kind of suspected she was right.

Sixteen Candles seemed like an obvious next choice. Continuing the thread of teen angst coupled with class and social strata issues, anchored by the eternally and preternaturally pouty mouth of Molly Ringwald, but with a slightly more juvenile and ribald sense of humor. Right?

This is in the category of film I did not think was funny or interesting at the time, though I know many, many people who did. I wondered if I’d appreciate it in a new or at least a nostalgic way, and I wondered if it was Teen Archetypal enough to jump the generational divide.

The elements were there. Hughes’ awesome ear for soundtrack. The First World Problems of generally white teens, some scions of rich families, some scrappy working class types: Their sex lives or lack thereof, their ambivalence about what comes after high school, the eternal quest for peer approval. It’s a lightweight for sure, full of awkward intergenerational goofballery and a sulky, sulky Ringwald in a snit because no one has remembered her birthday. (In their defense, it happens to also be her sister’s wedding the next day and all of the grandparents, who are weirdos, have camped out at the house. Sam (Ringwald) likes a popular jock boy, Jake (Michael Schoeffling). Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) is after Sam. (It is not mutual.)

“Oh. My. God.” Grace had smooshed a pillow over her ears and I knew why. Gedde Watanabe had just arrived on scene, complete with crashing-cymbal “theme song.”

“I know.”

Does Hughes know that Chinese and Japanese are two different things?” she asked scathingly as Watanabe bravely endured the only actually slapstick role in the film and capered around speaking quasi-Pidgin nonsense.

“He’s dead, so presumably he got the download by now.”

“That’s just … embarrassing. Was this funny in the ’80s?”

“A lot of people thought so. Roger Ebert said he turned a potentially offensive stereotype into high comedy.”

“Translation,” she said, “he didn’t want to sound like he was blaming this guy for taking the role. Ugh.”

Grace is what you might call an old soul.

So when we got to the cavalier treatment of possible date rape of extremely drunk high school girls, she picked up on that too. “I don’t think that works,” she said. “Not in a comedy.” I remembered taking those scenes for granted, glossing even the slight implication that those characters kind of deserved it because they were mean, spoiled, superficial bitches, because I was young and at that point, that was not (yet) a real scenario to me. Grace’s generation doesn’t get to be cavalier about sexual power abuses or see comedy in them. Frankly, I never found it serious enough to be offended by it—the characters and the story were trivial—but I also never saw it as a real gutbuster. Nothing’s changed there.

Here’s what Grace did love, besides the music: The subplot where Anthony Michael Hall of the school Nerdsquad sets out to prove to the Dudes that he successfully seduced Sam by persuading her to help him out by loaning him her underpants.

“That’s not exploitation of women or objectification or anything?” I asked. (She has this “Life Skills” unit at school where this comes up a lot.)

“No,” she said slowly. “It seems like it should be but it isn’t. It’s funny.”

“Can you say why?”

“Well because first of all look at the guy. Like Anthony Michael Hall seems capable of really hurting someone.”

I was once hurt quite badly by someone of approximately Hall’s dimensions and complexion, and I was drugged senseless at the time, but Grace didn’t need to hear about that. “You know, it doesn’t matter, anyone can abuse…”

“I know,” she interrupted. “What I mean is look at his character. That character is clear. He’s not a bad person. He’s desperate to fit in, just like she is. He wants to seem cool, just like she does. And the way he asks her is so adorable and pathetic. I probably would have given him mine. Well … maybe.”

“Do you think it hurt Sam’s reputation at school?”

“Didn’t seem like it.” Grace shrugged. “Anyway, it was adorable even though it should have been gross. And who is the dark-haired nerd guy? He’s so cute.”

Uh-oh. Were we there already? She’d zeroed in on Mister Heartbreak. Right on schedule.

“He called me a troll on Twitter once.”

“What? Who is he?”

“That’s John Cusack.”

“Who’s he?”

I smiled, stood up, and stood in a spread-legged stance holding up an invisible gigantic ’80s boombox. Grace frowned, uncomprehending. I belted a couple bars of “In Your Eyes.”

“Ohhhhhhh, him! Wow, that’s what he looked like? Wow. Wait, why did he call you a troll?”

“Because I said Hot Tub Time Machine was unwatchable.”

Grace grimaced. “Does he need a dictionary, so he can look up what troll means?”

I laughed. “It’s a long story, but I know what we’re watching next.”

After all, loving but desperately flawed father figures were Hughes’s other chronic obsession.


Amy Glynn is a minimalist.

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