We’ve been inflicting the pop culture touchstones of our teenage and young adult years on the boys, making sure they have a cultural appreciation of the literary and film influences that helped shape Generation X.
We were doing quite well for a while. The Princess Bride more than withstands the test of time, and Rent was well received. We’re all ecstatic that most of Monty Python’s oeuvre will soon be coming to Canadian Netflix (though eek, I did not remember The Meaning of Life being quite so, um, graphic!) It’s little surprise that since they liked Monty Python, they appreciated my reading of both the full Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (all five parts) and Good Omens by Pratchett and Gaiman. The music from LadyHawke was nearly unbearable, but the story is still sweet and enjoyable. I was delighted to find out that one of the boys added the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack to his Spotify playlists, and the Matrix was better in 2018 than I remember it being in 1999.
On the other hand, not everything passes the filter of a modern sensibility. We started reading Stephen King’s Christine recently, as I have been a King fan my whole life. After a few chapters, though, we gave up. There’s something distasteful in the narrator’s descriptions of the characters that feels not only anachronistic but misanthropic as well, and we just couldn’t get past it. Some of the character descriptions felt like they were pulled out the comment sections of any modern media article – full of othering and judgementalness.
While I remember most 80s movies for young people as being crass and crude (everything from National Lampoon’s franchise to Porky’s and Risky Business) I was deeply dismayed to find on rewatching that many of John Hughes’ movies could be sexist, ageist, racist and homophobic. I adored John Hughes growing up; he wrote what I thought were honest, true depictions of the teenage experience. I could, and have, waxed rhapsodic about the power of The Breakfast Club, how its angst felt like the voice of my generation, and I expected it to resonate equally with the boys. Instead, watching it with them about a decade after the last time I viewed it, I was devastated by the homophobic language, by the idea that the quirky girl has to have a makeover to become “normal” in order to be accepted, by the fact that a boy can be cruel and abusive and still get the girl in the end. Sixteen Candles was even worse – by far. How to reconcile these viewpoints? Can I still profess to love these books and movies when I can see so many troubling themes that I would not endorse or embrace in the woke world of 2018?
I had this blog post half written when I came across this article written by Molly Ringwald in The New Yorker about her concerns about these exact things. How do we reconcile our love for these movies when they are so desperately anachronistic, so out of step with modern perspectives and sentiments? In the article, Ringwald poses the very questions that I’m grappling with: “How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? […] Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to artâ€”change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.”
In the article, Ringwald references an interview she did with John Hughes before he died.
In the interview, I asked him if he thought teen-agers were looked at differently than when he was that age. â€œDefinitely,â€ he said. â€œMy generation had to be taken seriously because we were stopping things and burning things. We were able to initiate change, because we had such vast numbers. We were part of the Baby Boom, and when we moved, everything moved with us. But now, there are fewer teens, and they arenâ€™t taken as seriously as we were. You make a teen-age movie, and critics say, â€˜How dare you?â€™ Thereâ€™s just a general lack of respect for young people now.â€
And that made me think of the incredibly brave, ballsy, clever kids in Parkland, FL, and how they have been leading an unprecedented and delightfully subversive charge against the NRA in particular and the Trump administration in general. It’s an almost vertiginous sweep, the distance we’ve come in just a generation or two, and stunning how different the world is now. But aren’t the themes John Hughes so beautifully illustrated – of belonging, of searching for meaning, of trying to fit in and stand out and find your place in the world – still universal?
In the end, Ringwald was able to balance her affection for Hughes and her contribution to the movies with her modern perspective:
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. I think that itâ€™s ultimately the greatest value of the films, and why I hope they will endure. The conversations about them will change, and they should. Itâ€™s up to the following generations to figure out how to continue those conversations and make them their ownâ€”to keep talking, in schools, in activism and artâ€”and trust that we care.
What do you think? How do you reconcile a modern reading of classic movies or literature, when some themes are universal but others are so deeply anachronistic that you can barely bear to watch them, let alone embrace them? From Holden Caufield to the Honeymooners, there are no shortages of cultural touchstones who could never survive a modern filter. Is it enough to say, “they are a product of their times. It’s different now,” as I’ve said to the boys? Does it even bother you?