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Sixteen Candles? More like Sexist Candles: A Modern Review of the Cult Classic

by The MEDA Project about a year ago in movie review
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Sixteen Candles is a cult classic beloved by most, but what happens when we strip away the kitschy surface of this rom-com?

Sixteen Candles is one of the quintessential rom-com movies that checks all of the 80s movie boxes. It stars Molly Ringwald, has a sex-obsessed teen population, the most horrendous second-hand embarrassment ever, and the cliché love story of the popular jock falling for the “unremarkable” yet beautiful girl. Not to mention, the movie has infiltrated pop culture as one of THE most romantic movies made. Despite its popularity and a plot line that makes women swoon for their own Jake Ryan, it’s littered with problematic themes that sound alarm bells louder than the gong throughout the movie, another problematic premise for another day.

While watching the movie through a feminist lens and considering the impact of the #MeToo Movement on our modern society, it is important to look at how sexism and rape culture further the plot. Not even five minutes in, the main character’s little brother makes a period joke about his sister to his father; a joke that the father goes along with. It’s also plagued with what can only be described as “locker room talk” where women are objectified and sexualized by both men and women. Great start to a romance film huh?

Anthony Michael Hall, labeled “the geek,” plays a horny freshman lusting after Ringwald’s character Sam, doing everything he can to have sex with her. When he is first introduced, he and Sam are riding the bus when he traps her in the seat, as if he took a play out of Matt Lauer’s book. He sniffs her, harasses her, and forces her back into her seat when she tries to leave. Yet, Sam puts up with this, she just presents herself as annoyed. Taking into consideration the geek’s actions and Sam’s response, the movie enables this kind of dangerous male behavior and that women should just call their abuser a “fag” and move on, neither of which are acceptable.

While the geek is obviously no immediate threat to Sam and only really makes her uncomfortable, which is also cause for concern, it perpetuates an idea that women should put up with this abuse and is reminiscent of behaviors from people like Elliot Rodgers, who was responsible for the 2014 Isla Vista killings. The geek’s actions are similar to the behavior of men who don’t take no for an answer and feel as if they are deserving of women’s time, attention, and yes, even their bodies. Often women will put up with this mistreatment in order to keep themselves safe, or risk facing emotional, verbal, or physical harm. The bottom-line is that Sixteen Candles displays this sort of behavior as a nuisance for women but something that can easily be ignored, like the consistent buzzing of a gnat. It was toxic in the 80s, and even more so now; any exhibition of this behavior that does not have some sort of accountability is problematic at best and deserves no praise from a modern audience.

Continuing on with the theme of rape culture and sexism furthering the plot, one of the sub-plots is about how Sam, in exchange for information about her crush, Jake Ryan, will give the geek her underwear. This basically says that women are so desperate for a date that they will sell their own dignity just to be with their crush. Pathetic. The underwear are then flaunted by the geek in the bathroom for a group of middle school boys to ogle at in wonder. This is equally as problematic because it feeds into the stereotype that men, especially pubescent boys, are licentious and unable to control their sexual desire. To perpetuate this stereotype is not only insulting to these boys, but simultaneously insinuates that their actions are acceptable because its “boys being boys;” blackmail and sexual harassment are not the same as rough-housing and tomfoolery, make no mistake.

Then, of course, the underwear falls into the hands of none other than Ryan himself via the geek. The boys promptly classify women as nothing but teases who live to torture these poor men because they know how sexually frustrated men are. Pardon me while I gag. The geek threatens Ryan about using Sam as “a piece of ass” because she’s more than that. He “compliments” her, saying, “not many girls in contemporary American society today would give their underwear to help a geek like me.” How charming. Ryan defends his actions saying he actually wants to date Sam and refutes the “piece of ass” comment by talking about his current girlfriend, Caroline. He says, “shit I got Caroline in the bedroom passed out cold, I could go violate her ten different times if I wanted to.” Yes, you read that right. Keep in mind, before this conversation, Ryan threw a party and Caroline got drunk, so he’s basically saying he can rape Caroline while she’s inebriated.

After their conversation, Ryan gives the geek permission to “take her [Caroline] home” and “not just leave her in a parking lot somewhere.” Sounds like the perfect man. This scene dehumanizes and strips autonomy away from Caroline while saying it's okay to rape drunk girls who can’t consent. In this scenario, audiences are presented with the violent idea that men can take whatever they want, when they want, regardless of whether or not their partner can consciously consent to their actions. It also devalues Caroline’s basic dignity and humanity because in this situation, she is nothing but an object for Ryan to fuck when it pleases him, whether or not she wants it. Ryan’s behavior is, unfortunately, not unheard of. One may recall the case of Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and received six months jail time, serving only three months. It’s disturbing, to say the least, that Ryan’s declaration about Caroline and Turner’s case are so eerily similar but, are decades apart.

Ryan then gives Caroline to the geek and lets him borrow his father’s car to take her home while she is still intoxicated. From there, the geek goes to a friend’s house and has them take pictures of him and Caroline in the car while Caroline is passed out in the backseat. The geek touches her without her consent and takes photos of her without her permission, both of which can ruin her reputation and traumatize her for life. As the night ends, we find Caroline and the geek asleep in the car. It is then implied that the two had sex and that Caroline “actually enjoyed it.” But then again, how can we be sure because she was drunk and unable to consent? This furthers the idea that it’s okay to take advantage of a woman while she’s drunk and it is even more excusable if she enjoyed it, perpetuating a prominent issue within rape culture.

Sixteen Candles may have been acceptable in the 80s, but watching it through a modern lens, it is riddled with problematic themes. The sexism throughout the film promotes dangerous concepts and behaviors for both male and female viewers. It propagates the stereotype that women are nothing but sex objects to be taken advantage of and objectified based on looks and sex appeal, without any sort of dignity or autonomy. It’s beyond problematic and upsetting that a movie with this level of popularity and praise from audiences has such an intense level of sexism and violence perpetrated against women. No wonder rape culture is still ingrained in our society all these years later when it is used as a casual plot device in a cult classic film such as this.

Now, I cannot say that viewers should not enjoy the movie if they like it, for I cannot dictate what one should like or not like, however, these criticism and critiques are valid and should be taken into consideration when watching the film. If we are to blow right past these issues without directly addressing them or even keeping them in mind when watching, we will never end the senseless loop of not calling out bullshit when we see it, hear it, or experience it. Accountability is vital, regardless of age or status, if we don’t acknowledge that in our media, how can we expect to acknowledge it in our realities? The subliminal messages that are sent within Sixteen Candles are incredibly problematic, downright dangerous, and need to be addressed. With that being said, I found myself smiling at the end when Sam finally gets the guy, although maybe I was smiling because it was finally over.

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