The Changing Times: Sexism in 80s Movies

By Anvi Joshi (‘21)


Photo courtesy of Wix

America in the 1980s was the mark of a changing culture, full of bold fashion choices, powerful social movements, and brilliant works of art, literature, and film. However, recent controversy has risen concerning popular films, from Back to the Future to Grease.


Many think now is the time to look a little closer at the beloved classics our parents generation grew up with.


Molly Ringwald, the star of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and other noteworthy films recently addressed this in an op-ed New Yorker article.


She stated in reference to her role in The Breakfast Club, “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… lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.”


Director John Hughes and his movies made Ringwald a household name. However, the actress still realized the problematic nature of some scenes. Ringwald felt uncomfortable with certain scenarios her character was put in during the film.


For example, while the bad-boy character in the movie was hiding from a teacher, he slips under the table where Ringwald’s character is. During this tense but humorous scene, it is inferred by the audience that the boy inappropriately touches Ringwald.


Especially in this #MeToo era, this scene is a bit discomfiting.


In addition to references to sex, and a scene in which the gang sneaks weed into the library, there are many things in the movie that would be frowned upon now. And yet, it is still hailed as a classic.


Sophomore Alexandria Bayes said, “Some people don’t focus on [negatives], rather they focus on the storyline, and the character development, and the settings… Sometimes people overlook the bad stuff and focus on what’s good. [But] when you don’t recognize these things, you forget that they exist today, and when you forget they exist today, you can’t really change things.”


In Grease, released in 1978, good girl Sandy falls in love with a troublemaker named Danny during the summer, and they unexpectedly meet again in their high school. From two very different social cliques, they must navigate their romance while dealing with social pressures from both sides. However, the conclusion to the movie ends with Sandy giving up her respectable persona donning leather to, in many opinions, to please Danny.


Not only does this undermine the message that a women does not need a man to be happy or successful, arguably promoting misogyny, it also changes the view most schools and parents try to give teens; that you should stay true to yourself.


Along with much loved teen and drama genres, sci-fi in the 80s had its share of questionable scenes.


Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future addressed coarse or dangerous topics like how “George is a peeping tom who spies on Lorraine undressing; Libyan terrorists shoot the Doc for stealing plutonium they wanted to make into a bomb. The DVD extras show a deleted scene of Doc unpacking a suitcase of essentials he would have taken with him to the future: spare underwear, various types of cash, a hairdryer, and a copy of Playboy” according to Catherine Shoard of The Guardian.


Though many kids at the time would not have understood the movie’s implications, looking back, Back to the Future might not have deserved the PG rating it has today. While the PG-13 rating did not exist until 1984, Back to the Future was made a year afterwards. Despite its occasional scandal, the movie addressed important topics, and held a progressive view on many issues that still plague society.


Mr. Peter Honig, an English teacher said in reference to undertones in 80s media that “I definitely do [notice them] now. I don’t think I did growing up. And that’s part of what’s interesting about this sort of reevaluating of our culture…a lot of it is in the context. If you’re watching a movie that’s a comedy and it’s being presented as something funny, it’s easy to just passively accept that and not really think critically about it, especially if you’re younger. Certainly, when I was growing up where we didn’t have this type of public conversation about consent. It normalizes it.”


Often, what people watch is dismissed as implausible or irrelevant to real life, and therefore the true underlying meanings of cinema are missed. Sexist scenes, questionable morals, and expletives are skipped over by children and parents alike as the content is attributed to being “normal”, especially for an era like the 80s.


Scenes, situations, and stereotypes in a romance or drama movie could be mistaken for harmless, though they could fit the description of rape or sexual assault.


Sixteen Candles also reinforced harmful stereotypes introduced in the movie Revenge of the Nerds, which celebrated geeks getting back at those more popular than them, the cruel high school jock and prom queen stereotypes, by implementing cameras in the girls dorms, stealing their underwear, and even tricking one girl into having sex according to IMDb.


The worst part is that the viewer is supposed to root for these boys, as they do not embody the same behavior as the jock stereotype, and are the underdogs of the film. However, the movie and the boys’ behavior highlights the fact that sexism can come in many different forms, and from many different types of people.


Sixteen Candles own nerd stereotype, Ted, and Samantha’s love interest, Jake Ryan, the supposed “perfect guy”, engage in, or as accessories to sexual assault.


According to a Vox article, “In the 1980s, ‘rape’ meant an attack from a stranger in a dark alley, not something that acquaintances did to each other at house parties where everyone knows each other…In 1984, you could be a perfect dream boy and also be an accessory to date rape. They were not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, they reinforced each other. In Sixteen Candles, Caroline’s rape is presented as her fault — and as funny. In the moral universe of Sixteen Candles, Jake is allowed to be callous to Caroline without losing his dream boy status because, Sixteen Candles briskly assures us, Caroline is not the right kind of girl.”


In 2018, people know better than that. America has learned over the years that blaming the victim is wrong, but in the 80s, and especially Sixteen Candles, it was easy and expected to look to the type of women the victim was, rather than what had happened to her.


Jake’s callous words, “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to” and his handling of the unconscious Caroline to Ted so Ted could drive he home and take pictures with her, no longer convey to this generation his dreamlike qualities.


Some people have begun to call out about the retiring of such films. However, others say it is important to remember the meaning behind their media.


Sophomore Abitha Viswanathan says “It’s the 80s. Can you go back in time and tell them no? The only thing you can do is make sure it’s better in the future… It happened, you can’t change that. The important thing is we learn from it. If we censored everything, we would not learn from anything.”


Can we erase entire sections of our history books? Can we pretend parts of our lives never happened?


The answer is, simply, that we cannot. Not because we are trying to glorify all the terrible things, but learn from them. Not because we are trying to ignore the bad, but rather see how we can improve. We cannot really understand how to progress, how we have progressed, without looking at where we were before, and maybe appreciating the good, too.


As Molly Ringwald said in her original piece, “John wanted people to take teens seriously, and people did. The films are still taught in schools because good teachers want their students to know that what they feel and say is important; that if they talk, adults and peers will listen.”


Whether or not the sexism in 80s media was prevalent enough to make an impact on mindsets, culture, and life, one thing it did impact was the way kids and teenagers were viewed, and that’s something we’re still seeing, thankfully, decades later.

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