I spent my pre-teen years believing that nothing could be sexier than sticking a lipstick into my cleavage, bending my head towards it, and applying a perfect pout. It wasn't until years later that I realized that my cleavage without a piece of makeup stuffed inside of it was sexy enough on its own.
I blame John Hughes for my confusion.
I spent my entire eighth grade year blowing on dandelions, my eyes clamped tightly shut. I was wishing that one day a derelict in detention would sit beside me and sweep his eyes over my entire body – from the tips of my Keds with no laces to the tippy top of my curly head – and know me instantly, better than anyone ever had or ever will.
I blame John Hughes for my predilection towards men who look like they only shower sometimes.
I spent the time I should have been learning the Pythagorean theorem wondering if there were actually men in the world named Blaine and where I could find one. I spent almost an entire weekend trying to talk my best friend out of using the prom dress from Pretty in Pink as the inspiration for what she wanted her Sweet Sixteen dress to look like. We got in a really bad fight when I told her that no dress on this planet or on one that has yet to be discovered could possibly be more ugly.
I blame John Hughes and his costume designer equally for that one.
Projection of blame aside, I’ll make the bold statement that – for a lot of my key developmental years – John Hughes taught me more than almost any man in my life. And I might have paid a price for that influence.
None of this is to say that I don’t love some of his movies. I see them differently today, of course, but I still know every single line of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles and probably every other line of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. Like song lyrics from a mix tape a guy once made for me blasted through a car with open windows on a late October night when I was seventeen, those movies are still a part of me and I think that I’m both better and worse because of it.
My father took me to see Sixteen Candles in the movie theatre. He’d read about it in The New York Times and something about the review (my bet is it was the line that the movie had “occasional lapses in taste”) drew him in and made him decide to plunk me down in a theatre before I’d hit double digits and show me a movie that actually ended up changing my life. See, even at five I realized that high school could not possibly be like it was in Grease. I’d already made my peace with the fact that I knew deep down that there wouldn’t be ferris wheels on the football field and that I’d probably never get to dance in a Shake Shack while wearing skintight leather pants and smoking a cigarette. Those were difficult realities to accept, but my pain was eased greatly the moment I laid my very prepubescent eyes on Jake Ryan.
Has there ever been a more dreamy leading man for girls who don’t really know yet what men are actually like? Could there be any greater wish than to look outside your door and see a gorgeous guy in jeans and a sweater leaning against a bright red sports car and when you think he must be looking beyond you and at someone else who has luck and tits on her side, he smiles at your confusion and whispers, “Yeah, you.” Would any real life moment for me ever be as romantic as watching Samantha sitting cross-legged on a table across from the cutest boy in school as he presented a pink birthday cake to her, lit with candles that didn’t make her catch on fire instantly when she leaned forward to kiss him? I wasn’t sure back then, but for my colorful romantic fantasies, I’m giving John Hughes the credit.
John Hughes movies taught me that high school parties would involve drinking and possibly cutting a hunk of your friend’s hair off if it got stuck inside of a door. I always kept that lesson in the very front of my mind and tried not to get my hair stuck places since I knew we had all seen the same movies and learned the same lessons. And as for those lessons, well – there were a ton and I remember all of them with far more clarity than some of the lessons my own parents fought to teach me:
· Practicing your opening line to a guy is a nice idea, but you will never come off as suavely as you think you will during your practice sessions in a hallway outside of a school dance.
· There’s a good chance that the school jock has a ton in common with the school misfit and all of those similarities will be revealed in an emotionally tumbled rush during an all-day detention in the school library.
· Speaking of that library, John Hughes movies also taught me that some high school libraries are two stories and filled with sculptures that can be climbed and that smoking weed for the first time might give you the power to break a wall of glass into smithereens simply by screaming. (To be fair, I never said that all of the lessons I learned were accurate lessons.)
· Captain Crunch cereal can be hand-smashed onto a piece of white bread and then consumed for lunch – and just by simply typing that sentence, somewhere my mother is already at a bookstore buying me a new cookbook filled with only Paleo recipes.
· Moving from one social class to another is rarely possible and it will be an experience rife with the kind of conflict that will only prove worth it if the whole thing ends with the girl at the prom with the rich boy of her dreams.
· Parents are either absent and embarrassing or nurturing and embarrassing. Grandparents will hang up on the guy you’ve been in love with for a year and think they have just done a remarkably good deed. Some grandmothers will feel you up in the downstairs hallway of your home because you finally have boobies. Other grandparents will bring exchange students into your home and require you take him to a school dance where he will get laid with more ease than you will.
· Redheads supposedly look pretty in pink -- except they don’t.
· Sushi is a thing that can be brought as a school lunch, even though it would be almost a decade until I actually went ahead and tried it.
· Absolutely nothing causes more conflict and turmoil than someone rich colliding socially with someone poor and the union of the economically mismatched will create seismic waves of crazy that end up impacting the entire school.
· A song called Changes by David Bowie exists and sums up teenage alienation more perfectly than any convoluted poem I once scrawled in my journal.
· I should one day name my kid Sloane.
Over the last many years, I have seen some of these lessons proven accurate and some have been disproved almost beyond comprehension, but they have never left my mind. I carry them inside of me in a place that once held pictures of what I expected my life to be. They are placed next to the ideas like “Good people always prosper” and “Marriage is forever,” and sometimes I swear that I can feel them jingling inside of me like a huge ring filled up with keys, but in the last bunch of years I’ve learned not to get startled by the jingle jangle within.
I’ve learned to dance to it.
I think what mattered to me then and might still matter about John Hughes movies is that they took teenagers seriously. Some of the characters – especially the female ones – were fully developed and likeable and flawed and there’s something about being nine years old and watching Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald play the polar opposites of the feminine ideal and still dance together at the end of the movie in the kind of scored montage sequence that gets me every time. There’s something about watching a boy look up at a girl he has seen before as though he is gazing at her for the very first time – as though he sees her in a way nobody else ever has or ever will again.
There was something important for me in knowing that pain is universal and so is pleasure.
There’s so much that his films captured perfectly, but I just went back and watched Pretty in Pinkfor the first time in years and I watched it from the very beginning to the very end and a lot of it stopped me cold and made me question whether these movies should have served as the textbooks to my romantic soul. Have you watched the movie since adolescence? You should – because some of it is fucking jarring.
Look, some of the film is almost perfect and classically Hughesian, which I realize is a word I just made up, but the term Hitchcockian exists and so does Tarantinoesque, so I’m going with it. What still read to me as valid and important was that there was a female character who drove the action and was able to be drawn as smart and kind and particular about her choices. She clearly felt things like desire and hope, and I think it’s important for girls to know that both are normal and natural and capable of being understood. I also appreciated now as I did then that Andie was a really good friend and she understood things like loyalty and was not afraid to take risks for love and all of those qualities about that character mattered to me more than I knew the first time I saw the film.
But there are also a ridiculous amount of messages within the movie that borderline horrified me when I watched it again – horrified me even more than the dress Andie created out of two other dresses and what I’m guessing was a set of flammable curtains for her prom. I remembered the plot, but I think I’d blocked out how vile and intense the conflict in the movie was between the rich and the poor. I mean, holy shit – the ugliness that was written for the wealthy kids to utter is borderline insane in how unbelievable I see it as today, and I think the economic separation that is a major recurring theme in Hughes’ work is perhaps one of the issues I have with it today.
Not for even a mini-moment will I maintain that economic resentment isn’t real and doesn’t fuel some people, but the over-the-top viciousness (especially in Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful) that spills out of the painted mouths of the rich kids towards the ones who drive beat-up looking cars is kind of crazy. I grew up in a town where there wasn’t too much of a disparity between economic class, though there was the mega-rich and the middle class and I cannot recall a single example of someone my own age making a comment to or about me because my mother could not afford to buy me a car. There have been some times in recent years where my sister has mulled over the disappointment she still carries that we were not then a family who could afford to take luxury vacations like some of her friends, but I never remember feeling deprived like that, though I do very vividly recall a time that I had to take a school trip and my mother packed me a soda and I was probably in fourth grade but I was relieved it was a name brand soda. I don’t know where that joy of a soda label stemmed from – it had to have been some kind of insecurity – but I know that it wasn’t due to someone teasing me for drinking Cola instead of Coke. That insecurity came from within, but it was far more about feeling different due to having divorced parents and being the only Jewish kid on that side of town, not from someone taunting me about my family's yearly income.
That said, it’s not like I went though life not knowing that I might have had less than other kids. I had a mother who worked and our house wasn’t huge but I was pretty happy. And never – not once – did another kid tease me for any of it the way the teenagers in Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful all but destroy the students who have the audacity to be birthed by poor folk.
Since the district I grew up in was not massive in its economic inconsistency, I look instead to the district I currently teach in so that my evaluation of this issue that strikes me as convoluted beyond belief for the screen can maybe be more accurate. I work in a place that is the home to the richest or the rich and the absolute poorest of the poor. I’m not talking about “John-Hughes-movie-poor” – I’m talking about kids who don’t have electricity. But even here, I have never ever heard a nasty or spiteful comment about someone being poor from the twisted mouth of someone far more fortunate. And it’s not like my school is populated by only those who were born with an extra-sweet heart and a backup reservoir of compassion; I mean, I’ve heard kids say shitty things to or about one another. I’ve heard comments about weight and a ton of why-is-she-wearing-that and some prototypical slut shaming. (“Was she by herself when this happened?” I asked a boy once who was talking about what a whore some girl was. “No,” he answered. “She was with a guy.” “Then I suggest you include him in the whore-talk or shut your mouth entirely,” I said back to him – and I won’t apologize for even a second for having that kind of discussion with a student and I guarantee he remembers that moment with far more clarity than the time I taught him how to use a semicolon.)
What John Hughes puts forth in some of his movies is that there is a literal battlefield in suburban high schools and the armies are divided by wealth. He wrote lines a rich girl says about a poor girl like, “She’s gonna ruin my night,” and “You’re an asshole,” when the poor girl does nothing but show up to a party with the new guy she has a crush on, a guy who says that they can go hang out with her friends instead and “go crawl inside of a ditch.”
Who here is smitten?
Then there are the thirty year olds playing teenagers. I actually laughed out loud when I saw James Spader, cigarette dangling from his sneer, wearing a blazer and a tee shirt, haunting the hallways at the high school where he was supposed to be a senior. When his character shows up later to the prom, he looks like a chaperone caught in a midlife crisis. It’s hilarious – and I’m not so sure that it was meant to be.
And then there is the prom, the pinnacle of all that matters in the life of a teenager, and the lessons of the importance of that night did in fact seep into my conscious and my subconscious and maybe into my soul as well. I can’t place the blame for such a thing squarely on Hughes; it’s all of mainstream entertainment that heralded the prom as the single most essential moment in the life of an adolescent, but I can shove a little bit of blame Hughes’ way when he includes an adult character in one of his films who explains to Andie that one of her friends sometimes experiences moments where she feels like she is missing something. The woman does shit like count her kids to make sure she hasn’t lost one and then realizes that nothing is really missing, but maybe the emptiness she can’t fill and still feels every single day is an offshoot from skipping her senior prom.
No pressure at all.
I did enter ninth grade fearing I wouldn’t get a prom date. I was determined to have the perfect dress for a night four years before the night even happened. I did get my hair twisted into some unfortunate-looking updo that I thought was sophisticated and sexy and I danced to our prom song that just so happened to be Don’t You (Forget About Me), the song from The Breakfast Club. I remember thinking that the prom itself might be kind of fun but that the prom weekend where we all went camping in the Hamptons would we where the real enjoyment was and I was all kinds of wrong. The actual prom was great; the weekend was filled with the kind of tumultuous heartache that comes when relationships are fracturing beyond repair and you can’t even get your s’more to melt right and you end up on the beach during sunset with a guy who is just your friend and he whispers that he’s always had feelings for you and all you can think is that college is coming and maybe you’ll be happy then. And none of the pain you’ve felt is due to a thirty-year-old senior in a pale pink blazer hissing that you’re poor.
I look back now and I wonder if anyone suggested that Hughes take out the makeover scene at the end of The Breakfast Club or tone down the antagonistic nature of some of his wealthier characters, but I wonder those things with a smile because, flaws aside, I still have a remarkable affection for those movies. Perhaps it’s the music that still rumbles in my head when I walk down a locker-lined hallway of my own school or maybe it’s that sometimes I still look out the window and hope that I’ll see Jake Ryan standing there for me and I’ll wonder if the moment is real and if I’m the one he has always been searching for and he will smile and say, “Yeah, you,” and for that particular fantasy, I will never be able to thank John Hughes enough.