Yesterday, I talked about John Hughes in relation to Iona, Andi’s mentor/boss in Pretty in Pink. But Hughes built his empire not on adults. He primarily wrote for and about teenagers. Some of those teenagers were female characters. Much of that audience was (and continues to be) teenage girls. But much of the focus goes toward teen queens like Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club and Sloane Peterson in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Weird girls like Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club get some recognition, as do Molly Ringwald’s girls next door: Andi Walsh in Pretty in Pink and Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles, but both helped cultivate the actress’s status as 1980s’ Teen Queen.
In short, not a love is given to Watts, the female lead of 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful. And that’s too bad, because I think she’s one of the most interesting female characters Hughes ever wrote. Named for drummer Charlie Watts, my favorite member of The Rolling Stones, Watts is herself a drummer and working-class misfit. She is also played with charm, grit, and tomboyish swagger by Mary Stuart Masterson. She’s also hopefully in love with her best friend, Keith Nelson (played by Eric Stoltz), who is himself crushing hard on popular rich-girl Amanda Jones. In short, it’s a gender-reverse Pretty in Pink, only with a happy ending for the folks who hoped Andi would get together with Ducky.
It’s also fairly gender-queer, with Stoltz playing Ringwald and Masterson playing Jon Cryer, but then taking Ducky’s effeminacy and butching it up. In addition, Watts’s look, demeanor, name, and passion for drumming all align with horror scholar Carol J. Clover’s model for the final girl. As she discusses at length in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the final girl is the lone survivor in many slasher movies and other titles associated with the subgenre. Like Laurie Strode in the Halloween series, Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ellen Ripley in the Alien series, and Sidney Prescott in the Scream trilogy, there is a queerness to Watts that is somewhat androgynous and not conventionally feminine.
So, that might make it easy to bristle at Watts and Keith pairing up at the end of the movie (especially since Watts gets the guy while looking more conventionally feminine — fail). And I do think there’s a valid argument to make for how heterosexuality may contain and stabilize Watts and thus render her as less of a threat, one that was indeed rendered on Masterson’s turn as Idgie Threadgoode in the heteronormative film version of Fanny Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes.
Yet, I think this reading may limit female masculinity in Some Kind of Wonderful, as well as potentially play in some sort of homonormativity. Because while there needs to be room to in our culture for the butch lesbian gender warriors Judith Halberstam discusses in her seminal book, Female Masculinity, there also needs to be room for heterosexual female masculinity and masculine girlhood in all its orientations.
Also, I appreciate that Lea Thompson’s Amanda, who could easily be spoiled and mean, is kind and relateable. And despite Watts’s jealousy, we don’t see much bickering between them. In fact, Amanda, who learns that she is too reliant on male affection to inform her self-worth, does Watts a solid by cutting Keith loose to be with her. Thus, boys don’t have to turn girls into enemies.
So, while Watts doesn’t provide the perfect text, she gets us closer to who that girl might be both on screen and in the audience. We couldn’t get closer to it without Mary. Or John. He will be missed.
I was gonna do a write-up about Pretty in Pink at some point anyway, but after yesterday’s precedings, doing so takes on a new meaning. As does Ally Sheedy’s utterance that “when you grow up, your heart dies” from The Breakfast Club. As we all probably know by now, writer-director-producer Brat Pack auteur John Hughes died of a heart attack yesterday.
So, John Hughes movies follow me, as they do for many who came of age between 1980 and 2000 (and maybe today?). His movies were a mainstay of my youth, on hand at basically any slumber party or get-together I went to. I just saw The Breakfast Club on cable last weekend when I was visiting my parents. I also just read Lawrence Grossberg’s essay “Cinema, Postmodernity and Authenticity,” which discusses the soundtracks to Hughes movies in depth.
For whatever it’s worth, my favorite Hughes movie is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Now, eulogizing Hughes doesn’t mean we can’t be critical of his work. For one, there’s obvious issues with racism (Long Duck Dong, *shudder*). For another, he wasn’t the kindest to women. Why does Anthony Michael Hall get to take advantage of the black-out drunk popular girl in Sixteen Candles for laughs and macho acclaim? Why does Judd Nelson get Molly Ringwald at the end of The Breakfast Club after spending the majority of Saturday dentention bullying and debasing her? With the exception of Andi Walsh, most of his kids were upper-middle class. And sometimes his movies are just way to slick, pat, and essentializing in their characterization (hello, Breakfast Club). There are other issues I’m forgetting, so please feel free to contribute (especially if the Hughes legacy means nothing to you).
But one thing I can’t fault the man for is how he used pop music. Pitchfork did a great tribute yesterday, so I’ll link it here.
Extending further, I’d like to highlight two female characters Hughes wrote that I hold dear, relate in some way to the project of this blog, and tend to get broadsided in the conversation. Today, I’ll offer up Iona from Pretty in Pink, written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch.
So, I love Pretty in Pink for two reasons.
1. The music kicks ass. And not just the use of OMD’s “If You Leave” or Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” or The Psychedelic Furs’ song of same name. Let’s not forget that we also have two New Order songs (including an instrumental version of “Thieves Like Us,” which accompanies Andi Walsh’s prom dress montage). And the use of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” when rich boy paramour Blaine meets Andi at work melts me.
Iona was played by Annie Potts (aka Southern feminist interior decorator Mary-Jo Shiveley of Designing Women, aka the other show I’d watch with my mom growing up when we weren’t watching Roseanne). Let’s hear what Potts, Molly Ringwald, and producer Lauren Shuler have to say about both the character and the actress.
Iona is the manager of TRAX, the record store where Molly Ringwald’s Andi works. As an independent business woman, she’d be rad in her own right. That she also makes a lot of her own clothes, puts together great outfits, can put teenage boys in their place, and serve as a surrogate cool aunt/older sister for Andi, who is at once motherless (her mother has abandoned her and daughter and husband) and mothering (she has been recast to the maternal realm by her shellshocked, ineffectual father) is not to be ignored, nor is the multi-generational aspect of this female work-based friendship. She’s also one of the few multidimensional, symphathetic, understanding, and supportive adult figures that Hughes ever wrote for a Brat Pack movie, male or female.
Yet, there are two clear limits to Iona and how Hughes configured her.
1. She’s the one who pushes Andi to go to the prom in the first place, stressing how it’s a vital, normal rite of passage not to be missed by teenagers, no matter how far outside the social margins. However, it’s hard for me to take her pitch seriously when she’s wearing this outfit in the scene.
For one, Iona wants Andi to wear her dress, which may potentially queer their friendship. It certainly evinces an openness and willingness to share, which may also suggest similar class positioning. For another, as Iona’s costumes are such a clear part of her characterization, it’s easy to read the prom dress as something campy and wonderfully disposable — something to try, rip off, throw in the hamper, and trade for some other wonderful, wacky outfit.
2. Not unlike Allison, the basketcase in The Breakfast Club who popular girl Claire makes over to sporto Andy’s clear approval, Iona dresses down to land a man. A really boring guy. A (gasp!) yuppie. This seems to be an unfortunate narrative convention of many movies outside of the Hughes canon — in order to win a man (who may be intimidated by her otherwise), an unconventional woman must make herself totally unremarkable. Again, I can only hope this is merely an outfit she’s trying on. Here’s hoping that the date ended poorly and her date left her with a record stapled to his forehead. Set an example, Iona!
And with that, I bid farewell in the hopes of sparking some midnight viewings of the 1986 classic. Tomorrow, let’s discuss Watts, the masculine female ingenue in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful.