I was beyond excited when Netflix added "Sixteen Candles" to its list, but when I watched it again, it felt different from the many other times I’d seen it. I was unsettled by a lot of what the characters were saying, and I found many of the scenes to be problematic. I grew increasingly frustrated with the plot line, and worried about the kinds of messages that it conveyed. I spent a lot of time wondering why I hadn’t picked up on anything earlier. Why, after so many viewings, I had only just broken through its spell. Many of the scenes in this movie can be dangerous if not fully analyzed, which is why I think that it is important that we take a closer look at them. "Sixteen Candles" is highly regarded by many as one of the best 80s Rom-Coms, but it contains multiple themes of racism, sexism, ableism, and classism that, quite frankly, aren’t funny
1. When Mike is accused of hitting his younger sister.
This first scene might not seem like a big deal because many of us have experience with pesky younger siblings. It becomes a problem however when you begin to consider the real life cost of this joke. Laughing about abuse, regardless of the original intent of the perpetrator, takes away from the severity of the act. Imagine that Mike goes on to hit his sister when his father isn’t around, and she eventually stops telling anyone about it. That could indirectly affect the way she deals with physical violence in the future.
2. When Samantha and Randy talk about how she originally envisioned her sweet sixteen going.
In this next scene we see Randy’s face fall into instant panic mode when she thinks that Sam wants a Black Guy.
Randy: Just a pink Trans Am and the guy, right?
Samantha: A black one.
Randy: A black guy?
Samantha: A black Trans Am. A pink guy.
When Sam assures her that that’s not what she meant, you can see her character’s physical expression shift back to normal. Some may try to argue that this joke was made for a different time, but the ongoing conversations about race in America prove otherwise. I think that it serves as an example of the influence that media has over our lives.
3. When Farmer Ted first asks Samantha to go to the dance with him.
Farmer Ted used to be my guy. I used to find his character funny, but in this viewing I found him irritable rather than charming. On the bus, he continues to invade Sam’s personal space, even though it obviously makes her uncomfortable. When Sam turns down his dance proposal, he pushes further: “I mean, you don't have to dance. Maybe you could just stand there with me and my dudes and just be you,” or in other words, “this isn’t about you having fun Sam, this is all about how I look in front of my friends.” It becomes easy to see that underneath the illusion of his feeling for her, Ted has no real regard for Samantha.
4. When Farmer Ted walks up to Samantha on the dance floor.
After calling her "fully aged sophomore meat" and promising his friends that he'd sleep with her, Ted walks up to Samantha on the dance floor. She feels so uncomfortable in his presence that she starts crying and runs out of the gym. By now she has asked Ted to leave her alone on multiple occasions, and his blatant disregard for her comfort has left her feeling out of options. This is the kind of thing you feel when you're being stalked.
5. When Joan Cusack’s character is trying to drink water from a fountain.
I would really like for us all to take sometime here and really think about the purpose of this scene—or even think about the purpose of this character. Joan Cusack has no speaking parts in this film and is often used as the butt of a joke. Here she fills the usual helpless disabled person trope where we see her struggle to drink from the water fountain. This kind of portrayal exploits disabled bodies and provides us with false understanding.
6. When Farmer Ted finds Samantha in the auto shop room.
If you had reservations about calling Ted a stalker, think about this scene. Samantha runs away from the dance to be alone and—surprise. I was most frustrated by the fact that she eventually gives in to Ted’s persistence and opens up to him. What that says is: If you push someone hard enough, you’ll get what you want out of them. Because Ted listens to Samantha rant about how crappy her birthday is going, he ends up looking like a good guy, but his next action proves him to be the opposite. Having just gained her trust and compassion, Ted reveals his original intentions to Samantha. He then proposes a new idea for how she can help him without them actually getting physical with one another. He ends up talking her out of her underwear and later showing them to most of the boys in his class. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Farmer Ted, it’s that he is self interested and manipulative.
7. When Samantha practices what she’ll tell Jake when she sees him.
I only realized how wrong this scene was when I realized that Samantha had never actually talked to Jake before. She knew absolutely nothing about him except for the fact that he was popular. It seems unrealistic to me that she would be so in love with him that she would to anything to make her love him. The reason why it works in this movie is because popularity is held as an end-all be-all throughout this film. I would argue that Samantha’s self-esteem is reliant on her social position, and it’s why she feels like she has to give something of herself up in order to be loved by someone like Jake.
8. When Jake boasts about his easy access to women.
This was by far the most absolutely disgusting and terrifying part of the film. Ted tells Jake that if he wants to be with Samantha he’s going to have to treat her right.
Ted: I feel compelled to mention, Jake, if all you want is a piece of ass, I mean, I'll either do it myself, or get someone bigger than me, to kick your ass.
Jake: I can get a piece of ass anytime I want. Shit, I got Caroline in my bedroom right now, passed out cold. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.
Ted: What are you waiting for?
Jake: I don't know.
I don’t know why I had never paid attention to Jake’s statement before, but now I was completely repulsed by it. Date rape is not something that should ever be joked about, and these two characters spoke about it like it was nothing. The idea here was that since Caroline loved partying and was sexually active, it was okay to violate her body. It also reinforced the problematic idea that Samantha was be different than her, and that therefor would be treated better. This cop-out allows Jake to treat women like crap and remain relatively unscathed. It is a classic case of victim blaming disguised as a teen love story.
9. When Jake offers Ted a deal.
Jake has a sweet tradeoff offer for Ted. In exchange for Samantha’s underwear, he’ll allow Ted to drive Caroline home. “Jake, I'm only a freshman,” says Ted. “So, she's so blitzed, she won't know the difference,” says Jake. Once again, the women in this film are treated as nothing more than property. Jake lends Ted a car to take Caroline home in, although Ted has been drinking alcohol and doesn’t have a license. Caroline’s safety is in no one’s interest here.
10. When Caroline gives Ted a present.
Let's all remember that Ted was driving without a license and having consumed alcohol. When Caroline offered him a pill he took it willingly without knowledge of what it was. "Now we're both on the pill," said Caroline.
Ted: You gave me a birth control pill? You have any idea what that'll do to a guy my age?
Caroline: I know exactly what it'll do to a girl my age. It makes it okay to be super careless.
So many wrong things are happening here! First off, it is again obvious that masculinity is placed above femininity in this film. Would Ted have been more satisfied if Caroline had passed him ecstasy? What was he expecting? He was mad at her for passing him a contraceptive, when he really should've been mad at himself for putting both of them in danger. And that's not all, Caroline's statement was very misinformed. With the current politics surrounding women's health issues, it is especially crucial for us to understand the functions of contraception. It's easy to understand how these messages can be harmful when we hear politicians like Rick Santorum repeat them in the present.
11. When Ted gets his friends to photograph him and Caroline in the Rolls Royce.
Ted continues to prove to us here that his only concern is appearance. He wants everyone to know that he got together with Caroline even though, at this point, it isn’t true. Caroline is nothing but a prop that he uses to gain social status.
12. When Samantha’s mom asks Mike to apologize to his sister.
Samantha’s mom feels bad about forgetting her daughter’s birthday and is apologizing to her in the hallway. When Mike walks by and his mom makes him aware of the fact that they missed his sister’s birthday, he makes a witty remark and laughs it off. “Deep down, he's really sorry,” says his mom, after all, boys will be boys right? Wrong, Samantha was really hurt by her family forgetting her birthday, and her brother shouldn’t just get a pass. Everyone just wants to be acknowledged, and Mike’s inability to be have compassion has an effect on the people around him.
13. When Ted and Caroline wake up in the church’s parking lot.
When Ted and Caroline wake up the next morning neither one of them can recollect the night before. Ted has one immediate concern and hopes to get answers from Caroline.
Ted: Did we, uh...
Caroline: Yeah. I'm pretty sure.
Ted: Um, excuse me, but do you...Do you know if...Um, did I enjoy it?
The part that disturbed me the most about their exchange was that neither party dealt with the severity of the event that had taken place only hours before. Ted went about the conversation as if what they had done was a consensual act, and even worse, he was still portrayed as a good guy. When Caroline kissed him and decided that they were dating, it was like that moment when the underdog finally comes out on top. The lack of actual resolution in this scene is disheartening.
14. When Jake apologizes to Caroline.
This is another example of a crappy resolution. Serious problems are being glossed over left and right in this film. Jake apologizes to Caroline for getting her mixed up with Ted, and in turn she tells him that it’s fine because he “wasn't too terrible.” With this apology Jake appears to rid himself of all the damage he’s caused. He is still the good guy that we want to end up with Samantha. If only his apology was actually worth something in real life.
15. When Jenny gets married.
Getting married isn’t typically held as a light commitment, and it definitely isn’t one that should be made with an unclear mind. Jenny is severely medicated on her wedding day and is incapable of walking down the aisle. Her father basically has to carry her down to the alter. The running joke is that Jenny is on her period and has taken a few too many muscle relaxers to numb the pain. Although that is what the movie wants us to focus on, there is another piece to the puzzle that is rarely brought up. The relationship between Jenny and her fiancé doesn’t seem to be a healthy one, and many of her family members have made this clear. Jenny appears to be going through with this wedding because she feels like it is what she has to do. She tells Samantha in the beginning that she’s never had a man who’d been in love with her for six months straight, and perhaps she feels that this is her only chance at it.
16. When Sam and Jake end up together.
I was frustrated by this ending because I don’t think that Jake is a good guy, and also because I realized that this was the first time either of them had spoken to each other. There were so many disconnects in this movie, and the relationship between Samantha and Jake that was established at the end was one of them. It took one simple act for Jake to sweep Samantha off of her feet, and it makes me realize how manipulated her character is all throughout the film.
I have found the portrayal of the male and female characters in Sixteen Candles to be neither romantic nor comical. I can’t help but notice, however, how similar the themes displayed are to some of our most prevalent issues today.