By Eva Weisenfeld
When “Sixteen Candles” was released in 1984, it quickly became a smash hit, labelled as a classic. It was the first hit film directed by John Hughes, who’s movies sought to capture an era of teenage angst in the ’80s.
The film tells the story of Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) who wakes up on her sixteenth birthday to find it completely overshadowed by her sister’s wedding, scheduled to take place the next day. Samantha, a Sophomore, spends most of her time pining after Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), a popular senior, who has a seemingly perfect girlfriend named Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris). The high school power couple appears to have it all, as if they were already adult pillars and role models of their community.
Meanwhile, Samantha is an awkward teen wallflower, obsessing over her virginity and not living up to the standards of bodily perfection and popularity. To make matters worse, a nerdy freshman named Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) seems to be the only guy in school who notices her.
Though John Hughes’ other notable works, such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Weird Science contain offensive and outdated jokes, 36 years after it’s debut, it is evident that the film “Sixteen Candles” is the one that has aged the worst. The movie was created to be a rom-com that highlights the pop culture of that era. Though it does have its sweet moments, many of the jokes and nuances in the film that were deemed funny and relatable have not withstood the test of time.
Let’s first discuss the character Long Duk Dong, also known as “Donger,” played by Gedde Watanabe. Long Duk Dong is an Asian transfer student, who came to live with Samantha’s family, and bunks with her brother Mike Baker (Justin Henry). They never actually disclose his race at any point in the movie, though. Sadly, Hughes can’t seem to decide what race to make his character, so Long Duk Dong becomes a caricature of various East Asian stereotypes. To be fair, in the ‘80s, Asians were lumped into one culture and were considered interchangeable.
However, after seeing him in her brother’s room, Samantha tells her mother “there’s a very weird Chinese guy upstairs.” Not only that, but “Donger” is also commonly referred to as “Chinaman,” which is a derogatory term used to describe people of Chinese descent. Historically, the term was used to marginalize Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Okay. Maybe he’s Chinese then. But that does not excuse the fact that they unflinchingly use the term throughout the course of the film.
Additionally, Mr. Watanabe’s character is constantly introduced by the sound of a chiming gong, a traditional Chinese instrument, for comedic effect. However, the comedy is lost in the blatant racism that comes with it.
Of course, it’s impossible to have an Asian character without the classic “bad Asian driver” archetype. A lot of Long Duk Dong’s screen time is spent watching him crash Samantha’s grandparents’ car. At one point, he drives to the song “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors. And then, Dong, completely wasted, is seen in a tree wearing a kimono (a traditional Japanese article of clothing from the Heian period). He then jumps out of the tree shouting “bonsai” — an art form regarding trees planted in containers, which is associated with Japanese culture. It is also what Japanese people say when they drink. But wait? Wasn’t he supposed to be Chinese? So, Dong is first introduced as Chinese, but then has various aspects of Japanese culture tossed into his identity. However, based on his name, it is obvious his character is not Japanese because parts of his name are not in the Japanese alphabet.
Speaking of Donger’s name… Hughes takes any opportunity possible to poke fun at it. Now, anyone who has a foreign name can attest that having your name made fun of is a common experience. Perhaps portraying that on the big screen would help bring exposure to the issue, right? Maybe, but not in the case of “Sixteen Candles.” They simply used his name as a source for more laughs. For instance, Samantha’s brother, upon learning he would share a bunk bed with Dong, states, “I gotta sleep under some Chinaman named after a duck’s dork.” It almost seems like the purpose of naming Mr. Watanabe’s character “Long Duk Dong” was simply to make that joke, and others like it.
Finally, when Long Duk Dong accompanies Samantha to her high school’s dance, Dong finds himself a “new-style American girlfriend,” named Marlene (Debbie Pollack). Marlene, dubbed “lumberjack,” is tall and athletic. Hughes’ choice of partnering Dong with Marlene plays into the stereotype of Asian men being small and feminine, and therefore in need of a more masculine girlfriend.
Not only is the film overtly racist, but the dialogue between characters normalizes date rape. At one point, in conversation with Ted, Jake Ryan admits to having his girlfriend passed out drunk in his room. “I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to,” Ryan says. “What are you waiting for?” Ted responds.
Additionally, Jake Ryan trades his passed out girlfriend to Ted in exchange for Samantha’s underwear. “I’ll make a deal with you. Let me keep [Samantha’s underwear]. I’ll let you take Caroline home. But you gotta make sure she gets home. You can’t leave her in some parking lot somewhere, okay?” Ryan says. Ted responds by saying, “Jake, I’m only a freshman,” to which Ryan counters, “So? She’s so blitzed she won’t know the difference.” Ryan sets Ted and Caroline Mulford up in his father’s car (with beer, might I add), which, by the way, is a Rolls-Royce that would be worth over $66,000 today, according to Los Angeles Magazine. Mulford awakes from her drunken state for a brief moment. In that moment, Ryan convinces Mulford that Ted is him, and he is Ted, which she easily falls for. Ryan then says, “She’s totally gone. Have fun,” and with that, Ted and Mulford are off. Now, let’s unpack that exchange for a second. First of all, Ryan seems to show no emotions towards his long-time girlfriend and happily gives her to a freshman that he hardly even knows. Then, he tells Ted that it is okay if he’s the one who takes her home because she’s too drunk to know it’s not Ryan, as long as she gets home at some point. Then, when he says “She’s totally gone. Have fun,” he is essentially giving Ted permission to do whatever he wants.
Finally, at the end of the movie, both Ted and Mulford awake in Ryan’s dad’s car in the parking lot across from a church, with no recollection of what happened the night before. Ted asks her if she “enjoyed it,” and she says, “You know, I have this weird feeling that I did.” According to Molly Ringwald, in an article she wrote for The New Yorker, “She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought, because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.”
The casual manner in which they discuss non-consensual sex shows the culture of rape and sexual assault in the ‘80s. According to Vox Magazine, “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.” However, rape is now considered to be a sexual action, generally sexual intercourse, performed without consent, no matter who performed the act. The casualness of rape portrayed in “Sixteen Candles” is calloused and appalling.
Overall, “Sixteen Candles” is an effective film when it comes to transporting yourself into the ‘80s as a teenage girl, but viewers need to understand that the racism and misogyny in the film, which was socially acceptable then, is now disturbing and offensive. As Ms. Ringwald wrote in the article for The New Yorker referenced above, “Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—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.”
Featured image: PHOTO: Courtesy of @nostalgia.fever