Sixteen Candles, and Why Fangirls Are Always Fighting

A couple of months ago, Constance Grady wrote about the movie Sixteen Candles and how several of the events in the 1980s film (e.g. when the male lead, Jake Ryan, hands off his girlfriend to a stranger to be raped) exemplified rape culture of the time. If you don’t remember the movie or – like me – you simply weren’t born when it came out, Jake Ryan is that generation’s Peter Kavinsky. (Yes. I know). One quote in particular stood out to me: when Grady acknowledges that, of course, even though Sixteen Candles isn’t the sole reason we had rape culture in the 1980s or now, “it does both reflect and help to shape the social context in which it exists.” Grady was writing in response to the well-publicised allegations of sexual assault from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, but that’s not the only thing I thought about when I read it. When I was finished, I was reminded, not for the first time, why fangirls are always fighting.

And no, I’m not talking about the fangirls who keep insisting that Louis Tomlinson’s baby is fake, or the ones throwing tantrums at television writers because the people they want to kiss aren’t kissing, or even the accursed hellscape that social media turns into whenever FOX unleashes the Teen Choice Awards nominations onto the public. I’m talking about the fight that matters.

Jake (left) has promised the Geek (centre) a night with his inebriated girlfriend if he’s allowed to return Sam’s underwear to her.

Like Grady said, Sixteen Candles normalised rape culture by acting like the horrible treatment of the female characters by the male characters was heroic, and creators still do that with their work today. There are countless tropes, storylines, and characters that contribute to rape culture or are misogynistic upon further examination, and there’s still a lot of work to be done in making sure that creators are aware of the harmful stereotypes they’re perpetuating. And it goes beyond how the women are portrayed or even how the men in these stories treat them.

However, with social media giving people the ability to voice what they think about a piece of art mere seconds after it’s been announced, fans are responsible for rape culture and misogyny just as much – and probably more – than creators are. As we all know, fandom can be home to the most horrifically vile people on the internet, with misogyny being thrown in every direction at anyone who dares anger the white male nerd or threatens his dominance. Which, of course, will come in assorted flavours that range from merely telling her that she’s horrible at her job to telling her she deserves to be raped.

Now, I want to be clear when I talk about “fangirls” and “fighting.” When I say “fangirls,” I’m talking about the female fans of something that are writing articles like this one, arguing with sexist, racist, and homophobic trolls on the internet, calling out questionable writing or casting decisions, and tweeting creators about problematic tropes. And since this is a piece that is primarily about misogyny and rape culture, even though I know that of course male fans do this as well, I’ll be sticking with the term. That’s also what I mean by “fighting” – trying to persuade people with power how the media they’re putting out can be problematic, or telling them how it could be improved.

Fangirls are always fighting, for want of a better word, because there are real consequences to the rape culture that society normalises, and it’s perpetuated by creators and fans alike. This, of course, applies to other harmful systems like racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism…the list goes on. Yes, it is not the reason rape culture exists, but it’s everywhere, all the time, and it’s hard not to be influenced by it. Fangirls have a reputation for being loud, obnoxious, overzealous, and invasive. And some of us (too many of us) are. But we’re not always wrong.

Part I: Who Tells Your Story?

What creators put into the universe has an effect on their audience, whether they are adolescents, young adults, or grownups. Far from just entertainment, the stories we lose ourselves in offer us comfort, guidance, and perspective on things that perhaps we don’t understand or know about yet. They shape our opinions when we don’t have any, and encourage us to learn when ours are fully forming. And in these times especially, they offer comfort away from a world that is rather quickly going to hell in a handbasket. So it’s no wonder that fangirls are passionate about how female characters are treated.

Sixteen Candles is far from the only example of films that normalised rape culture way back when fandom was a niche hobby. In The Breakfast Club, the main male character spends most of the film sexually harassing one of the female characters, at one point sticking his hands up her skirt, but is rewarded with the girl in the end. What’s clearly supposed to be the romantic scene in The Empire Strikes Back is Han Solo coming onto Leia, her verbally and physically indicating that she’s not interested, and him ignoring her so he can kiss her while she is saying no. And Revenge of the Nerds is the embodiment of what a misogynistic horror story the Nerdy Nice Guy actually is; between the secret cameras in the women’s dorm room and later tricking a woman into having sex with a stranger as punishment for being mean to the nerds, it’s basically incel porn. In all of these examples, the men are treated as heroic or desirable, while the women have their agency stripped completely.

These films presented this behaviour as desirable, which has consequences for how men see women and how women see themselves. It’s not hard to see where the rape culture and misogyny in these movies crops up in society today, and even though we’ve thankfully moved on (it’s notoriously hard to find Revenge of the Nerds to watch anywhere for free, and Molly Ringwald, who starred in both Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, has written about how problematic both are), that doesn’t mean creators still aren’t normalising rape culture or misogyny.

For many, Sansa Stark’s rape in season 5 felt uncomfortably like it wasn’t about her.

And that they don’t understand or realise they’re doing it. More recent examples include the recent Deadpool 2 killing off the main female character in order to advance the story – commonly known as “fridging.” To make matters worse, neither writer had heard of the trope before and didn’t fully understand why it was problematic. Game of Thrones constantly uses rape as drama; at one point the creators didn’t understand that Jaime forcing himself on Cersei was rape. Sansa’s rape by Ramsay apparently wasn’t even about her, it was to make her male friend really, really sad. Fangirls are “fighting,” as it were, because we’re the ones who are affected by that kind of thinking, whether it’s outright normalisation of rape culture or general misogyny that might be harder to recognise. We rail against tropes like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl because it promotes the idea that women are merely conduits for brooding men and their emotions. We don’t watch the endless parade of procedurals that love using the grotesque bodies of dead women as shock value, because it desensitises audiences to the violence that we face. We switch off movies and TV shows that begin with the first two female characters instantly hating each other and scheming for the other’s downfall, because it reinforces the notion that women are inherently sly and untrustworthy. We roll our eyes at Hollywood’s “Strong Female Character” mould when it, more often than not, means a woman with a gun and/or who punches things, doesn’t show any emotions, and eschews everything “feminine,” because that reinforces the idea that what we mean when we want women to be strong is that we want them to be more like men. And point out that instead of merely showing that women can do what men can do, it would be yet more progressive to present feminine attributes as worthy and aspirational, instead of qualities to be ashamed of. We call out shows that have a sea of male cast members and only one or two women, because not only does it reinforce the idea that there is only room for one woman at the table, but it encourages women into competition to reach the coveted position of the “only girl.”

Serena Joy is directly analogous to the women who degrade other women in order to gain the protection of men, siding with their abusers in the process.

Furthermore, since that “only girl” is often unrealistically exceptional, compared to the men who can grow into their exceptionality, it tells women that they cannot afford to have flaws. And we reject the stereotypical girl next door vs. confident, sexy alpha bitch/popular girl (see: the “You Belong With Me” music video, Sixteen Candles and, interestingly enough, Iron Man) dynamic, because it’s a watered-down version of the Madonna-Whore complex that stratifies women into those who deserve love and respect and those who deserve scorn and derision. More than that, it encourages women to be desperate not to be a “Whore” because then men will see them as unworthy of protection, so they degrade other women to uphold their own purity. Gilead was a woman’s idea, after all, and Madonnas being rewarded with male approval in return for slandering Whores is one of the most harmful results of internalised misogyny. This dichotomy of good girls and bad girls deems some women “acceptable” for sexual assault, and then rationalises the blame falling on them.

We call out shows that have gay and bisexual women who don’t seem to have love lives, or write them for the benefit of the male gaze, or kill them off whenever someone needs to die – because they all present these characters as tokens. Or when Black women sacrifice all the time and then die so white characters can be sad about it (here’s looking at you, Bonnie Bennett), because it reinforces the idea that Black women’s humanity is tied to how much suffering they can handle. Or when the Latina character is “spicy” or the Asian woman is a Dragon Lady or the Middle Eastern woman is an exotic toy to teach a white man about her culture, have sex with him, and then die – because they’re all harmful archetypes that present various women of colour as functions in someone else’s story rather than fully-fledged characters. And we call out the shows that are congratulating themselves for giving us yet another “twist” on the “is the Muslim woman a terrorist?” trope, when a far more progressive thing would be to present a Muslim woman without the spectre of terrorism hanging over her head. Because – gasp – terrorism is not an intrinsic part of a Muslim’s story.

Cox pointed out an oft-forgotten goal of representation: to learn about those who don’t have your experience and break down stereotypes.

In an interview with Variety this year, the always-wonderful Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black) pointed out that “the reality is, 84% of Americans do not personally know someone who is transgender. So most people learn what they learn about trans people through the media.” Cox is talking about trans people in particular, yes, but she also beautifully illustrates the essential kernel of representation that many creators seem to forget: we learn from the media we consume, and we internalise those messages especially when we don’t know about that group of people in real life, or when we’re too impressionable to know better.

The internalised misogyny women have comes from many directions, but one of the biggest culprits is the television shows that we watched as adolescents, the ones that constantly pit women against each other, the ones that presented the heroine as pure and virginal and her enemy as immoral and more “mature” (read: sexual). No, I’m not saying that men only see women on TV, but at a time when Hollywood is promising over and over again that it’s doing its best to uplift women and be diverse, creators have a responsibility to their viewers, to make sure they don’t fall into problematic tropes, because their every action carries a message. When they have a cast of six men and two women, they’re saying something about who has a right to representation. When women are constantly assaulted onscreen for drama, they’re saying something about how they view women’s bodies. And when they pick and choose which women are granted humanity, they’re saying something about the standard of femininity. They have immense power whether they know it or not, and one of the reasons fangirls are always fighting them is because we know that they’re the ones who are going to be telling our stories. And, more importantly, deciding how the world sees us.

Part II of this series will be published tomorrow