It can be hard to remember how scarce art for and about teen-agers was before John Hughes arrived. Young-adult novels had not yet exploded as a genre. Onscreen, the big issues that affected teens seemed to belong largely to the world of ABC Afterschool Specials, which premièred in 1972 and were still around as I came of age, in the eighties. All the teens I knew would rather have died than watch one. The films had the whiff of sanctimony, the dialogue was obviously written by adults, the music was corny.
Portrayals of teen-agers in movies were even worse. The actors cast in teen roles tended to be much older than their characters—they had to be, since the films were so frequently exploitative. The teen horror flicks that flourished in the seventies and eighties had them getting murdered: if you were young, attractive, and sexually active, your chances of making it to the end were basically nil (a trope spoofed, years later, by the “Scream” franchise). 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 boys are perverts, as one-dimensional as their female counterparts, but with more screen time. In 1982, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which had the rare distinction of being directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling, got closer to an authentic depiction of adolescence. But it still made room for a young male’s fantasy of the actress Phoebe Cates striding topless in a soft-porny sprinkler mist.
And then Hughes came along. Hughes, who grew up in Michigan and Illinois, got work, after dropping out of college, writing ad copy in Chicago. The job brought him frequently to New York, where he started hanging around the offices of the humor magazine National Lampoon. He wrote a story called “Vacation ’58”—inspired by his own family trips—which secured him a job at the magazine and became the basis for the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Another story caught the eye of the producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who encouraged him to write what became “Mr. Mom.” Those movies helped him get a deal with Universal Studios. “The Breakfast Club” was to be his directorial début; he planned to shoot it in Chicago with local actors. He told me later that, over a July 4th weekend, while looking at headshots of actors to consider for the movie, he found mine, and decided to write another movie around the character he imagined that girl to be. That script became “Sixteen Candles,” a story about a girl whose family forgets her sixteenth birthday. The studio loved the script, perhaps because, in form at least, it had more in common with proven successes—“Porky’s” et al.—than it did with “The Breakfast Club,” which basically read like a play.
A meeting was arranged, we hit it off, and 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. (The few blockbuster films starring young women in recent years have mostly been set in dystopian futures or have featured vampires and werewolves.)
I had what could be called a symbiotic relationship with John during the first two of those films. I’ve been called his muse, which I believe I was, for a little while. But, more than that, I felt that he listened to me—though certainly not all the time. Coming out of the National Lampoon school of comedy, there was still a residue of crassness that clung, no matter how much I protested. In the shooting script of “The Breakfast Club,” there was a scene in which an attractive female gym teacher swam naked in the school’s swimming pool as Mr. Vernon, the teacher who is in charge of the students’ detention, spied on her. The scene wasn’t in the first draft I read, and I lobbied John to cut it. He did, and although I’m sure the actress who had been cast in the part still blames me for foiling her break, I think the film is better for it. In “Sixteen Candles,” a character alternately called the Geek and Farmer Ted makes a bet with friends that he can score with my character, Samantha; by way of proof, he says, he will secure her underwear. Later in the film, after Samantha agrees to help the Geek by loaning her underwear to him, she has a heartwarming scene with her father. It originally ended with the father asking, “Sam, what the hell happened to your underpants?” My mom objected. “Why would a father know what happened to his daughter’s underwear?” she asked. John squirmed uncomfortably. He didn’t mean it that way, he said—it was just a joke, a punch line. “But it’s not funny,” my mother said. “It’s creepy.” The line was changed to “Just remember, Sam, you wear the pants in the family.”
My mom also spoke up during the filming of that scene in “The Breakfast Club,” when they hired an adult woman for the shot of Claire’s underwear. They couldn’t even ask me to do it—I don’t think it was permitted by law to ask a minor—but even having another person pretend to be me was embarrassing to me and upsetting to my mother, and she said so. That scene stayed, though. What’s more, as I can see now, Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film. When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her “pathetic,” mocking her as “Queenie.” It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol. Claire acts dismissively toward him, and, in a pivotal scene near the end, she predicts that at school on Monday morning, even though the group has bonded, things will return, socially, to the status quo. “Just bury your head in the sand and wait for your fuckin’ prom!” Bender yells. He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.
If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles,” when the dreamboat, Jake, essentially trades his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the Geek, to satisfy the latter’s sexual urges, in return for Samantha’s underwear. The Geek takes Polaroids with Caroline to have proof of his conquest; when she wakes up in the morning with someone she doesn’t know, he asks her if she “enjoyed it.” (Neither of them seems to remember much.) Caroline shakes her head in wonderment and says, “You know, I have this weird feeling I did.” She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.