Well, it happened. We found an ’80s movie Grace flat-out refused to watch. And it was Weird Science, a John Hughes endeavor and starring one of her favorite favorite ’80s dudes, Anthony Michael Hall.
It was stupid, sure. The “science” wasn’t weird so much as nonexistent, and in the post-Matrix generation that ain’t flyin’ too high. It was dubious in its treatment of La Femme. Sure. Yeah. And I’m not saying that didn’t bother the teen-beast, but what I find interesting is that the deal breaker was, as it had been with Sixteen Candles, Hughes’s unfortunate tendency to get a lot of mileage out of mild-mannered, cavalier racism.
Two painfully scrawny white boys who just aren’t getting any but who can romance a computer end up somehow creating a Perfect Woman. From their perspective this means doe-eyed, long-legged, and okay with them standing there fully clothed in the shower while she cleans up for the evening. She also has a car. Somehow.
“Why are they letting him do that?” Grace squealed. She’d been squirming ever since Kelly LeBrock and her wisteria-purple eye makeup hit the screen, but now she was starting to look pissed off.
“What, let Anthony Michael Hall do his impersonation of a 300-pound black Delta Bluesman?”
“Well, uh, yeah.”
“It was kind of a schtick he had. Remember in The Breakfast Club when everyone gets high?”
She grumbled. Yes, she remembered that. No, it hadn’t bugged her as much. Yes, she’s found it cute. No, she didn’t want to do a deep dive on why this was different. Yes, Mom, yes, it was probably because it was really short and also sure, yeah, admittedly because it didn’t land the same way when everyone in the film was white.
“That’s worth thinking about,” I suggested.
“What’s worth thinking about is the fact that I’d much rather have my feet held to the fire about racism than watch this teen sci-fi romp. He’s just so embarrassing, and I can’t stand it because I love him and I want him not to be embarrassing! Anthony! Stop that!”
Hall was in a nightclub, at a big table surrounded by older black guys, saying “Well but you guys probably don’t live with your parents anymore, huh?” LeBrock sat impassively next to him. She was, after all, a figment of his imagination, and his imagination had certain dimensions and lacked certain others. As the evening wore on and he had more alcohol than his 67-pound boy-bod could reasonably metabolize, Hall slumped in his seat and whipped out his Big Black Guy routine. Because Hall was a scrawny supernerd blond white kid, it was funny. Right?
“I just wonder what those other actors are thinking,” Grace said. “As this is being filmed … do they think he’s funny or do they want to punch him?”
“Well, I don’t know. I would offer up that it’s really obvious he is making fun of himself versus making fun of them.”
“Yeah, I agree,” Grace said. “But still.”
“Do you think Hall is a racist?”
“No.” Grace was really clear on that point. “And I don’t think he’s a misogynist either, even though his character just basically created a Frankenstein’s monster sex toy. But this is really weird. Like the whole thing’s not okay.”
We’d paused the film at this point so Hall’s face, half-covered by a black fedora, was frozen in mid-riff. “Well … it’s the … it’s not … UGH! Okay. The character isn’t ‘racist.’ But the movie is.”
“How do you mean?”
“There’s a layer where what he’s doing is totally benign, right? He;s making fun of himself for being a skinny little cracker without the ghost of a clue. Right?”
“I think so.”
“But there’s also the reality that he is doing this pseudo black-speak to a bunch of guys who are three times his age and have lived their whole lives in a totally different way. It’s not like he’s being judgmental or violent or hateful. Just … clueless and entitled and tone-deaf. I don’t get why John Hughes does this.”
“Probably because human awkwardness tends to make people laugh.”
“There are a lot of flavors of human awkwardness,” Grace said.
“I’m not disagreeing with you.”
“The film’s presumptuous?”
“Yeah! That’s what it is. And it’s sneaky.”
“You know in Life Skills when we had that unit on microagression and it was like, so beyond stupid?”
“I recall that, yeah.” Hall’s frozen face still filled the screen. I was pretty sure we weren’t even going to get to the dubious gender politics or any of that.
“This is actual microaggression. It’s offensive at such a stupid low-grade level that if you’re offended it makes you the asshole.”
“So do you think Hughes had a racist agenda?”
Grace frowned. “Not even. I don’t think he thought about it at all, to be honest. That’s the point. This is Chicago, right?”
“Is Chicago like Oakland?”
“I’ve never lived there, but there’s definitely racial tension and there’s definitely white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and a big “have/have-not” divide.”
“So you could say this kind of cavalier, mindless racism or at least race-insensitivity or … would you say exploitation?”
“I’m not sure. I think I’m with you on mindless.”
“Well, you could say this might be realistic. Like this is a way people might have acted? I mean, was it considered funny at the time?”
“Not by me.”
“Did you find it racist at the time?”
“I doubt I would have come up with that word at the time, not that race wasn’t an issue in the ’80s, it always is-but I probably would have been more inclined to be upset by something humiliating or judgmental, and this isn’t exactly what this film does. Hall makes himself the doofus in this, and I don’t get a hate vibe. Just, like, wow, he’s painfully immature and lame.”
“Did people in general find it racist at the time?”
“Kids at the time tended to think John Hughes was fun, and funny. I don’t remember anyone going on a racism rampage about this movie, and at the time I think gender and sexism issue would have come up faster, but it’s like … it’s John Hughes, he was pretty toothless.”
“That’s actually what makes it hard to watch,” Grace said. “Do you find it racist now?”
“It’s hardly the most racially offensive film I’ve ever seen, but sure, yeah—it’s exploiting stereotypes and it has no self-examination whatsoever.”
“This bums me out,” Grace said. “I love Anthony Michael Hall. I want him to be better than this.”
“Are we watching the rest?”
“I’d rather do Latin homework.”
Amy Glynn is 70% Oingo, 30% Boingo.