Flipping through the movie channels on TV few months ago, I caught the beginning of Can’t Hardly Wait—one of my favorite teen comedies of the ‘90s—and let it play through as I did some evening writing on the couch.
Granted, it had been more a few years since I watched the movie (I’m not even sure we own it on DVD, just my musty VHS copy somewhere in the basement), but… holy homophobia. What played for laughs when I was in college was a cringeworthy experience as an adult. What happens when the formerly repeat-watched, lighthearted movies and TV shows of our youth no longer present as nostalgic and laughable?
That’s the question Molly Ringwald grapples with in her recent New Yorker essay, revisiting her work with John Hughes in light of #MeToo and discussing it in an obviously personal and wonderfully nuanced way.
“How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose?” she asks. It’s thorny and not a one-size-fits-all conclusion for every instance. I don’t think any of us see a clear answer, a cut-and-dry case of throwing all problematic art on the pyre or writing it off as unwatchable or intolerable.
For instance, I can still view Sixteen Candles with more sympathy than I could ever experience with Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan at this point, and I'll continue happily watching Dirty Dancing despite my now-adult unease at the age difference between Baby and Johnny. But also-recent New York Times oral history of filming Animal House only reinforces my suspicion that it’s a movie I’ll never really need to seek out and watch again (though I’ll continue to listen to the soundtrack).
Humanity, I think, is the difference in being able to make peace with certain problematic movies and not others. Ringwald relates stories of friends who feel strong, "life-saving" connections to John Hughes' films, which helped ease their emotional turbulence as not-yet-out gay high schoolers. Of Emil Wilbekin's love for The Breakfast Club, she writes, "The lack of diversity didn’t bother him, he added, 'because the characters and storylines were so beautifully human, perfectly imperfect and flawed.' "
I'm not sure William Lichter (the geek) in Can't Hardly Wait was written with any level of empathy, whereas I see some glimmers in Anthony Michael Hall's geek in Sixteen Candles. See also: Joe Fox, as an example of how we can still feel empathy for flawed characters.
I know it's deeply personal and on some levels not fully understandable how we decide to deal with and/or rationalize our reactions to art like this, but it's worth trying to explain why and how we feel the way we do about these things. Rather than shutting it out, let's keep the conversations going as the world changes around us.
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures