Teen films emerged in the late 1940’s, and by the 1950’s constituted a full-fledged genre and niche market. Most film critics agree that the genre’s “golden age” was the 1980s and John Hughes was its king. As a writer and director, his teen films “redefined” the genre (Roger Ebert) and have become memorialized as “symbolic” of the era (Oscar tribute). Hughes, the story goes, took the anxieties and emotions of (most often white, middle-class, suburban) teenage life seriously. In fact, Hughes made only six teen films. Sixteen Candles and Weird Science are fairly run-of-the-mill comedies, while Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an aggressively cutesy ode to bourgeois, male entitlement and Some Kind of Wonderful is basically a gender reversed do-over of Pretty in Pink (which turns out to be pretty creepy). This means that Hughes’ legacy really rests on two, unusually intelligent films about the high school caste system; The Breakfast Club from 1985, and Pretty in Pink from 1986. Breakfast Club is arguably the better of these two films, but I always preferred Pretty in Pink.
When I was doing research for my dissertation on shopgirl films I noticed a lot of similarities between PIP and the older movies I was studying. So I decided to dig deeper. Among other things, I scoured fan-sites and solicited audience memories from online survey to try to understand what drew so many young (mostly) women to what is in many ways a generic teen romance. Now, in honor of Pretty in Pink’s 30th anniversary, I’m dusting off some that research and sharing it with you.
The first thing I discovered was that for many viewers the plot of the film was beside the point. Except for the ongoing debate about the ending (should Andie have chosen Duckie instead of Blane, why did she turn a “perfectly lovely vintage dress” into a “monstrosity”, “trash bag”, “bag of doom”), discussion of the story is
minimal. The appeal of the movie has more to do with the character of Andie Walsh/Molly Ringwald and her stuff. Respondents to my survey remembered Andie as quirky, magnetic, unwaveringly confident and self-aware.
“Molly Ringwald was an icon for me…but mainly in terms of style. It wasn’t like that “I want to be her best friend” thing, it was “I’m pretty sure I could be her if I applied myself”.”
“I was captivated by Molly Ringwald’s character, as a young girl who takes care of her father, makes all her unique clothes, works at a record store, and ends up getting the guy everyone wants for just being herself”
But most importantly, Andie, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, has really cool stuff.
“There’s a moment where you see all of her costume jewelry that I found absolutely breathtaking. And the Karmann Ghia. I wanted all her stuff.”
“The opening scene was like a teenage girls wet dream, the perfectly messy room with all the cool stuff, the make-up, the song. Sigh.”
In an era when fashion and status became increasingly linked to brand names, and when cable TV and VCRs began to (it was supposed) fragment, de-center, and multiply the possible ways to access and experience media images, Pretty in Pink, like many teen movies, is really about authenticity. But unlike most movies aimed at girls, this is not makeover story. Molly Ringwald’s character doesn’t really change. And while she may not be realistic, she is, from beginning to end, authentic. That is, her character presents a fantasy of adolescent authenticity and self-hood that rings true. And she expresses this, not by buying it ready-made and mass-produced, but through her unique, infallible inner-compass. Andie has two things more precious to Americans than an “American Express Platinum” card. She has taste combined with some intangible quality that renders her as irresistible to young female audiences as she is to her trio of onscreen devotees. When Blane asks Steff, “You really don’t think she’s got something?” And Steff drawls back, “No. I really don’t,” we know he’s lying.
In the 1920’s, this “something” was called “it.” The term was popularized by the 1927 film,“It,” starring Clara Bow, the original “It girl.” There are too many parallels between “It”and Pretty in Pink to list them all here. While some of these could be chalked up to the generic Cinderella plot, others are specific enough to suggest a degree of self-consciousness in the later film. The most striking is the resemblance between Clara Bow, who was famous for her bobbed red-hair, and Ringwald’s styling.
As I stated, prior to the late 1940’s, there was no such thing as a “teen movie.” Instead, the audience that the film industry and marketers courted, that critics patronized, and social commentators fretted over, were referred to collectively as “the little shopgirls.” The Clara Bow vehicle, “It,” was one of hundreds of movies to cash-in on the shopgirls’ unique position as both a desiring subjects and desirable objects. Despite being one of the top-grossing films of the year, reviewers concurred that there was nothing extraordinary about the film except its star. In “It,” Bow plays Betty Lou Spence, a street-smart shopgirl who sets her sights on the handsome owner of the department store in which she works. Despite a series of misunderstandings, Betty Lou’s charm and creative self-fashioning enable her get her man and gain access to “the other side of the counter,” the world of leisured consumption.
By 1927, the shopgirl had become both a staple of film narratives and the idealized consumer spectator. Studios churned out dozens of these pictures every year. During this period, the shopgirl type was also widely used as shorthand for the unconscious, standardized filmgoer by critics, journalists and other social commentators. She was also the paradigmatic “modern” (urban, independent, street smart, upwardly mobile) girl, signifying the infinite potential of “democratic” mass fashion to incorporate marginalized peoples into the perpetually aspirational dream state known as Middle-Class America.
Frankfurt School theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, was one of many writers concerned with the contradictions of mass culture and their effects on the “little shopgirls” who fueled it. For Kracauer, the shopgirl, with all the qualities outlined above, embodied the new mass of low-wage white-collar employees occupying a paradoxical class position. Ideologically, they aligned themselves with the bourgeoisie, even though materially (and spiritually) they were most often worse off than the proletarian worker imagined as “below” them. In Kracauer’s analysis, they kept themselves permanently in this position precisely by denying that it is a permanent position, or a social location from which to claim an identity. By maintaining arbitrary distinctions both between each other (salesgirls who disassociate from other salesgirls who wear make-up, typists from punch-card girls, etc) and between other working classes they remain ignorant of structural causes for their situation, and cling to petit-bourgeois ideals.
Kracauer was especially interested the relationship between the working masses and mass entertainments such as film. In his 1927 essay, “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” he wrote, “The films made for the lower classes are even more bourgeois than those aimed at the finer audiences, precisely because they hint at subversive points of view without exploring them” (291). So the little shopgirls remained in a perpetual “dream state,” too focused on what they might become to see what they actually were.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shopgirl figure faded from popular imagination at the same time that the teenager emerged. “The American Teenager” was a concept that helped us to imagine that the problems of growing up were universal, one’s race, class, gender, sexuality were just details of plot, the central themes were the same. The anxieties surrounding the teens only made them more ideally suited to the necessities of mass consumption, both as commodities and consumers eager to “fit in.” The image of the teenager carried with it all the seductiveness and anxiety of the shopgirl, without the messy subtext of exploitative female labor and structural inequality.
However, it’s important to remember that the category “teenager” did not merely designate an individual between the ages of 13 and 19, nor was it a neutral synonym for adolescence or youth. It emerged in response to several, overlapping social and economic upheavals in the middle of the 20th century. As many scholars have pointed out, the adolescent became the teenager only when high schools became widely populated by poor people, immigrants and people of color. So-called “teen” issues are inherently class, race, gender and labor issues disguised as individuation tales. Further, as the nation moved from a primarily urban/rural geography to a landscape dominated by suburban housing developments and shopping centers, and the service industry struggled to break down the success of unions, and skirt new laws designed to protect “the little shopgirls,” “teenagers” provided a whole new category of “flexible”, “temporary” part-time labor.
In Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald is the perfect hybrid of teenager and shopgirl. Just as in “It” Clara Bow had to support an ailing friend and her fatherless child, Ringwald’s character takes care of her under-employed, depressed father. She attends an affluent high school where rich girls make fun of her and rich boys try to seduce her. After school she works in a record store – the site of her first flirtations with Andrew McCarthy. The 1980s saw the first generation of teens with no “guarantee” of a brighter future than their parents. Especially for working classes, the myth of the teenager was already breaking down. However, by that time, investment in the idea was too seductive to let go. Mass capitalism needed a steady flow of anxious, leisured, transitional consumers, while the service economy needed workers who were looking for “experience” rather than a means of sustaining their lives.
When “reality” breaks down, the “dream” needs to be twice as strong. Pretty in Pinkprovides just enough “realism” to appear authentic – especially in its portrayal of working class masculinity. Harry Dean Stanton as a man dependent on his daughter, drinking beer in the yard in the middle of the day, or Jon Cryer’s Duckie, who Ringwald accuses of failing on purpose so he won’t have to leave high school, both speak to the dwindling of options for working class men in America that followed in the wake “Reaganomics.” But, like Clara Bow, Molly Ringwald embodies the fantasy, the dream of upward mobility based, not on wealth or opportunity, but on having “It”.
The Clara Bow film describes ‘It’ as “that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘It’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.” In other words, recognition rests on having some vague inner magnetism called “It,” but someone with “It” must also be unselfconscious of possessing “It.” Following the film’s logic, the rewards that come to Betty Lou in the film are her natural due. Yet, nothing comes naturally to Betty Lou. Every event in the film is motivated and manipulated by her. She twists even the most degrading situations to her favor, forcing those around her not only to recognize her as an individual, but to do so on terms she demands. In the end, as in most shopgirl movies, Betty Lou marries the owner of the store. He learns how to be a more responsible, empathetic capitalist and because her achievement is becoming a leisured consumer, though she is no longer a shopgirl herself, she has only strengthened the position of the shopgirl in general.
Pretty in Pink’s scenario is similar in most respects. The key difference is that Ringwald’s character, though confident and self-aware doesn’t actually get to make many decisions or have nearly as much fun. Where Bow acts, Ringwald reacts. When Betty Lou takes her boss to Coney Island or cuts her work dress into a makeshift evening gown in order to pass at The Ritz, she does it with a sense of playful mischief. When Andie takes Blane to a punk club or cuts her vintage prom dresses up to make a “unique” new ensemble, she is defiant, even a little vengeful. Like the opening scene, rather than playing with possible identities, she is putting on the armor she needs to face a world of limited possibilities. It’s appropriate that she does this with vintage clothes and costume jewelry because the movie itself is an exercise in nostalgia for a time when optimism and agency within the constraints of consumer capitalism might have seemed like a plausible stance. Ironically the movie creates the ultimate teen fantasy of authenticity – or at least the potential for authenticity – essentially by re-fashioning a genre from a time before teenagers existed. By fusing teenager and shopgirl, realism with nostalgic sentiment Hughes, “re-invents” the teen melodrama. But rather than de-stabilize the myth of the teenager, by ostensibly daring to show the “truth” of teenage life, he strengthens popular belief in the foundational reality of the teenager.
Hughes is continually lauded for showing teens with complex emotional lives, whose concerns over what to wear to prom were interwoven with weighty issues of love, loyalty, family obligations, and prejudice, of class inequity and a future without guarantees. And I actually think this is true. However, I think his films get the equation backwards. We are told that they feel this way because they are teenagers – they’ll grow out of it. Eventually. Though it might be more accurate to say that they are teenagers because the set of emotions, problems and social rituals have been designated as such, there is no comfort in that logic. Much better to maintain a fantasy world in which institutions can be graduated out of, and in which social inequality can be overcome by kissing in front of a BMW. This is the charm, I think, of Pretty in Pink; its unabashed nostalgia for an earlier era of melodramatic cinema.
And, as scholars of early “women’s pictures” often found, the most interesting meaning in the film comes not from the script or any cinematographic element, but from audiences. I’m sure many of you know that the film originally ended with Andie and Duckie walking into prom together and dancing alone to “If you leave.” Test audiences supposedly hated this, and the finale was re-shot. In my surveys, one of the most common responses was of dissatisfaction with the end. But I think the weak ending gives the film more life than it otherwise would have had. When Duckie is left alone after telling Andie to go to Blane, a blandly pretty blond vision in taffeta beckons to him. Before going to dance with her, he breaks the fourth wall and shrugs at the “audience” – acknowledging the improbability of it all while creating at least a little bit of a crack in the tightly bound façade of the teenage myth. But this flash of self-consciousness can also be read as merely hedging and is less interesting than what audiences have done with it. You can go right now and buy a t-shirt that says, “I would have picked Duckie.” The murky, tacked on reconciliation creates an opening in the text, an opening that invites the spectator to participate in the fate of the characters, and to engage in a kind of conversation with that original test audience.
Ultimately though, as I mentioned earlier, viewers seemed to identify most intensely with Andie’s things. In Pretty in Pink: the golden age of teenage movies, Jonathan Bernstein (no relation) writes that, in an era known for celebrating unfettered ambition and excess, Hughes’ movies were surprisingly “anti-consumerist” – I guess because the rich guys were the villains. I disagree. The story does celebrate a kind of authenticity over “shallow” displays of wealth, but that authenticity is always expressed through fashion, things, and a person’s ability to sort through the cast-offs of mass production and put together a “volcanic ensemble” – a perspective that is, by definition, consumerist. Like the shopgirl movies of the 20’s and 30’s, Pretty in Pink, in effect encourages working-class and teenage girls to stay where they are, and dream about what they might become. The trouble is that that becoming can never actually occur. Another recurring sentiment expressed in my surveys was a sense that the movie was somehow too “adult” – it depicted a world that was out of reach, but just because we’re not old enough yet…
“The Duckie singing scene always struck me as oddly fascinating, what 17 yr old is listening to soul music? And how are they getting into punk clubs? It was all so adult!”
“Someday I’ll have a pink Karmann Ghia and work at a cool record store and go to punk clubs with a boyfriend who wears linen suits. I’m 36 and still waiting…”
The teenager is constructed as a natural phase in our lives when our identities are uncertain, our emotions – good and bad – are heightened, but, if done correctly, the institution of High School can keep the stakes low – grades, dates, clothes, etc… And believing this narrative means that for “adults” High School is a permanent repository for nostalgia (positive and negative). By temporarily re-positioning Andie Walsh, iconic teen as Andie Walsh, shopgirl, we can better see that, in fact the stakes for young people are just as high and just as complicated as they are for people who have graduated out of this particular identity category. What we desire to be a site for playful experimentation is really a much more tightly circumscribed social location, with fewer options from which to fashion subjectivity. Perhaps the best thing that we can learn from the films of John Hughes is not to take teenagers more seriously, but to relinquish our investment in and our desire for what teens represent in order to create more possibilities for what teenagers (and adults) can be.
 Being marked as low-class while dining at The Ritz, mistaken for an unwed mother, offered a “left hand arrangement” by her boss, losing her job, falling off a yacht, etc.
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