Don't You Forget About Me, Part 1: The Teen Flicks of John Hughes

Posted by Charles Reece, September 14, 2008 10:24am | Post a Comment
I wish to bring back to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul. This is not because I love them, but that I may love you, my God. [..] In the bitterness of my remembrance, I tread again my most evil ways, so that you may grow sweet to me, O sweetness that never fails, O sweetness happy and enduring, which gathers me together again from that disordered state in which I lay in shattered pieces, wherein, turned away from you, the one, I spent myself upon the many. For in my youth, I burned to get my fill of hellish things. I dared to run wild in different darksome ways of love. My comeliness wasted away. I stank in your eyes, but I was pleasing to myself and I desired to be pleasing to the eyes of men. -- The Depths of Vice from The Sixteenth Year of The Confessions of St. Augustine

I've always been something of a closet Augustinian, believing sin the default human condition. If he would've just left out all that God stuff I'd be more willing to come out of the closet. Nevertheless, his notion that being good is an act of will against wordly temptation seems right to me. In a capitalist democracy, giving in has always been an easier route to material success than acts of resistance.  Obama wouldn't be America's first ("serious") post-racial candidate if the majority thought he'd tackle racial injustice in any substantive manner. One doesn't rise through the business ranks by being an agent of moral change, making the business work better for the employees. The only change that's allowed is that of efficiency, streamlining the workers' output in accordance to the demands of the employer. You don't achieve power by disposing of the cultural rules, but by learning them, incorporating them and making them work for you while you actually work for them.  As Foucault pointed out -- and the Frankfurt School before him -- power is everywhere and nowhere in particular.

Since power is theoretically dispersed to the masses in a democratic system where the have-nots will always outnumber the haves, it becomes necessary for mass desire to be manufactured such that the status quo is believed by the people to be their will, and not something being forced upon them from the outside. This keeps things from changing, or not changing, too fast, so that the small ratio of dominant to the dominated can remain fairly static over time. That's why 1984 has never been a wholly convincing metaphor for the modern Western democracy. People would vote out Big Brother if he were seen to symbolically conflict with their democratic and other structuring beliefs ("don't need no outsider telling me what to do"). However, his ideas of control might work if the people can be convinced that those ideas are their own. In fact, Orwellian totalitarianism began when democracy ended, but a more pressing concern for modern democracy is its own despotic fault-line. 

The fault-line in the heart of democrats was pointed out by Tocqueville in the 19th century: "they want to be led, and they wish to remain free."  He referred to this danger as soft despotism, where people willingly (vote to) release their liberty, their control, to the state in exchange for some stopgap measure promised by the political representatives. The promise might be for some pork bill, or for some legislation limiting the rights of others who aren't felt to be acting in accordance with common sense or decency.  As Thomas Franks has argued, the politician doesn't even need to deliver the goods, so long as he's perceived to be working in the voters' interests, i.e., delivering the symbolic goods ("next year, we'll get prayer back in the schools"). Meanwhile, the politician can continue to serve the interests of the corporate status quo, which has zero interest in making things better for those doing the voting. Thus, the voters feel in control by voting for someone else to symbolically take care of things while the politician feels empowered by being the symbolic powerbroker in the capitalist order. The temptations of the silver-tongued devil have been replaced by the pervasive control of the culture industry.  And some of the most fitting allegories for this dispersed systemic power are in the teen oeuvre of John Hughes.

Beginning, appropriately enough, in 1984 with Sixteen Candles and ending in 1987 with Some Kind of Wonderful, Hughes explored the dynamics in which people are brought into the symbolic order. Four of these films he wrote, produced and directed (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), and the other two he wrote and produced with Howard Deutch directing (Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful). Although largely dismissed for its establishment politics (Tout va bien these films ain't), his teen cycle is more profitably seen as depictions of the way an individual's desire interacts with and is ultimately shaped by social control. Central to this cycle is the master-slave dialectic, which he predominately addresses according to class distinctions (e.g., the envious attitude Molly Ringwald's character expresses towards her high school's wealthy ruling elite in Pretty in Pink), but also breaks it down along relative positions of prestige, or character types -- the popular versus unpopular (such as the adoration Emilio Estevez's working class jock receives in The Breakfast Club). The political criticism isn't without merit, as there's always a trace of the satanic in these films, the celebration of selling one's soul to fit in. The most evil example is undoubtedly Ally Sheedy's finding happiness in The Breakfast Club once she's made over into the jock's ideal. She complains about being ignored, but is only noticed once she ignores who she is. Consider here the paradox of Obama's candidacy: he became the first black candidate by becoming post-racial, downplaying that which makes his candidacy historically significant, his race in the cultural context of America's racism (he only alluded to Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention). 

However, Hughes doesn't just leave popularity or the haute bourgeoisie as unquestioned truths. Instead, he regularly demonstrates how the popular class has to go through the same process of commodification (selling oneself as an object for others) as the outré class does in order or to stand a chance of entering the former's social circle. Estevez's jock tearfully explains how he lives his life to satisfy the expectations of his dad and the school while having little time (until his detention) for deciding what he might want (which, as it turns out, is to do nothing in particular). Similarly, Lea Thompson's popular girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Some Kind of Wonderful has to constantly struggle with suppressing her moral conscience lest she be cast out of the popular clique. Hughes' twist on Horatio Alger's dream is that success comes more from learning to walk in another's shoes than pulling oneself up by one's own boot straps. That these films are nostalgically remembered for their happy resolutions despite their pervasive miserabilism has a lot to do with the conventions of the teenage romantic comedy genre in which they work (or are made to work).

Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo, and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film's absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves, so we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace -- hence their popularity. -- from "Genre Films and the Status Quo" (1974) by Judith Hess Wright

While it's not exactly statistically sound, consider the difference between the critics and general viewers' opinions of Hughes' films over at Metacritic: For the 4 films given both a critics and users rating (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful), the critics gave the films an average of 5.6 out of 10 versus the users' 8.7, with The Breakfast Club scoring the highest for both at 6.2 and 9.3, respectively. I suspect that both the general taste and critical distaste for these films is rooted in the same cause: their nostalgia-mongering generic structure. Setting all six of the films in the imaginary suburb of Chicago, Shermer, Hughes addresses very real issues with becoming an adult in a capitalist society, but always through a rose-colored lens of how we'd like to remember those years, rather than how they actually were. The difference in the reactions based on entertainment and criticism can be seen surrounding Schindler's List. Sure you might get choked up towards the end when all those saved are celebrating Schindler, but that's just the result of all the emotional levers and pulleys that Spielberg is so adroit at operating. With a bit of distance, it's hard not to read cynicism in the fact that the most "serious" and "important" movie about the Holocaust coming out of an American studio is based on the heroism of an Aryan saving the Jews. Genre rules, like the myth of heroism, begin to strain and nostalgic entertainment begins to falter as reality returns to the fore. However, as I will endeavor to show, Hughes' fantastic approach to the teenage years reveals a good deal about American society that makes his cycle one of the more important set of films coming out of the Me Decade even if they are corrupt at their core.

With the exception of Ferris Bueller, all of these films follow the same narrative pattern: an outcast yearns to be accepted by a representative of the upper- or over-class, that representative discovers something about him or herself by falling for the outcast, and everything ends happily when the outcast is accepted.  Sixteen Candles, for example, has two such set-ups: Molly Ringwald plays a fairly well-adjusted (i.e., bourgeois for normal) 16-year old Samantha Baker, who dreams of getting into the pants and social circle of MIchael Schoeffling's BMW-driving übermensch on campus, Jake Ryan. Meanwhile, the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall, of course) knows his place in the order of things and can only dream of being with Samantha in the thick portion of the social bell curve. Just as would occur later with the popular desiderata played by Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink and Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, Jake rebels against his superior position in the social hierarchy by taking on a mate from a lower social stratum. Should critical awareness begin to enter here as the audience realizes that the status quo remains firmly in place by having the Geek lose out once again to the popular kid, Hughes uses the nostalgic bypass (Wright's "sop") of throwing the Geek a bone, namely the chance to have his way with Jake's former girlfriend, the prom queen.

Hughes' nostalgic bypass is akin to the way the Republicans keep the lower white working class within its ranks: serve big business interests at the expense of the voters' economic stability while distracting them from this reality with promises of returning the country to some fabled state of moral purity or a illusory concern with the possibility that they might some day become members of the 2% economic elite. Just as audience identification begins to buckle under the pressure of seeing how Andie (Ringwald again) turns her back on who she is upon choosing Blane (McCarthy) over the perpetually abused and ignored Duckie (John Cryer) in Pretty in Pink, the latter gets a come-hither glance from a beautiful girl, thereby recommitting the audience to the nostalgic trompe l'oeil. For his role in encouraging Andie to give Blane a second chance after he succumbed to the pressure of his snobby friend Steff (James Spader), and jilted her at the prom, Duckie is rewarded with his own promise of upward mobility.  Little wonder why the test audience (and Ringwald) balked at the original ending where Andie went off with Duckie. The surfeit of reality gummed up the working of the nostalgic machinery. We want to believe our society to be classless (and raceless), irrespective of the evidence.

Part 2's acomin'...

Relevant Tags

Symbolic Order (1), Barack Obama (23), John Hughes (4), St. Augustine (1), Power (3), Alexis De Tocqueville (1), Democracy (2), Dvd Criticism (26)