5 Ways We’ve Changed since Sixteen Candles

Make a wish (danieltaylorphotoblog.com).

Make a wish (danieltaylorphotoblog.com).

Sixteen Candles, the classic chick flick and teen angst standard, was recently on TV (again). I was too young to appreciate it when Sixteen Candles was released in 1984, but I now understand where Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker is coming from; it is lousy when all of her friends and family forget her 16th birthday while her family prepares for her big sister’s wedding.

The story about how difficult teenage life can be rings just as true now as when the movie was released. However, a lot has changed both for teenagers and the United States over the last 29 years. If John Hughes made Sixteen Candles today, it would likely look and feel different in a number of ways:

  1. A Timeless Premise? The premise of the movie initially seems timeless, and yet it’s fairly time-bound. If Sam turned 16 today, her parents might use birthday reminders on their smart phones. And even if her parents forgot, Sam’s friends would fill her Facebook Wall with birthday wishes before she arrived at school. It seems impossible that any Millennial could live a whole birthday without someone wishing him or her a “Happy Birthday,” unless that birthday coincided with a city-wide power outage, terrorist attack, or natural disaster. However, add any of those plot twists, and it becomes a darker story.
  2. No Dirty Dancing. Sam’s school hosts a dance the night of her birthday, and the dancing is shockingly clean. Hughes may have cleaned up the scene to earn the PG rating from movie censors, but he likely wouldn’t need to today. There would presumably be a lot more bumping, grinding, and twerking on the gym dance floor.
  3. Lighting Up. While Sam works up the courage to speak to her crush, popular senior Jake Ryan, at the dance, she considers asking him for a cigarette. Teenagers still smoke as a way to rebel or take the edge off adolescence, but in recent years, Hollywood has tried to expunge smoking from movies aimed at teenagers. So that line would likely be cut today, as would the scene of Sam’s grandmother nearly dropping her cigarette butt into the family breakfast sizzling on the stove.
  4. Ethnic “Humor”. The only visible minority character in the movie is Long Duk Dong, the Asian exchange student who is fairly ridiculous and played for laughs. At the time, “some Asian-American groups decried Long Duk Dong as stereotypical, racist and part of a long history of Hollywood’s offensive depictions of Asian men.” However, if Sixteen Candles were made today, Dong’s name would presumably be different, and he would be a more respected character. If he were introduced unchanged today, there would presumably be countless public statements – and possible protests – about unfair cultural stereotyping.
  5. Blurred Lines. The single most jarring thing about this movie is Jake’s comment about his girlfriend, who’s passed out drunk in his bed at the house party she instigated. Jake, who is portrayed as a nice guy, tells the geek that he could go upstairs and do whatever he wanted to his girlfriend, but he’s lost interest. Can you imagine seeing that in a movie now? The movie-going public would be up in arms about such a casual discussion of rape. Jake decides to pass on sex with his girlfriend, who is too drunk to give consent, because he’s bored with their relationship; he is not abstaining because she is exceedingly drunk. In today’s terms, that doesn’t make Jake look likeable or crush-worthy at all. No leading man would be asked to speak similar lines today.

Much as Mad Men helps us see how much has changed since the revolutions of the 1960s, iconic movies from other eras can do the same. And while there are good reasons to lament our culture’s coarsening and our family structure’s weakening, it can be helpful to be reminded that our past wasn’t perfect either.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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