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Though John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles have become beloved films since they were released in the ‘80s, actress Molly Ringwald, who rose to fame through her starring roles in both films, admits to now finding some scenes in those two movies problematic amid the #MeToo era.
In an essay she wrote for The New Yorker, published Friday, Ringwald says she began re-examining her films and relationship with Hughes with a newly critical eye after watching The Breakfast Club with her 10-year-old daughter. In one particular scene in the film, Judd Nelson’s John Bender peeks under her character’s skirt, with the camera briefly focusing on her underwear. (Ringwald, who was only a teenager when the film was made, reveals that an older actress was used for the underwear close-up.)
“I kept thinking about that scene,” Ringwald writes. “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.”
“What’s more, as I can see now, Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film,” Ringwald argues. “When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her ‘pathetic,’ mocking her as ‘Queenie.’ It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol. Claire acts dismissively toward him. … He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Ringwald also adds, “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.”
Throughout the essay, Ringwald reflects on being Hughes’ “muse,” acknowledging that they shared a “symbiotic relationship” while making those two films and Pretty in Pink. Because of their closeness, Ringwald revealed that she always lobbied Hughes to cut or redraft scenes that she considered inappropriate toward women, including a scene in The Breakfast Club where an attractive female gym teacher swam naked in the school’s swimming pool as a male teacher watched her. “Although I’m sure the actress who had been cast in the part still blames me for foiling her break, I think the film is better for it,” Ringwald says of Hughes cutting the scene after she insisted.
In Sixteen Candles, Ringwald recalls that the script had her character’s father ask her, after she gives her underwear to Anthony Michael Hall’s geeky character, “Sam, what the hell happened to your underpants?” Ringwald’s mom, who the actress mentions was also outspoken while on set, was quick to object to the script. “Why would a father know what happened to his daughter’s underwear?” Ringwald says her mother asked Hughes. Hughes later changed the line to “Just remember, Sam, you wear the pants in the family.”
Even more problematic, Ringwald recalls the scene in which Hall’s geek takes a drunk Caroline, the girlfriend of high school heartthrob Jake Ryan, home. Hall’s character takes Polaroids of the two of them together to suggest they hooked up, and when she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t remember what happened, but, when asked if she “enjoyed it,” says, “I have this weird feeling I did.”
Ringwald reveals that she reached out to the actress who played Caroline, Haviland Morris, and relates that Morris doesn’t have the same issues with the scene.
“In her mind, Caroline bears some responsibility for what happens, because of how drunk she gets at the party.” Ringwald continues, ” ‘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.’ “
Ringwald continues to address things she has realized are problematic in her films with Hughes, such as the consistent sexualization of women, the lack of minorities and how “the words ‘fag’ and ‘faggot’ are tossed around with abandon.” “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,” she writes.
Aware that Hughes’ films have made a positive impact on cinema because of how well they capture teen feelings, Ringwald explains that she has found herself in a predicament with her new perspective.
“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 teenagers experience,” the actress writes. “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.”
“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.”
The actress concludes her candid essay by saying that she hopes Hughes’ films will continue to “endure,” but that “the conversations about them will change.” “It’s up to the following generations to figure out how to continue those conversations and make them their own—to keep talking, in schools, in activism and art—and trust that we care.”