Oh, John Hughes, how you’ve mastered the art of teen angst. Over the years, we’ve grown to love the ingredients mixed into his trademark high school rom-coms: a student body population strictly divided into exclusive cliques (verifying that yes, high school does in fact suck), annoying family members (so we have reason to wage war against the home front) and unlikely romances that rise above class lines (because what’s more teenage than rebelling against the very fabric of society?). It’s chicken soup for the weird kid’s soul — what more could you want?
… Actually, quite a bit. Rewatching “Sixteen Candles” made me realize just how worrisome its portrayals of Asian characters and sexual consent are. With “Sixteen Candles” recently added to Netflix and screening at the Michigan Theater Oct. 14, fans of the movie should watch it through a modern lens.
In his recent Emmys acceptance speech, “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang said, “There are 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there are 17 million Italian Americans. They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘The Sopranos’ … we got Long Duk Dong. We have a long way to go.” The Long Duk Dong he is referring to is the foreign exchange student who visits Sam’s family in “Sixteen Candles,” a character who quickly devolves into a parody of how Westerners view Asian males. A gong chimes every time Dong’s name is mentioned, and even his name itself is clearly structured for mockery. His own language is used against him to degrade his masculinity. He’s animalistic and sexually wayward, confirmed by his kinky sexcapades with Marlene. Dong isn’t just the archetypical Weird Character who bears the brunt of every joke. All his oddities are sourced specifically from his race, so it is Asian-ness alone that becomes the joke.
It’s the ’80s. What do you expect?
Later, Jake Ryan and nerdy Ted form an unlikely bond, and it’s nerdy, inexperienced Ted who gives the popular jock advice about how to win Sam’s heart. Jake says he’d rather be with Sam, saying of his current girlfriend, “She’s so drunk, I could probably violate her in ten different ways.” Ted seems surprised. “Why don’t you?” he asks.
It’s more than a throwaway line. Jake takes Ted under his wing, suggesting that since he’s going after the girl Ted wanted, Ted can “have” his girlfriend. The boys proceed to spend almost four whole minutes of screen time planning, explaining and executing the girlfriend switcheroo, during which the girl’s head lolls around unconscious and she clearly cannot tell the difference between the two boys. Later, Ted takes photos of him with his arm around her in the car to brag to his friends — concrete proof needed because he knows there’s no chance of recreating this coupling once the girl is sober.
Later, she wakes up drowsily, and when asked if she enjoyed it, she says, “You know what? I think I did.” She clearly did not remember what happened, but the unrealistic line written for her forces retroactive consent. Of course, this ties the date rape sequence into a neat little bow and apparently makes it all okay.
It’s the ’80s. What do you expect?
If “Sixteen Candles” came out now, its plot points would suffer the wrath of social media frenzy. It’s true: it was the ’80s. A different cultural era, with different cultural standards for what is OK and what isn’t. But as modern-day viewers, we can’t write off problematic portrayals as artifacts of the past, because they contributed to the thought patterns of today. We should exercise our lens as modern viewers and acknowledge that these issues are present and have detrimental effects.
That doesn’t necessarily mean boycotting “Sixteen Candles.” After all, there’s a lot in it to love. But it does mean we should view it with a critical eye. Maybe, despite racist and sexist character portrayals, John Hughes still is a legend. Maybe he isn’t. That’s for each of us to decide.