Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
“Whatever happened to chivalry?” Olive Penderghast once asked. “Does it only exist in ‘80s movies? I want John Cusack holding a boom box outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his first into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an ‘80s movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life.”
Ever since the quintuple punch of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful, John Hughes has been the grand wizard of adolescent Oz. Daring to craft a high school film – good or bad – will lead to inevitable comparisons. Modern geek culture was born when Gary and Wyatt created Kelly Brock, and especially when Ferris Bueller became a figure of worship on and off the screen. Media’s educational politics looks to the Hughesian hierarchy, whether it be Abed being inspired to quote The Breakfast Club when the Community study group comes together and argues in their first episode, director Mark Waters wanting Mean Girls to be 21st century Hughes, Emma Stone’s Olive dreaming of fist pumps in Easy A, or Anna Kendrick’s Beca being wooed by Jesse with yet another nod to the detention club in this week’s Pitch Perfect. (Brief review below.) Even rom-coms like Bridesmaids get in on it, with Officer Rhodes waiting by his car for his pink-clad bridesmaid to leave the wedding, and with people’s names being compared to appliances.
John Hughes is the framework that’s almost as important as plot structure, and since all but one of the above list are women-centric films, he has – to some extent – become an unspoken feminist father. He made Molly Ringwald a household name, and the female voices that are resonating, young women like Olive, Beca and the Plastics, are informed by Hughes’ take on young social politics. It’s almost as if he’s not deceased, but rather existing there in the background, behind a grand curtain, manipulating the cinematic worlds around him. From a nostalgic viewpoint, his continual inclusion makes sense – he breaks gender and age barriers for much of the mainstream moviegoing public; he’s a common entry point for a diverse audience. But he’s also a problematic inspiration whose impact can do with a nostalgic evolution to the ‘90s – a decade that expanded on his framework while moving beyond many of his problematic aspects.
For all his adolescent resonance, Hughes’ films aren’t always so inspiring, including:
Jake, the romantic hero in Sixteen Candles. He passes his drunk girlfriend to an underaged stranger who hunts for ladies underwear, while bragging about violating her: “Shit, I’ve got Carolyn up in my room passed out cold. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.” He refrains not because it’s wrong, but because she’s too insensitive and he doesn’t like her anymore. (In 2009, Salon wrote about this.)
Romance in The Breakfast Club. Judd Nelson’s charisma softened the lecherousness, but regardless, Bender harasses Claire (and puts his head between her legs) until she warms up to him and decides to date him. While the mismatched pair find romance, Claire wipes away all of Allison’s style as well, so that she can be softened and sexy for Andy (even though the film is about revealing the universal humanity in so-called misfits).
Gary and Wyatt create a woman to be their sex slave. In the words of Joss Whedon: “I find it offensive. The boy fantasy of building a girl.” He hated the idea so much that the theme has popped up repeatedly in his work (visit Buffy’s “I Was Made to Love You” for the most searing indictment).
Naturally, this was a different time, and a different social environment. What’s strange, however, is that today we aren’t really allowing our nostalgia to evolve past it. Long ago, Heathers moved beyond Hughes in 1989, prepping the new decade with deadly consequences for popular kids, and a respect for those actively fighting the status quo. Instead of the awkwardly cute star (“loser”) who gets the popular/beautiful/untouchable object of their affection, Veronica went for friendship with the oft-maligned Martha Dunstock. She was fierce and uncompromising.
A year later, Christian Slater returned with Pump Up the Volume, kicking off 1990 with a story that absolutely delights in the alternative visually and thematically. In 1992, vampires eradicate the desire to tolerate social politics for Buffy Summers (which continued with the television show), kicking off one of television’s most beloved heroines. Stoners and awkward teens became the coolest kids of the early ‘90s the minute Dazed and Confused hit the screen, male and female seniors relishing coming-of-age cruelty.
Clueless then negated Allison’s now decade-old makeover as Amy Heckerling outlined the inherent faults in remaking people in your image – while also celebrating the bombastic aspects of popularity. Empire Records offered up a celebration of misfits, all of whom are embraced for who they are, even the sexually active Gina, who was never handed off to a horny freshman. By 1998, Can’t Hardly Wait revisited the stereotypes while letting the guy be the obsessed romantic and the trend-obsessed. Before the American Pies took over and She’s All That replaced the alternative girl with cuties in ponytails and glasses, Election allowed for fervent absurdity and maniac school involvement, while 10 Things I Hate About You balanced the sweet and popular with the quite realistic disillusioned teen in love with riot grrrl tunes (and once again, the boys were the lovestruck).
Where Hughes’ outcasts figured out how to navigate (and occasionally when to subvert) social norms, the next decade’s teens ignored (or battled against) the hierarchy for their own way of life. Nineties heroines expanded the definition of what it meant to be a young woman on-screen. She could be outspoken, clueless and designer-coiffed, awkward, fiery, studious, deadly or secondhand trendy. Sometimes she wanted guys, and sometimes she shaved her head, threw up her middle finger, and walked away. Much of this was thanks to grunge going mainstream, softening Hollywood’s alterna-fear until Britney Spears and pop fever pushed teen stories back to narrow characterizations.
Each decade has its limitations, but they also have potential. Hughes has been redone. We’ve watched his aesthetic applied to the ‘10s. We’ve watched his memory hoisted into the air in celebration. In Pitch Perfect, he gets to bridge the divide yet again, his films used to bring two people together, framed as one of the ultimate cinematic experiences. But considering the growing diversity of women in Hollywood – racially diverse actresses and larger talents like Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy who steal scenes with the greatest of ease – it’s the perfect time to let Hughes rest and break into the ‘90s passion for the alternative. As women-centric films increase, it only makes sense that the next decade’s nostalgic aesthetic is celebrated.
Watching Wilson easily command the screen in Pitch, even outshining the ever-lovely Anna Kendrick, it’s easy to daydream about other films where Hollywood finds “the guts” to cast her in a starring gig – to let any talented actress headline without the fear of fat. One of Tinseltowns ever-stringent imbalances is that larger male actors are openly embraced while an extra pound on a woman makes the movie world implode with tabloid fear.
Also imagine ‘90s alterna-diversity replaced with racial diversity, the bit part “diversity” replaced by real, honest-to-goodness variety. Imagine school stories that celebrate the strange and quirky by actually letting them shine as a group, and not as the backup to the spoon full of slight-white-girl sugar. Imagine heroines who put friendship before love. Imagine bald girls, smart girls, rebel girls, nice girls, mean girls… For every wonderful moment of Hughesian high school, there are more that came after him, a vibrant youthful world that’s really pitch-perfect for our current movie landscape, if only people remember that there’s life after John Hughes.
The pleasure of Pitch Perfect is not how the film appears, but how it grows on you. At first the experience is awkward and occasionally uncomfortable – there are sexist fools chastising female singers, an alterna-girl whose rebellious aspect is nothing more than dark eyeliner and polite displeasure towards group activities, the larger girl destined to be the brunt of jokes, and obviously token diversity included for zingers. It’s so clean and peppy that as wacky as these girls are, you’re not expecting much – a lot like Bridemaids’ superficial appeal seemed like the rom-com status quo.
Bit by bit the film wiggles into the soft spot, easy jokes replaced with surprisingly clever quips, the typical and expected balanced with the occasional left-field inclusion that keeps the tale fresh. But the real magnetism belongs to Wilson, who takes a rather superficially typical “fat sidekick” part and makes it not only fun and audacious like Melissa McCarthy’s Megan, but also grounded and relatable.
Pitch Perfect isn’t cinematically pitch perfect, but frankly, it doesn’t have to be. It stands up well against similar mainstream comedies, and though it looks gender specific, has enough smart charm that it’s anything but reductively "girly."