If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic

In the New Yorker, Molly Ringwald looks at the three John Hughes movies she starred in in the 80s, when she was a teenager. She starts with watching The Breakfast Club with her 10-year-old daughter.

It’s a strange experience, watching a younger, more innocent version of yourself onscreen. It’s stranger still—surreal, even—watching it with your child when she is much closer in age to that version of yourself than you are. My friend was right: my daughter didn’t really seem to register most of the sex stuff, though she did audibly gasp when she thought I had showed my underwear. At one point in the film, the bad-boy character, John Bender, ducks under the table where my character, Claire, is sitting, to hide from a teacher. While there, he takes the opportunity to peek under Claire’s skirt and, though the audience doesn’t see, it is implied that he touches her inappropriately.

The audience does sort of see – it sees him lunging between her knees before the movie cuts to her reaction. Her reaction is apparently to slam her knees closed on his head, but that we don’t see, we only hear him squawk.

I kept thinking about that scene. 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. I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius. His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools. There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.

As one does, even if one didn’t act in them. Doctor Strangelove for instance – the only woman is General Buck Turgidson’s [geddit?] secretary/piece of tail, fielding a phone call from another general in the middle of the night dressed in a bikini.

The successful teen comedies of the period, such as “Animal House” and “Porky’s,” were written by men for boys; the few women in them were either nymphomaniacs or battleaxes. (The stout female coach in “Porky’s” is named Balbricker.)

The industry hasn’t really changed all that much.

I filmed “Sixteen Candles” in the suburbs of Chicago the summer after I completed the ninth grade. Once we were done shooting, and before we began filming “The Breakfast Club,” John wrote another movie specifically for me, “Pretty in Pink,” about a working-class girl navigating the social prejudices of her affluent high school. The film’s dramatic arc involves getting invited and then uninvited to the prom. In synopsis, the movies can seem flimsy—a girl loses her date to a dance, a family forgets a girl’s birthday—but that’s part of what made them unique. No one in Hollywood was writing about the minutiae of high school, and certainly not from a female point of view. According to one study, since the late nineteen-forties, in the top-grossing family movies, girl characters have been outnumbered by boys three to one—and that ratio has not improved. That two of Hughes’s films had female protagonists in the lead roles and examined these young women’s feelings about the fairly ordinary things that were happening to them, while also managing to have instant cred that translated into success at the box office, was an anomaly that has never really been replicated.

Truth. So much truth is it that I’ve seen most of Pretty in Pink, in slices at various times. The girl-centeredness of it makes it magnetic to me. But there are things like that crotch-dive scene.

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. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

“A Dog’s Tale” has a boy watching his mother turn into a dog. “Against His Will” features an “ugly fat” woman who tries to rape a man at gunpoint in front of the man’s wife and parents because she can’t have sex any other way. “My Penis” and “My Vagina” are quasi-magical-realist stories written from the points of view of teen-agers who wake up in the morning with different genitalia than they were assigned at birth; the protagonist of “My Penis” literally forces her boyfriend’s mouth open to penetrate him, and the male in “My Vagina” is gang-raped by his friends once they discover he has one. (The latter story ends with him having to use the money he saved for new skis on getting an abortion.) The “Hughes Engagement Guide” is an illustrated manual on how to protect yourself against women. It gives examples of women “bullshitting to not put out,” and teaches readers how to do a “quickie pelvic exam,” how to detect “signs of future fat,” and how to determine if a woman has any ancestors of different races, based on what her relatives look like—there is an accompanying drawing of an Asian person and an African-American—and on and on.

The October, 1980, issue included a piece, co-authored by Ted Mann, titled “Sexual Harassment and How to Do It!” The guide explains, “If you hire a woman from another field or with a background that is not suited to the duties she is to assume, you’ve got the glans in the crevice, or, if you prefer, the foot in the door.” It continues, “Not only will her humility prepare her for your sexual advances, it will also help steel her for her inevitable dismissal.” There are sections describing different kinds of secretaries based on their ages, and how best to reward and punish them. (The older ones are “easier,” the younger ones “preferable.”) There’s even a section on arrest: “Sometimes even guys with cool sideburns and a smooth line of patter get arrested for sexual harassment and are issued summonses.” It goes on to suggest different methods for cozying up to the police officer.

It’s all satire, of course, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not the chauvinists who are being lampooned but the “women’s liberation movement.” Women had begun to speak out, in the mid-seventies, against harassment in the workplace.

Therefore naturally there had to be a backlash.

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.

I guess the only way we can feel about such things is ambivalent. We both love and oppose; we think and discuss; we try to do better.

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