Sixteen Candles at 35: A Bittersweet Birthday
Full of racist jokes & sexual assault subplots, John Hughes' teen rom-com classic has aged like bad cheese. But is there anything worth saving about it?
May 4, 2019

John Hughes’ teen rom-com classic has aged like bad cheese, but is there anything worth saving about it?

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sensitive issues, including sexual assault.

Reading about John Hughes‘ writing and filmmaking career is a fascinating experience. It’s a baffling trajectory, beginning with writing for National Lampoon, a magazine in which the humor veered sharply between so-dry-it-almost-isn’t-there to unbelievably “tits and cripples” level gross, and ending with family movies that were so egregiously corny that they bordered on parody. It reads as though he found Jesus at some point, or more likely, simply grew more stuffy and conservative as he got older. Already exhibiting some puzzling ideas about class (his characters were either so rich they could afford to fly fifteen people to Paris for Christmas, or so poor they literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks), his later career was a bland celebration of homespun, Middle America values, while occasionally featuring children who set up sadistic booby traps to capture small-time criminals.

Hughes’ filmography went through a kind of reverse puberty, and in the middle was the teen years. 1984’s Sixteen Candles was the first in this beloved phase in his career, and it also marked Hughes’ debut as a director. It was the second of his films to feature his beloved fictitious town of Shermer, Illinois, after National Lampoon’s Vacation, released a year earlier. Vacation holds up pretty well if you get past the casual racism and incest jokes (that Cousin Eddie, who started out as a white trash child molester, became a breakaway fan-favorite character who eventually got his own made for TV movie is an excellent example of the inscrutability of American pop culture). As for Sixteen Candles, well… we know how that turned out.

To try to explain Sixteen Candles as a person who was there for it in first run today is to helplessly shrug and say “I don’t know, man, it was a different time.” It’s even harder to parse the fact that, at the time it was released, it was praised for being a gentler, more realistic depiction of teenagers, in comparison to Porky’s and other near-softcore teen sex comedies. We former misguided adolescent girls have a lot to answer to for thinking Sixteen Candles was #relationshipgoals. Did we ignore the grotesque racism? We sure did. Did we let slide the weird bit where protagonist Samantha Baker’s grandmother talks about her breasts and then proceeds to grope her? Absolutely. Did we shrug off the date rape? Even if “date rape” hadn’t been given a name yet (which doesn’t mean it didn’t exist), we knew something wasn’t right about that scene, but chose to overlook it.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing to look back on from a modern perspective is the great love we had for Samantha’s crush, Jake Ryan. For the ultimate dream boyfriend, Jake is, even by 1984 standards, pretty terrible, with no redeeming qualities other than being rich and handsome. His interest in Samantha seems to be rooted mostly in the fact that she isn’t his current girlfriend, Caroline, a character who’s introduced by way of a tight closeup of her bare breasts in the shower (accompanied by a cartoon boiiiinggggg!! sound effect). He not only says outright that he could rape a drunk Caroline if he wanted to, he sets her up for being raped as a “reward” to the hapless Farmer Ted for driving her home after a party.

To try to explain Sixteen Candles as a person who was there for it in first run today is to helplessly shrug and say “I don’t know, man, it was a different time.”

This is glossed over by the fact that, the following morning, neither Ted or Caroline remember what happened, suggesting that maybe nothing did, and also, because the script declared it, they immediately fall in love. So, really, in bullying a younger, naive kid and putting his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend into a situation where she could be sexually assaulted, Jake has done them a favor, and is rendered the hero who gets the girl he really wants in the end.

As previously mentioned, National Lampoon’s Vacation, if you subtract the “white people panic at the sight of a non-white person” gags (a staple in 80s comedy, regrettably) and “Cousin Eddie makes out with his adolescent daughter, what a lark!” is still pretty funny. Chevy Chase’s “praise Marty Moose” breakdown and John Candy’s performance alone manage to save it. Is there anything that saves Sixteen Candles from the dustbin of history?

Well… somewhat. Molly Ringwald as Samantha is, of course, utterly charming, and deserves far better than a preppy thug like Jake. Samantha’s late-night conversation with her father (played by the supremely underrated Paul Dooley), in which he apologizes for the family forgetting her birthday, is by far the highlight of the movie and earning Sixteen Candles‘ praise for being an “honest” depiction of teenagers. There are some moments of inspired, quirky humor, such as the “I loathe the bus” scene, the great Joan Cusack trying to work her way around a water fountain while wearing a neck brace, and John Cusack and Darren Harris as Bryce and Cliff, Ted’s friends and probably among the most realistic portrayals of teenage “geeks” in film.

Then, of course, there’s Ted himself. Ted could have easily tipped the scaled into insufferable, but there’s a core innocence and sweetness to him that’s more a credit to how Anthony Michael Hall played him than how the character was written. The viewer hopes that the implied date rape near the end of the film didn’t actually happen not just because date rape is a crime and Caroline doesn’t deserve such a thing (try as the movie does to suggest that she might), but because Ted is ultimately an even more relatable character than Samantha. It’s unfair and a little cruel to the audience to have him do such an awful thing, even when he’s egged on by Jake.

Nevertheless, a few solid performances aren’t enough to compensate for Samantha’s brother complaining that they’ll have to “burn the sheets” after Long Duk Dong’s visit, or Caroline reacting to the possibility of having had drunken sex with a stranger with at best mild puzzlement, before admitting that she probably liked it. “She liked it” is, as we know by now, the number one preferred defense of date rapists, and it’s absolutely chilling in the context of an otherwise lighthearted teen comedy about first love.

A quick look online shows that there are still plenty of movie theaters holding screenings of Sixteen Candles and that women in their 30s and 40s are still devoted to it, even though there are better, more realistic movies about teenagers, like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. If you’re caught up in all the false trappings of nostalgia, there are better movies about teenagers written by John Hughes, like The Breakfast Club and Some Kind of Wonderful.

Too many of us are willing to overlook the problematic elements of Sixteen Candles, even if Molly Ringwald herself isn’t. Nostalgia has a powerful grip, and that’s fine. The best part about being an adult is that you can do whatever you want, even watching the same movies from your youth, even if they’ve aged to a fine vinegar. We just have to come up with a better excuse for it than “it was a different time.” It was. And that time is no longer here, and no longer now.

Sixteen Candles Trailer