Molly Ringwald's 'The Breakfast Club' Essay Is A Masterclass In How To Discuss Problematic Art
Reconciling your love for art that is problematic is a hard task for viewers, but it's an even more confusing one for those who were part of making the art in the first place. In an eye-opening essay for The New Yorker, Molly Ringwald acknowledges that John Hughes' films were problematic, while also pointing out why they still hold value for audiences today. Films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles are iconic. They examine the teenage experience in a way that was previously unheard of — but the films also contain scenes that have been interpreted as misogynistic, racist, and homophobic.
Early on in the essay, Ringwald explained that she's never been a big fan of revisiting her own work. However, when her daughter asked her to watch The Breakfast Club a few years ago, she did so with a bit of trepidation. She wasn't sure how her daughter would deal with the film's frank discussions of sex, but ultimately, she ended up being the one who was uncomfortable. The actor explained that the scene where Bender not only peeks up her character's skirt, but also seemingly touches her inappropriately left Ringwald feeling particularly unsettled.
As she continued viewing the film Ringwald came to realize that Bender was emotionally abusive to her character throughout, and that ultimately he was rewarded for his behavior. She wrote,
"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."
In the #MeToo era, it's impossible not to see the flaws in not only The Breakfast Club, but in Hughes' other beloved films as well. From a female character being traded for a pair of underwear in Sixteen Candles to two nerdy men creating their "ideal" woman in Weird Science, sexism cropped up more than once. Additionally, the films occasionally included homophobic slurs, and the casts were overwhelmingly filled with White actors. Given these glaring missteps, do movies like The Breakfast Club still deserve to be lauded?
The answer to that question isn't as simple as it seems. Films like The Breakfast Club should absolutely be viewed through a modern lens, and the problematic ideas that they contain need to be discussed. Art is a reflection of its time, as Ringwald points out in her essay. The actor explained,
"Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art — change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go."
As for whether or not Hughes' films can still resonate with modern teens, that's for them to decide. For a generation of young people, these films were relatable in a way that other movies simply weren't. Ringwald discusses instances of people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community telling her how the films changed their lives simply by showing them that there is a place for outsiders. Despite all of the things that Hughes' films got wrong, they nailed the '80s teen experience and made young adult voices feel relevant in an era where they were often dismissed.
Ringwald concludes her essay with a hope that the films will endure even as the conversations around them change. As young people continue to push for better representation and an end to sexism, the art they create will evolve as well. A time may come when Hughes' teen classics feel too antiquated to maintain their relevancy, but for now, they remain a valuable talking point in the discussion surrounding how to appreciate a work of art while also acknowledging that it's far from perfect.