In 897, the corpse of Pope Formosus was dug up and put on trial for perjury. Stephen VI, the reigning pope, posed tough questions to his dead predecessor. Unwilling or unable to offer a defense, the dead man was duly convicted in what is today known as the Cadaver Synod. “The Cadaver Synod is generally presumed to have been politically motivated,” notes Wikipedia dryly. Naturally this leads me to Molly Ringwald.
Pope Ringwald has exhumed the corpse of the movie The Breakfast Club and put it on trial, asking it questions it can’t answer. This seems a bit pointless because today’s teens aren’t watching it. It exists only in the memory of Generation X, those of us who were teens when it came out, and if my case is any indication some of us watched only because a) It was always on TV and b) There weren’t that many reality-based teen movies. In terms of cultural relevance, the movie isn’t quite Pope Formosus, but it’s close.
Ringwald, like Monica Lewinsky, is capitalizing on the cultural salience of the #MeToo movement to write about topics that have nothing to do with it. The New Yorker is promoting Ringwald’s reflections on her 1980s John Hughes films (including Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink) with the Web headline, “Molly Ringwald Revisits ‘The Breakfast Club’ in the Age of #MeToo.” Tantalizing, but you will find to your relief that Ringwald’s piece is not another chapter in that saga. #MeToo is about sexual mistreatment of actual women, not risqué themes dreamed up by screenwriters that sometimes involved questionable treatment of fictional characters in pursuit of selling tickets to horny teens. Nor is #MeToo about ethnic stereotypes in comedy, another subject of concern to Ringwald.
Ringwald’s essay is suffused with a sense of sorrow and rebuke, competing with a sheepish suspicion that she is being a tad ungrateful for what Hughes did for her. The National Lampoon writer-turned-filmmaker, who died in 2009 and can no more defend himself than Pope Formosus can, plucked her headshot out of a stack of photos and began inventing scenarios for the girl he imagined her to be. Without Hughes, there would be no Ringwald. Ringwald’s scolding of him is a bit hard to justify: She explains how she feared it would cause distress to her daughter, with whom she viewed The Breakfast Club recently, to watch the scene in which Bender (Judd Nelson) crawls under the desk and peeks up the skirt of Ringwald’s character, Claire. It is implied that he touches her inappropriately. This scene didn’t involve any exploitation of Ringwald, because an adult body double filmed it. Ringwald’s daughter isn’t bothered by it. It’s the sort of thing directors have randy teens do in larkish high-school comedies because kids watching know they can’t actually get away with it in school. Yet Ringwald is determined to make a thing of it.
Dropping the name Harvey Weinstein like a smoke bomb, to ensure maximum confusion and panic, she writes, “If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.” There is question-begging in both the dependent clause and the independent clause of that sentence. Consider how vacuous the same argument has come to look when it comes to violence instead of sex: We have shootings in reality because there are shootings in video games and movies. What Ringwald seizes upon as Exhibit A in “female subjugation” looks more like a throwaway sex joke, and anyway, just as shootings have sharply declined over the last generation, so have rates of rape and sexual assault.
‘Systemic female subjugation’ is a much more politically enticing concept to write about than ‘don’t drink too much.’
When Pope Ringwald calls another witness to the stand to testify against Hughes, the effort fails spectacularly. She rings up actress Haviland Morris, who played a girl who has a drunken sexual encounter in Hughes’s Sixteen Candles. (Again, we’re talking about what Hughes imagined, not what he did. At no point does Ringwald accuse the director of inappropriate behavior.) But Morris rejects Ringwald’s line of questioning and declines to see her character as entirely a passive victim of circumstance. Morris says, “I’m not going to black-and-white it. It isn’t a one-way street,” insisting that her character bears some responsibility for what happens to her because she gets so drunk at a party.
This causes Ringwald to reflect that she herself almost had a regrettable sexual encounter while blotto, in her twenties. Yet she declines to notice either that a) that aspect of Sixteen Candles was therefore fairly true to life or b) the obvious lesson for young ladies is not to drink themselves into a stupor. “Systemic female subjugation” is a much more politically enticing concept to write about than “don’t drink too much.” Ringwald then trawls through Hughes’s 1970s stories in National Lampoon searching for new ammunition for character assassination, but discovers merely that National Lampoon in the 1970s was full of dumb sex jokes. Ringwald thereby exposes herself as the only person alive in the 1970s who did not already know this.
The most revealing detail in Ringwald’s essay is this throwaway line, a seeming non sequitur wedged between two thoughts about the supposed inappropriateness of Hughes’ scenarios: “I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.” Hang on, is this somehow Hughes’s fault for creating the verbally abusive Bender and having Claire fall for him? Or was it another instance of Hughes making his characters behave plausibly? It’s a good thing Ringwald was never cast in Thelma and Louise or she might have driven her car off a cliff.