A few nights ago, I was channel surfing while nursing Geoffrey and came across the movie Sixteen Candles.
I was instantly excited. Sixteen Candles, which came out in 1984, was one of my favorite movies ever in the 1980s. In fact, in eighth grade, my best friend Rachel and I used to watch it in our basement every weekend. We’d sit there with our big teased hair and frosty pink lip gloss and recite the dialogue verbatim to each other. So 25 years later, when I saw it on TV, I was thrilled.
Jamie came in from his evening run and when he realized what I was watching grinned.
“That’s a great movie!” he said.
Teddy was still up, so he sat and watched with us. Yeah, we figured it probably wasn’t the most appropriate thing, but the good news he’s probably still too young to process anything.
Then the scene came on where Jake, the town stud, is telling a friend that Molly Ringwald (Samantha) is always looking at him. The friend, a big beefy guy, frowns. “Maybe she’s retarded,” he says. I flinched. I had forgotten about that line. But I kept watching, anyway. After all, it’s such a great movie.
Yet somehow this time around I was struck by how offensive the movie was. There was the girl with the neck brace who was obviously meant to be a source of humor: there were scenes showing her unsuccessfully trying to navigate a water fountain, and falling backwards in her chair while attempting to sip a can of Coke at the school dance. There was Long Duck Dong, a compilation of all the Asian stereotypes out there (and Grandpa Howard describing the missing Long Duck Dong to the police on the phone: ‘What was he wearing? Well, uh, let’s see, he was wearing a red argyle sweater, and tan trousers…No, he’s not retarded!” There was Molly Ringwald on the bus, calling the resident geek, played by Anthony Michael Hall a “total faggot”. And then there was the barely conscious drunk cheerleader girlfriend that Jake Ryan blissfully sends off to be date raped by Anthony Michael Hall.
Towards the end of the movie, I started to feel really nauseous. I looked over at my two year old son, who was lying on his Elmo pull out couch wrapped up in his blankie and laughing. Did he have any idea what he was giggling at, or was he just excited to be up with his parents? I couldn’t tell. And I was angry at myself for letting him stay up to watch it with us in the first place.
I kept thinking about the movie the rest of the night. Was it just that I was older, and more mature, and not impressed by the frat boy humor? Or was it because I was the mom of a child with a disability, that I found all the comments—not just the retarded comments—offensive?
I don’t know. I know Sixteen Candles will never be the same for me again.
When I think about how we just threw terms like “retarded” and “faggot” around so loosely in middle and high school, I cringe. After Johanna was born, I called my sister up and asked her, “Did we know any kids growing up with a disability?” We sat on the phone and thought about for a while. We couldn’t think of any. We went to private school, and although we had friends who went to public school, back then the kids with disabilities were all segregated in special ed classes. The same kids that John Hughes liked to make fodder of.
Still, there was one scene in Sixteen Candles that still got me, even after all these years. It’s when Molly Ringwald is walking out of the church and realizes she missed her sister, the bride driving away in her limo (in true ‘80s form, her sister is stoned out on pain pills because she got her period right before the wedding). The camera pans the street, and as all the cars pull away there’s a shot of Jake Ryan, standing there in front of his red Porsche, the typical mid 1980s hunk, staring at Molly Ringwald and smiling as the Thompson Twins “Wish You Were Here” plays.
It’s a great moment that almost makes up for the un-PCness of the rest of the film. But not quite.