John Hughes deserves a lot of credit for his stamp on American cinema, and on the teen movie specifically. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic of the comedy genre by any standard, and The Breakfast Club captures teen angst and unmooredness better than any work of fiction since Catcher in the Rye.
But the man does not deserve a medal for his portrayal of gender. Most notably, Sixteen Candles features the film’s romantic lead saying, of his girlfriend, “I have Caroline passed out in the bed upstairs. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” before proceeding to instead hand her off to the film’s other romantic lead (the geek), with the strong implication that he’s giving the other boy permission to date rape her. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the 21st century re-watching that movie and not having big problems with it. (It also includes a Chinese exchange student named Long Duck Dong, about whom, the less said the better.)
But in Pretty in Pink, we’re treated to a weirdly progressive gender role situation. In this film, Molly Ringwald’s protagonist Andie is a poor girl in love with a rich boy, Blane. Meanwhile, Jon Cryer’s weird geek Duckie is in love with her. The two of them are also childhood friends. He jokingly asks her out constantly, she smugly shrugs him off. His true feelings he confesses to her mirror but never lets out in front of her, fuming whenever she starts dating another boy (in particular that smarmy rich kid Blane.)
We seem to be heading into the classic Nice Guy™ problem. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the idiomatic situation where a not conventionally attractive guy is constantly nice to a girl, but she is only attracted to the mean, bad boy types. In the movies, the classic ending is that somehow the girl realizes her shallowness, and the deep abiding compassion Nice Guy™ has for her, and decides to date him instead, and they live happily ever after.
The problem with this, especially when it inspires real life copycats, is that it equates kindness on the man’s part with sex on the woman’s. It suggests that women are obligated to have sex with a man if he’s “nice” to her. The further problem is that the Nice Guy™ is not a nice guy AT ALL, if he’s only feigning niceness because he’s in love with a girl or wants to get in her pants. That fact colors all of his “nice” actions as manipulative gambits. If, conversely, he’s truly nice, than he shouldn’t have a problem with the girl choosing to be with another man. (This is kind of a whirlwind summary, but a lot has been written online about this trope and I trust ACP readers to Google it if they want to know more.)
Pretty in Pink, in its formulation, seems to be hellbent on a Nice Guy™ trajectory, with the thoroughly weird (if, admittedly, in a charming way) Duckie expressing his deep affection for Andie throughout the film while her crush alternately romances her and treats her like crap for being poor. When Blane finally uninvites Andie to the prom, she decides to go anyway, alone, and, in her emotionally vulnerable state, encounters Duckie, tuxed up and offering her an arm. It’s hard not to root for these two.
But then the movie throws us another turn. Blane walks up to the two of them as they dance and offers a pretty lame apology/declaration of love. She tells him it’s okay, it’s over. He walks away. So far so good for the nice guy. Then Duckie does a weird thing. He tells Andie to go after Blane, because she clearly wants to. Andie hugs Duckie, with the sort of genuine affection that defines their relationship throughout the film, and goes to chase down her love*.
I loved this ending. It proved that Andie and Duckie’s friendship, despite his feelings for her, was a real friendship all along, and that when push came to shove, his genuine interest in her happiness is more important to him than his fantasies. Of course, many, many John Hughes devotees hate this ending, annoyed that Andie takes back the jerk rather than embracing the nice guy who’s been there for her all along. And I can see their perspective, too; I was so excited for Duckie when he turned up at that prom.
To thicken the plot even further, this wasn’t the original ending to the film. John Hughes’ original script ended with Duckie and Andie getting together, that’s it. He only changed it (and re-filmed the ending!) after that version bombed with test audiences.
John Hughes seems to have thoroughly stumbled into a remarkably forward-thinking gender portrayal that truly empowers Andie to make her own choices, even if they’re bad, and presents an authentic male-female friendship that doesn’t feel the need to end with a sudden course-change into coupledom. But, changed as the ending was, it doesn’t feel disconnected from the film to me. To me, it retroactively validates the best moments in the script between Duckie and Andie, which are all moments of genuine platonic compassion and not of romance. And it gives a pay-off for the chemistry between Andie and Blane, which is often great, obvious though his deficiencies are. It’s a believable high school story (Hughes’ stock and trade) and it assigns Duckie true heroic status through the act of not getting the girl.
And maybe most importantly, it’s true to one of the greatest triumphs of the film, the depth and nuance of Andie’s character, the sense of a young woman as a truly active character in her own story. Had Hughes instead gone with the original ending, that characterization would be undermined by making Andie a trophy, a reward for Duckie’s steadfast niceness.
What Jon Cryer had to say about the changed ending, in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, was this: “I was disappointed. You sorta go, ‘Oh, guess I’m not the leading man.’ But I think it was kind of appropriate. Duckie always thought he was the leading man, and that was his fatal flaw.” I would argue that “thinking you’re the leading man” is a formation of male entitlement. The leading man is the hero, and the leading man gets the girl. Duckie has to realize that he lives in the real world, where his desires are only one factor to consider.
Of course, the other consideration of the changed ending, the one Molly Ringwald has pointed to when she’s done interviews, is the class narrative that pervades the story. Pretty in Pink is, in some sense, a Cinderella story and, Ringwald believes, Blane is Andie’s Prince Charming. It’s problematic to have a whole movie about the challenges of a romance crossing class lines and to end it with the two poor characters together because the romance couldn’t cross class lines after all. That thread is much stronger if somehow the characters overcome the barrier they struggle with for the whole film. But then, no one ever said Cinderella wasn’t a problematic gender story.
When it comes to gender, our pop culture storytelling is extremely important in the way it gives us and our young people examples of what’s right, interesting, and appropriate in our gender interactions. Having a classic teen film that says women can date whomever they want, and that men and women can have platonic friendships that don’t turn intimate, even if the man wishes they would, and that if the man is truly nice he’ll simply accept that, continue being a friend, and move on, is hugely valuable. I, for one, am grateful to those test audiences for turning Hughes’ cliched plan around.
*Of course, in classic Hollywood fashion, Duckie then looks over to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer making eyes at him.