Feb 25, 2016
Pretty in Pink at 30: Return to the Wrong Side of the Tracks
The moment before the first kiss is the apex of every teen drama. It’s those quiet milliseconds that send your stomach into momentary free-fall, the scene that sets the tone for what’s to come. The circumstances that lead up to the first kiss in John Hughes’s Pretty In Pink, released in theaters 30 years ago Sunday, serve as a summation for the entire film. As our protagonist Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald) and her date Blane (Andrew McCarthy) leave an uncomfortable encounter at a rock club, he asks her what she wants to do next. She’s cagey, vague, and eventually asks him to just drop her off at the train tracks. Blane—chivalrous to a fault—refuses; he doesn’t understand why Andie won’t just let him bring her home. She bites her lip and lets a few tears fall, before shouting: “Because I don’t want you to see where I live, ok?!” Blane bites his lip, too. He doesn’t offer up any consolation, because he gets it. They drive to Andie’s house in silence.
Most of the drama in Pretty In Pink hinges on silence, or the moment after something best left unsaid is finally revealed. Awkward pauses surface whenever Blane and Andie cross over a perceived barrier. Blane’s met with brief silence when he asks Andie out for the first time and she’s later met with it when she confronts Blane over whether or not he’s bailing on prom. The film’s writer, John Hughes, is regarded as the messiah of teen cinema, a man who could craft narratives that accurately reflected adolescent ideals. Under his guard, teens were depicted as complex and ambitious individuals who wore their parents’ anxieties in ways that were relatable and unflinchingly true to the time. But what Hughes is not widely credited for but should be, is the attention he paid to class, and his willingness to explore how socioeconomic status affected adolescents in ways that adults might not understand. Pretty In Pink—with a plot entirely driven by class struggle—is his most pointed example, and though the social division between the film’s characters might be easily dismissed as another example of petty cliques, the divisions in Pretty In Pink are much more stark. They weigh more. Thirty years after its release, this film serves as a vital time capsule of a specific era in this country that we might still learn from. This is a movie about rich kids vs. poor kids, about what happens when a girl from the wrong side of the tracks falls for the guy who has it all, but it’s also a movie that investigates the way very adult problems manifested themselves in the lives of adolescents in the mid-80s. Yes, Pretty In Pink is a movie about the latent significance of the prom, but it’s also about craving an elevated social standing.
Most films made for teenagers are about forbidden love to a certain extent, because it’s the most interesting kind. Pretty In Pink could be likened to a low-stakes Romeo & Juliet tale of sorts, set not in the fair city of Verona, but in Reagan’s neoliberal America. (Specifically: the Midwest. More specifically: Illinois.) Reagan and his administration dragged the sad corpse of the ever-elusive “American Dream” out of its shallow grave and held it up as a beacon. The “Morning In America” ad aired during Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign offered an idealized portrait of the US after four years of the president’s economic recovery program. A narrator lists off a series of impressive facts and figures about inflation and family values while ignoring a not-so-wholesome issue that continued to plague Americans in the 80s and would tarnish Reagan’s presidency in hindsight: a fast-growing underclass. The ad ends on an ominous note: “Why would we want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”For many young people, the nightmarish downturn of the 1970s was a half-rendered memory, but its cultural legacy persisted. The “things are looking up” version of the country didn’t necessarily appeal—or even apply—to a lot of them.
Pretty In Pink opens on another kind of morning, as a street cleaning truck makes its way through what is clearly a not-so-nice part of town. It’s not litter-strewn or ugly, necessarily, just a bit decrepit. We soon learn that the aforementioned dream of upward mobility doesn’t necessarily live in the small house Andie shares with her exceedingly kind but stubbornly unemployed father, Jack (Harry Dean Stanton). Andie wakes him up with a cup of coffee, before he asks, “Where am I?” indicating that yeah, he probably has a drinking problem and no, he does not have it “together” in the conventional sense. Still, less than a minute into meeting him it’s more than obvious that despite being worn down, Jack is a really good dad. You see it in the crow’s feet tucked in the corners of his sunken eyes, in the way he admires Andie’s thrifted outfit.
To contrast Jack, the next man we meet in the film is Stef (played by the inimitably evil James Spader), who is perhaps the most glaring example of the still-developing “yuppie” prototype. He’s always dressed in linen and loafers, drives an expensive car, and wears his smugness like the facial expression cost him half a grand. Andie, in her second-hand floral and lace, rebuffs his sexual advances and rolls her eyes when he asks why. “I have some taste,” she retorts with a grimace. It’s a snide jab at Stef’s poisonous bravado, a personality trope that his old friend Blane only really picks up on at the film’s end: “You buy everything, Stef. You couldn’t buy her, though, that’s what’s killing you, isn’t it?”
The disparate aesthetic and fraught relationship between Andie and Stef is an important dynamic, an uncomfortable imbalance that reappears in various relationships throughout the film. All of the rich kids (referred to simply as “Richies”) at Andie’s high school dress almost entirely in beige and pastels. We get acquainted with those students during Andie’s first-period class, as her teacher explains that Roosevelt’s New Deal “saved the capitalist system.” To counter that, the working-class kids of the school dress a lot like Andie: head-to-toe second-hand, scuffed sneakers, ironic bolo ties. When Andie’s best friend and closeted admirer Duckie (Jon Cryer) first appears, he’s rocking a tattered blazer stitched with various patches, and his signature pointed leather creepers, the ones that make him an unmistakable “duck man,” as he explains in the film’s closing scene. He rides a bike; his eventual competition Blane drives a BMW. At the risk of mislabeling them, I’ll assert that the poor or “less fortunate” kids are a mainstream film’s version of punks; they exist on the periphery of their school, their society, and by the way they look it’s all too obvious what part of town they come from.
But to subvert the entitlement of their counterparts, Hughes took special care to make the less fortunate kids in school rebellious and unmistakably intimidating. What those characters lack in material wealth they more than make up for in cultural capital. The first time Andie interacts with Blane, he approaches the counter of the record store where she works and asks whether a Steve Lawrence record is good or not. Mockingly, Andie tells him that it’s “Hot. White hot,” which we as viewers know is a lie. Andie has a Smiths poster hanging in her room, the opening montage of her getting ready for school is soundtracked by the Psychedelic Furs. When Blane says he’ll take the Lawrence album, it’s an indication that he’ll buy anything she sells him, even if she wants to degrade him in the process. When Andie asks whether or not he’ll be paying with an American Express Platinum card, Blane all but winces.
These are small moments that ground the film in a particular moment in time, but also emphasize the message Hughes wanted to send. His other Brat Pack films, like the seminal The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, are all about what it means to “fit in,” and whether or not passing as popular is important. That’s not a trait particular to Hughes’s films. Most media made for adolescents questions whether or not popularity is important. What’s special about Pretty In Pink, though, is that Hughes made it acceptable to exist on the margins. More than just acceptable: He made it cool.
That particular brand of stubborn coolness is what my memory of Pretty In Pink always catches on, not the love story. I grew up in a comfortable but cramped apartment in a city where the vast majority of people I knew lived in spacious houses across town. Our lives intersected in public school, and though relationships were never nearly as contentious as the ones in Pretty In Pink and Andie’s and my circumstances were fairly different, money —who has it and who doesn’t—was something I became increasingly more aware of as certain kids splintered off to go to private schools. It was around then that Pretty In Pink became my favorite film. I bought imitation Ray-Ban Wayfarer’s like the ones Andie wears in the courtyard when Blane asks her out for the first time, I scoured thrift stores for a black blazer that would compliment the one she wore on the VHS tape’s cover, and maybe most significantly: I learned how to sew. I’d like to think that there were a lot of kids like me who learned how to be ok with having less, how to be proud of it. Pretty In Pink was my favorite of John Hughes’s Ringwald trilogy, a fact that I’ve had to defend hundreds of times over when people state the inevitable: “That movie is ok aside from the ending. She should’ve ended up with Duckie.”
She should’ve ended up with Duckie. That’s a widespread opinion, one that Hughes shared. He and the film’s director Howard Deutch were finagled into changing it after a test screening left viewers unsatisfied. In the original Pretty In Pink screenplay, Andie realized how wrong she was to not fall for the guy who’s obviously crazy about her. Duckie and Andie would’ve ended up at prom together; Duckie and Andie would’ve shared a final kiss at the close. It’s a hard fact to unlearn, one that becomes more obvious with each subsequent viewing. A year later, Deutch and Hughes released Some Kind Of Wonderful, a film that essentially boasts the same plotline as Pretty In Pink with a new cast and the ending Hughes had originally intended.
It’s near impossible not to root for Duckie, no matter how unabashedly annoying he can be. It’s him, not Blane, who tells Andie: “I would’ve died for you.” And then there’s the scene when Andie admires Stef’s house, and Duckie mutters: “Hey, first million I make I’ll buy you one,” while fiddling with the radio, clearly uninterested in the kind of degradation his crush chooses to subject herself to in the face of ostentatious wealth. In some ways, it’s subtly assumed that Duckie parallels Andie’s father: he’s a hopeless romantic with a giving personality and dampened ambition. Blane, on the other hand, has lukewarm feelings that he can’t seem to aptly rationalize. In the climactic final scene, when the two young men face off at prom, Blane says something to Andie that objectively makes no sense when held up to the narrative up to that point. “You said you couldn’t believe in anyone who didn’t believe in you,” he says. “Well, I believed in you. You just didn’t believe in me.”
Blane’s argument has never sat well with me. Wasn’t he the one who intentionally ignored Andie’s calls? Didn’t he rescind his invitation to the prom? Pretend he was taking someone else? Blane’s eventual reasoning doesn’t align with his actions. Those accusations come out of nowhere, which is a clear indicator that the ending we’re left with wasn’t the intended one.
Despite this earth-shattering realization, I’ve harbored the unpopular opinion that Blane was an imperfect but acceptable choice, that Pretty In Pink is still a romantic drama worthy of being screened on Valentine’s Day three decades after its release. If we’re to take any absolutes away from Pretty In Pink, it’s that snobbery will not get you want you want emotionally, but poverty is not comfortable. In short: the film is about searching for something greater than what you’ve been given. It would be easy for Andie to accept Duckie’s devotion, but it wouldn’t necessarily be realistic. Love isn’t blind, but it is irrational. Andie’s story is an aspirational one; ending up with Duckie it would’ve enforced a trope that didn’t necessarily sit well with the rhetoric of the era. And, after fielding varying smug insults—from Stef’s aggravating assertion that “The girl is and always will be trash,” or Jena’s mocking question “What are you going to be? A doctor?” —it would break our hearts to see Andie choose the easiest option (Duckie), maybe as much as it breaks our hearts to watch her sell her people out by choosing Blane. Still, the message backing up the latter is much more uplifting, if not wholly unrealistic: Love conquers all.
We watch “80s teen films” to bask in the afterglow of questionable fashion, synth pop, and stereotypical character tropes of the era. Teen cinema always exemplifies the period it was born of for one reason: these films showcases bleeding-edge trends that inevitably fell by the wayside of history all too soon after a release date. But aside from aesthetic choices, they also showcase a popularized set of contemporary values. Decades after Pretty In Pink’s release, I’ve begun to think of particular teen films as reductive trend pieces that reach far outside the confines of fashion and pop culture. Adolescents are emotional. They’re irrational. They’re impulsive. At least, that’s what we’re increasingly reminded of as we grow older, but choosing to illustrate their lives on screen forces complex, difficult conversations about our collective values—how they’ve changed or perhaps haven’t—into the foreground. Films like these allow us to confront conflicts that become increasingly more difficult to acknowledge as adults.
Pretty In Pink is one out of many films that navigates very particular issues alongside tales of romance, and though its love story is timeless, the attention it pays to class might not be. As the chasm between the super rich and the destitute grows wider, and as many young Americans paradoxically identify more readily with the thinning middle class, does this film’s simplistic rich-boy-poor-girl conflict still resonate? The answer is a resounding “No.” If Pretty in Pink was made today, there would be little to no aesthetic class signifiers separating Duckie from Blane, which isn’t to say that those signifiers no longer exist. They’ve just evolved to take on new forms. Blane might own designer clothing, but his threads would be indistinguishable from Duckie’s knock-offs. Blane wouldn’t need Andie to tell him what bands or albums were generally considered cool, because both of them would have the internet at their disposal. Blane’s American Express Platinum card and his BMW are two of the few still-relevant hints of his inherited wealth. The real difference between Andie’s two suitors wouldn’t necessarily kick in until Duckie’s student loan debt did.
As the Reaganite myth of the self-made man seems to grow increasingly mythic with each passing decade, its presence in a film like Pretty In Pink becomes all the more obvious. Andie sees education as an opportunity for significant social mobility, but there are more Americans in college now than ever before, and we’re all too aware that those young adults may very well still find themselves working in a record store after graduating, a fate that she desperately wants to avoid. We now know that the prophecy of self-betterment, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, has always been exaggerated, and is becoming ever moreso. Pretty In Pink doesn’t necessarily reinforce that idealism—the Richies are for the most part all horribly unpleasant characters, after all—but it does preserve it, as an example of a time when the Cinderella narrative was still a viable selling point. This film is a product of a very different time, but what Pretty In Pink does do for us thirty year later is remind us of the underlying social climate that molded adolescents of the era into the kind of adults they would eventually become. And the circumstances of that early idealism matters, because they’re the ones shaping our reality now.
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