When Sixteen Candles hit theaters in 1984, leads Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were vaguely familiar teen actors, but hardly movie stars, and National Lampoon writer-turned-filmmaker John Hughes was a complete unknown.
By the time their collective follow-up, The Breakfast Club, opened less than a year later, all three had become cinematic touchstones for an entire generation.
Amidst the mid-’80s sea of hard raunch teen sex comedies, writer-director John Hughes created something new in Samantha Baker, Sixteen Candles’ main character played, luminously and immortally, by Molly Ringwald.
Samantha is a recognizably human heroine adrift in the movie’s farce of wacky schemes and zany slapstick. The same goes for Anthony Michael Hall as Farmer Ted, the first movie nerd to exist as more than the butt of jokes (although there’s no dearth of those in Sixteen Candles, to be sure).
Sixteen Candles (1984): original theatrical trailer
The original wave of teenagers who saw Sixteen Candles embraced it as their own (they became Generation X, although nobody outside of Billy Idol’s original band was using that term). Since then, the film’s hilarious gags and, more importantly, its heart have translated repeatedly to new audiences who consistently fall in love with it.
That doesn’t mean everything about Sixteen Candles continues to carry over flawlessly, though.
Millennials, in particular, may find elements of Sixteen Candles perplexing, baffling, and—of course—“offensive.”
Here now, for the first generation most likely to watch Sixteen Candles on their cell phones, is our guide to aspects of the movie that may get you Tweeting whatever emojis have presently replaced “WTF?”
1. Before Facebook notifications, people could (and did) forget your birthday.
Once upon a time, longer and longer ago at this point, we didn’t all know each other’s business every minute of every day, every day of every week, and every everything of every everything else.
Sixteen Candles exists in this era and that place. It’s a trip.
2. Nerds were NOT cool.
Farmer Ted is not just uncool in Sixteen Candles, his character is alternately referred to as simply “The Geek”—and that was as nasty an insult as imaginable back in 1984 (Sixteen Candles beat the redemptive Revenge of the Nerds to theaters by several months; note that it pointedly wasn’t called “Revenge of the Geeks”).
Right or wrong, nerds were social pariahs and Sixteen Candles recognizes them as such.
The notion that science and/or science fiction—along with comic books, role-playing games, superhero stuff, and Star Wars—would in any way not get up wedgied, swirlied, and stuffed inside lockers was unimaginable. The idea of it ever being “cool,” let alone the defining component of all-around popular culture, could only have been described as insane.
Now we’re all living in The Big Bang Theory and CEOs decorate their penthouse offices with Ghostbusters Legos. What a world.
3. It was Anthony Michael Hall, in fact, who made nerds cool.
While Revenge of the Nerds, as mentioned, did much to alter the status of the dork set, Anthony Michael Hall actually set the change in motion first as Farmer Ted in Sixteen Candles and then as Brian Johnson in The Breakfast Club.
John Hughes himself explained Anthony Michael Hall’s brilliance thusly: “Every single kid who came in to read for the part did the whole, stereotyped high school nerd thing. You know— thick glasses, ball point pens in the pocket, white socks. But when Michael came in he played it straight, like a real human being. I knew right at that moment that I’d found my Geek.”
4. Passing notes in class was the original “texting.”
Indeed, sometimes it was even the original “sexting.” Much of Sam’s trouble—and, ultimately, her triumph—stems from a “Sex Quiz” that she fills out and attempts to slip to a friend in class. Alas, dreamboat Jake (Michael Schoeffler) intercepts the paperwork, and their rocky road to romance is afoot.
Today, teenagers text faster than they could possibly scribble anything on a page, so the modern pitfall would be sending a digital message to the wrong recipient who can then, with one click, literally alert the whole world.
“Destroying your life,” teen-style, was both easier and harder back in the ’80s.
5. Interracial dating was still unusual enough that it was called “interracial dating” (and not just, like it is now, “dating”).
When discussing Sam’s dream Sweet 16 gifts, Randy (Liane Curtis) proposes a gorgeous guy with a pink Trans Am.
“A black one,” Sam says.
“Black guy?!” Randy gasps
“No!” Sam answers with a laugh. “A black Trans Am; a pink guy!”
Circa 1984, white girls from upscale Chicago suburbs tended to not be romantically involved with people of other races. They may have even found the notion, frankly, giggle-worthy.
That’s just John Hughes calling ’em like he saw ’em.
6. Racial, ethnic, and cultural differences made people laugh—and not (necessarily) out of “hate.”
Gedde Watanabe as crackpot Asian exchange student Long Duk Dong is simply going to send even the hardest-hearted Millennial into spasms of hurt and outrage (by proxy, of course).
Yes, the character is a sex-crazed cartoon who speaks like an Asian stereotype. No, he would not “fly” today. And, yes, exaggerations of perceived racial, ethnic, and cultural traits were commonplace in American entertainment from before cinema even began, with each new succession of immigrants being satirized and lampooned—until they spoofed the next batch off the boat.
Obviously, society’s take on this practice has soured. Some have argued, though, that laughter over such differences used to perhaps help recognize the foibles and frailties that we all share in common.
Either way, Long Duk Dong is Long Duk Dong—as “problematic” as he Watanabe.
7. Everybody’s grandparents really did look like cartoon “old people.”
Often today, you’ll hear that sixty or even seventy is “the new forty.” Back in the ’80s, it was the exact opposite.
30 counted as “middle age” (imagine that, ye who are now in your late 20s!). People married and had kids younger, so often by 50 their kids had had kids—and the years wore on them harder.
Today’s elders benefit from healthier diets, more effective exercise, easy access to hip fashions, and the fact that everyone tends to live longer, and everyone extends their “youth” phases as far into “maturity” as is conceivable.
So when Sam’s grandparents come off as hyperbolic caricatures of the ancient, rest assured, “old” start way earlier back then—and everyone really looked the part.
8. Prior to camera phones, a premium existed on physical evidence.
“Pics or it didn’t happen” is a common Internet demand when someone makes an outrageous and/or impressive claim in public.
Sixteen Candles came out at a time when cameras were individual machines that required film and flashbulbs, after which the photos had to be chemically developed.
As a result, when Farmer Ted wants to “prove” that he acquired Sam’s undies, he charges a buck a head to ogle the actual garment in the boys’ bathroom. A mass gathering of awestruck dorks subsequently assembles.
9. All underpants were “granny panties”—or even lamer.
On the topic of that apparel: Sam’s polka-dot underwear is typical of the best of what young ladies had available in mid-’80s intimate apparel.
Bearing this in mind, the burbling virgins who moan at the sight of Farmer Ted exhibiting Sam’s skivvies had not so much as even caught a stitch of actual female underwear. Low-rise jeans and thong straps lay way in the future.
10. No, ’80s audiences did not find date rape “funny” or “cool.”
Much discomfort presently surrounds a (no pun intended) climactic point of Sixteen Candles in which hunky Jake essentially “gives” his passed out, prom-queen-type girlfriend Caroline (Havilland Morris) to Farmer Ted to drive home and do with her unconscious body what he will.
It’s a gross moment that neither can nor should be shrugged off as “just how things were back then.”
However, it’s important to note that Farmer Ted does not, in fact, take advantage of the impaired and inebriated Caroline. When she wakes up, she just thinks they both got loaded and got it on and had a great time.
11. Yes, ’80s audiences did think underage drinking was funny and cool.
Everyone who is getting trashed at the party at Jake’s house (and then, in turn, trashing Jake’s house) is under the legal drinking age. Sixteen Candles presents this bacchanal as not just as a fact of teenage life but as big, crazy, fun that, if you’re not in high school yet, is really a treat to which you can and should excitedly look forward.
Of course, high school students drank and took drugs back then, and they still do now. The difference these days is that media coverage and overall heightened awareness of the consequences of such behavior, much of it fatal and otherwise tragic, has dimmed this topic as one that can or should be presented lightly.
Still, there was nothing like an ’80s keg party when somebody’s parents went out of town. Now don’t drink and Instagram, kids.
12. Characters could drop F-Bombs (both kinds) in PG-rated movies.
Early on, Sixteen Candles announces that it’s going to be a different kind of teen movie, and that Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker is going to be a different kind of teen movie heroine, when, upon realizing the central element of the plot, she openly and out loud declares, “I can’t believe this! They f-cking forgot my birthday!”
Later on, casual usage of an “f”-fronted slur against homosexual men is used as a synonym for “not cool.” Millennials are sure to be quick to point out that that practice, in fact, is what’s not cool (and they are not wrong).
13. Characters could be naked in PG-rated movies.
Sixteen Candles did not exist in a vacuum. 1984 was still the fledgling days of home video, so bare bodies on the big screen still sold movie tickets. In fact, nudity proved so common at the time that it didn’t even warrant an R-rating (another ’84 PG release, Sheena with Tanya Roberts, practically qualifies as a skin flick).
The box office allure of undraped anatomies, then, explains the unflinching shower-room interlude during which Molly Ringwald and Liane Curtis jealously eyeball Havilland Morris—although the actual nay-nay bits belong to a body double.
14. Sixteen Candles actually did shock on one front: by having teens portray teens.
Beginning in the 1950s, when our modern notions of the “teenager” came to be, Hollywood has cast actors in their 20s and even 30s as high school students and, for decades, audiences accepted it.
It’s true even in the best-loved coming-of-age films, from American Graffiti to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and it’s so ridiculous in Grease that it becomes charming (consider, for instance, that Rizzo, portrayed by 34-year-old Stockard Channing, is supposed to be 17).
Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were both 15-years-old while shooting Sixteen Candles. The other kids in the cast were just that, too: kids. This jolt of reality proved revolutionary.
15. Justin Henry, who plays Sam’s kid brother Mike, did freak people out a bit.
In 1979, adorable, eight-year-old blonde moppet Justin Henry won audiences’ hearts and earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination via the acclaimed divorce drama, Kramer vs. Kramer. He played the sweet, precocious son at the heart of a custody battle between Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and seemed destined to grow into long-term stardom.
When Sixteen Candles viewers first put together that Samantha’s porky, mean-mouthed, proto-Eric-Cartman brother was, in fact, Justin Henry, cries rang out everywhere, “That’s the kid from Kramer vs. Kramer?! Yowza!”
A oddly similar minor mass wig-out occurred seven years later when audiences at Edward Scissorhands took notice of that film’s nasty, beefy bully and reacted: “That’s Anthony Michael Hall?! Yowza!”
16. Sixteen Candles reinvented teen entertainment, which reinvented teens, and it continues to exert a huge influence even now.
Sixteen Candles put a sweet and decidedly female-friendly spin on the 1980s’ teen sex comedy movie craze. Previously, the field was all hard raunch (Porky’s, The Last American Virgin). Occasional exceptions added deeper dimensions (Risky Business, Fast Times) but those, too, were made primarily for guys.
Sixteen Candles created from scratch a new frank, funny, relatable format for girls that everyone could identify with, laugh along to, and enjoy—regardless of age, gender, race, class, orientation, or [go ahead, Millennials, rattle off the rest].
As such, the positively prolific impact of this film extends into teen culture today—and tomorrow.