The “Sixteen Candles” date rape scene?

Reassessing the weird sexual politics of Hughes' classic teen comedies

Topics: Abortion, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

It wasn’t long after John Hughes died that online commenters began to poke holes in his legacy: There was, of course, the unforgivable issue of Long Duk Dong, but even on Broadsheet, letter writers brought up a different dark moment from “Sixteen Candles.” As commenter Nona put it: “Let’s not forget the barely conscious drunk girlfriend the Jake Ryan character sends off to be raped by the Geek in Sixteen Candles. I believe he says ‘be my guest.’”

For those who don’t remember — it has, after all, been a quarter century since the film came out — the barely conscious drunk girlfriend in question is Caroline, the evil prom queen. An epic party at Jake’s place leaves her leveled. (“I have Caroline passed out in the bed upstairs,” Jakes muses at one point, trying to put his finger on what’s missing in his relationship with her, and why he feels drawn to Sam. “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.” Ladies and gentleman: Our romantic hero.) Over martinis with the Geek, played by Anthony Michael Hall, Jake hatches a plan, letting Anthony Michael Hall cart her off in his parents’ Rolls Royce at the end of the night when she’s too drunk to anything — including, um, consent. She wakes up in the morning in the Rolls with her hair chopped off and says something to the effect that she doesn’t remember what she did, but she thinks she liked it. In other words, when she’s drunk, she can get past appearances and stupid popular girl prejudices and see that, actually, he’s a really great guy.

The scene only works because people were stupid about date rape at the time. Even in a randy teen comedy, you would never see two sympathetic male characters conspiring to take advantage of a drunk chick these days. (“Observe and Report” had a similar scene, but it was meant to be envelope-pushing and outrageous, and a sign of the character’s moral depravity.) The “Sixteen Candles” scene echoes an even weirder scene in “Revenge of the Nerds,” when the head cheerleader goes into an amusement park fun house with the head nerd, who is wearing a mask. She thinks he’s her boyfriend. They definitely have sex. When she finds out he’s actually a nerd, she tells off her arrogant jock boyfriend and makes it clear that the nerd is way, way better in bed than he is.

Not to get too heady about it (and certainly not to dismiss their weirdness), but there’s something almost Shakespearean about all these scenes: It’s all about mistaken identity and this idea that when one literally drops one’s mask — in high school “nerd” vs. “jock” or “punk” vs. “prep” — you can see people for who they really are. In “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the characters lose themselves in the forest. In “Sixteen Candles,” they lose themselves in Budweiser.

The theme of mismatched couples carries through all the John Hughes movies, I think, almost without exception. In almost every case, boys and girls, the “quirky” character is rewarded by getting a conventionally hot popular person to like them. Think about it: Anthony Michael Hall gets Caroline; Molly gets Jake Ryan; Andie gets Blaine; Duckie gets a bland blonde who looks so much like Caroline she may as well be the same actress; Claire gets Judd Nelson, “the criminal”; Ally Sheedy gets Emilio Estevez, the jock. Even Ferris Bueller has a cheerleader girlfriend, and his uptight, rule-abiding sister? Of course, she ends up with an actual criminal to loosen her up.

The irritating part about all of this is that it seems to presume that two “quirky” characters can’t validate each other — like only getting the bland, conventional hotty will actually prove how cool you really are. It carries through to today’s Judd Apatow comedies, in which the “quirky” guy ends up going after some conventionally hot girl.

But the “date rape” scene is not just some strange aberration by a beloved director. It’s actually part of this evolving dialogue Hughes has about teen sex throughout all his movies in the 1980s.

There are several scenes in the Hughes canon in which guys are trying to cop a feel off a girl without her consent : In “Sixteen Candles,” Samantha’s undies are shown to a group of gaping freshmen who pay a dollar for the privilege (but proving sexual humiliation is a given in adolescence, she also gets felt up by her grandma); there’s the scene in “The Breakfast Club” when Judd Nelson’s character Bender goes up Claire’s skirt under the table; the scene in “Ferris Bueller” when Ferris’ best friend Cameron pretends he’s in a catatonic state while conveniently watching Ferris’s girlfriend, Sloane, change into her suit by the pool. 

The two Molly Ringwald movies — “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” — both explicitly contrast Molly, our romantic heroine who really cares about her guy, with the drunken sluts who are hot, but shallow. And one of the ways we know they suck is because they put out. “Pretty in Pink” has that montage scene in which Blaine and Andie walk through a house party and behind every door is another drunk girl fucking her boyfriend. In a weird sort of inversion on class here, Blaine realizes that the “girl from the wrong side of the tracks” is actually “better” than the crazy hedonistic rich girls. Caroline, Jake Ryan’s drunken slutty girlfriend, may as well be Benny, Steff’s girlfriend in “Pretty in Pink,” who doesn’t even get to spend much time at prom because her boyfriend — who, by the way, realizes that Andie is the real thing — would rather fuck her upstairs in the hotel room.

In “Breakfast Club,” it’s Molly’s character, Claire, who actually makes this explicit: When Bender asks her if she is a virgin, Ally Sheedy’s character, Allison, says, “It’s a trap. If you say yes, you’re a slut. If you say no, you’re a prude.” Of course, right afterward, the romance between Claire and Bender shows that girls who would rather have sex would be happy to say yes, if only someone would creep up under their seat and forcibly let them know what they’re missing. But for some teenage girls, hearing that one line out loud, in a mainstream teen movie, may well have been one of those a-ha moments women’s studies majors are so fond of talking about.

Were the John Hughes movies progressive? In terms of their sexual politics, they were often not. They merely reflected some of the prejudices of their time. Considering the horror of Long Duk Dong, the Jar Jar Binks of the ’80s and one of the worst Asian stereotypes ever committed to film, maybe we should be grateful that in his best films, Hughes rarely tried to move past what he knew: white, suburban Chicago teenagers. But he did class better than almost anyone else. In the middle of the hedonistic ’80s that glorified all things yuppie, he made heroes out of working-class teens and and villains out of wealthy kids, who were often callously exploiting their peers in ways that reflected what some thought their corporate parents were doing to the country.

Oddly enough, I think Ferris Bueller, his second to last teen film of the ’80s ( “Some Kind of Wonderful,” in which the two oddball characters finally get together was his last) reverses a lot of this. It’s his “guy movie” and the only one in which the heroes are very, very rich. Ferris’ dad works in a shiny office tower; his mom works in real estate; his best friend, Cameron, has a dad who cares more about his fancy car than his kid. You are meant to assume, I think, that Ferris is banging Sloane, and it’s OK — in part, because you know they’re in love when Ferris jokes about marrying her in high school. But Ferris also ties up all the cliques. In the classic line, the school secretary says, “Oh, he’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads — they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” The scene when he does karaoke on the float in downtown Chicago may be one of the most inclusive of the ‘80s — the only time you see blacks, whites, Asians, and blondes in braids with lederhosen all jamming together. It’s more about playing at inclusiveness, in a spectacularly theatrical fashion, and it’s far less realistic than the way his best movies dissect the tiny, nuanced things that divide great swaths of people. But one can’t help but feel that to him, at least, he left the ‘80s thinking it would be pretty awesome if we could all just dance along. 

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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