Sixteen Candles: Sex, Teens, Racism and Obscenity

By: Chris Mendizabal
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John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) stars Molly Ringwald as Samantha Baker, an angst-ridden high school sophomore who feels irrelevant when her family forgets her 16th birthday during the hustle and bustle of her sister’s upcoming wedding. Samantha has to wade through her life, dealing with the female ritual of her sixteenth birthday, her sexuality, and her crush on popular senior student, Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), while trying to fend off the charms of the nerdy freshman Ted (Anthony Michael Hall).

This film may be packaged as a playful teen movie that ends with the boy and girl finally together, but it’s really about the raging hormones of teenagers accompanied by upbeat 80s music. The story follows Samantha who takes an interest in Jake, but it’s hard to discern whether the film acts as a friend or foe to its target audience. Is Hughes attempting to capture the simultaneous frivolity and importance during these formative years for a teenage girl, or is he simply making fun of the superficiality of it all?

I believe it to be the former, as it’s not difficult for the teenage years to appear silly and melodramatic, especially when we are not the ones experiencing them. But while Jake realizes that he and his girlfriend are incompatible, showing us that some relationships during those times are merely flings, his interest for Samantha is purely driven by his libido, but the film presents it as a love story. As much as self-reflexivity annoys me, I feel as though the film calling attention to itself as a movie about the experience of teens being both frivolous and difficult would make the film better. That, and the omission of its perfectly wrapped ending.

That being said, the characters in this film are supposed to be superficial and emotionally underdeveloped. Jake only dated his first girlfriend in the film because she was an object of his desire. But once he found out about Samantha’s crush on him, she became his second. Although I think they overdid it, the subplot with Long Duck Dong (Gedde Watanbe) and his gallivanting emphasized the sexuality of teenagers as the driving force for the plot. It’s clear that it doesn’t matter what Samantha thinks of Ryan or what he thinks of her on an emotional level because these characters are supposed to be your average teenagers of American culture. So it’s funny to think this film was loved by teenagers at the time of its release when all this had to say about teenagers was how superficial and bratty they are. Perhaps the entire movie was one big act of self-assessment veiled by the clever use of an ending that fulfilled the target audience’s fantastical conception of a romance. My guess is as good as yours.

The best I can explain this film is as a dream sequence that includes all the fabulations of the good, the bad, and the Jake Ryan.

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Commentary on Sixteen Candles

After watching films like Stop Making Sense (1984), The Long Goodbye (1973), Heavy Weights (1995), and dozens of 16mm clips, I yearned for that nuanced look that can only be reproduced by photochemical film, or less superfluous: I held a nostalgia for that personal feeling that is commonplace in older films. I’d heard of John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, but do not remember watching it, so I thought I would give it a go. Looking back on Family Guy’s parody of a scene from Sixteen Candles, it does not seem so as though it was done just for the sake of being another outrageous gag that it reaches for—which also problematically makes light of the matter. Rather, it highlights an issue of the film. While I was looking at the user reviews on Letterboxd, I wondered why only half of them were exclusively commenting on the film’s humour, nostalgia, and accurate, albeit exaggerated, portrayal of teenage angst. These users have either totally overlooked its problems or are totally reticent about what they just watched.

While I do not recall watching Hughes’ Sixteen Candles or Pretty in Pink as a youth, after the film was over I was curious, almost expecting all the latest user reviews to express the surprise that I felt. It was this other half of user reviews that entailed in their writing their disappointment and disgust with the overt racism and talk of sexual assault. In addition, I also do not see how living in an affluent neighborhood fits into the story in a purposeful way, but I suppose one could argue that even against the backdrop of affluent families and a good-natured milieu, that the darn teenage angst of the western world is indiscriminate. But I really only presume that.

As I have already seen others comment and quote these tasteless parts of the film, I will refrain from double-dipping. Firstly, as the two female high schoolers walk and talk through the corridors one of them is startled when she mistakes her friend’s correction to one of her comments. But I suppose one could argue that after she asked, “a black guy!?” she was going to continue with “Well, I do commend you on your ability not to limit your prospective partners to the exclusively Caucasian demographic of this neighbourhood, save for your Grandparent’s servant/foreign exchange student Long Duck Dong. You really do see past complexion—despite discriminating a guy as a “black” guy—but we’re all different in some way, aren’t we?”

These are just suppositions, but let’s also talk about the aforementioned Long Duck Dong, because that was brought up in a review of the film written by Janet Maslin at the time of its release in 1984. Maslin called the sex-crazed subplot of Long Duck Dong stupid, and the jokes concerning Long Duck Dong’s ethnicity unfunny.

Now, there is really no reason why humour should be elicited from one’s ethnicity, but perhaps the filmmakers tapped into a higher level of mental capacity that can circumvent the low thoughts of ordinaries and create the most serviceable gags for the ordinaries for maximum profit. The utterance of a Chinese foreign exchange student’s name “Dong” being followed by the crash of a gong is sure to be found sandwiched in between the pages of John Hughes’ tome, Memorandums of My Best Jokes. If you turn to chapter VII, section xii, you shall find the one about the Chinese foreign exchange student, Long Duck Dong, that arrives to a high school party, crashing his car into another, while during his appearance, as he exits from the wreckage unblemished, the chorus of “I’m Turning Japanese” is clearly heard to indicate to the audience, that it is in fact Long Duck Dong who ascends from the wreckage.

That, or perhaps the Caucasian female who is accompanying him on his night of debauchery, is likening to the inclination of his wild ways, which she has never before seen in partying teenagers and has nothing to do with him being the only Chinese person in the neighbourhood. Perhaps the conflation of Japanese and Chinese was entirely coincidental. We may then concede to the Vapors’ meaning of their song “Turning Japanese” and ignore the insinuation created by sound and image and that filmmaker John Hughes really did not see the implications that sound and image, the synthesis of which is agglomerates into what we call a “movie”, could have. The band Vapors’ admits, “the song was a love song about someone who had lost their girlfriend and was going slowly crazy — turning Japanese is just all the clichés of our angst… turning into something you never expected to.”

Personally I would have opted for “I’m turning into cheese,” but after thorough rumination I concluded that that was less incredulous. However, maybe the inclusion of that song was for Hughes to find something else other than the sound of a gong to indicate Long Duck Dong’s presence, as to avoid being outrageous. It’s also possible that things might have gone off the political rails of 1980s Hollywood if the filmmakers were not as modest as they were with their use of the slur, “Chinaman,” when referring to Long Duck Dong.

Lastly, near the end of the film, one male teenager, Jake Ryan, reveals to a younger one that he could violate his own passed-out girlfriend in more than one way. Actually, ten ways, he specifies, indicating a certain degree of pre-meditation on his part. This is all talked about very matter of fact, and without consequence, unfortunately. Although, thinking back, I am sure many audience members would have enjoyed if Jake Ryan was apprehended and incarcerated by a police officer played by Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. But then that would no longer be a Hughes film. [Instead, it would be any other 80s Arnold film where justice is always claimed by his hands]. Alas, that same Jake Ryan walks amongst the people of John Hughes’ Universe where Samantha Baker is not featured. Jake Ryan is supposed to be the good guy that gets the girl. The happy ending that is for most audience members is in actuality a disturbing beginning for Samantha since she has not the slightest idea that this guy spends his days thinking up the numerous ways in which he can violate his girlfriend, whom he ended up breaking up with, perhaps because ten was not ample for his standards.

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This film is certainly an antique of earlier days, and on my part it undoubtedly is unfair to criticize a film that offers no counter-arguments, especially, and more importantly, because it is trapped forever in its form. [Unfortunately, there are also people that are forever trapped in their own ways that, whether intentional or not, overlook these issues in media among other things. Obviously criticism and discourse should be opened up there.)

The peculiar part when people bring up in their love for this film is that they never seem to mention the problems with them, but rather mention a feeling of “nostalgia.” It is this they-way-things-were mentality that may, and I am almost certainly do, blind us today. I will admit that Sixteen Candles was easy to pick on but by sharing my thoughts amongst the other dissatisfied viewers regarding this one piece in the collection of Hollywood favourites, it could be shown that like the films that evaded substantial criticism back then, contemporary films as surreptitious as they may be, still operate within the system of Hollywood and should be accompanied by an active and critical viewer.

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