Did ’80s Movies Reinforce Rape Culture?

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Breakfast Club

Some of us who grew up in the ’80s likely have fond memories of John Hughes’ “classic” teen movies: Sixteen Candles. Breakfast Club.

Or maybe we recall how much we loved Back to the Future. Or Ghostbusters. Say Anything. Or Big.

Now, all of those movies have some content issues, from a Plugged In perspective. But I’d wager that when most GenXers recall those iconic ’80s flicks, troubling content concerns don’t come to mind … at all. Instead, we smile nostalgically at how we remember those movies making us feel.

And make no mistake, they were “feel good” films, every single one of ’em: from Marty McFly’s adventures in a time-travelling DeLorean, to John Cusack’s character holding a boom box (‘memba those?) over his head, to Egon’s sober ghostbusting admonition, “Don’t cross the streams. … It would be bad.”

But if you haven’t seen some of those films recently—or more risqué, R-rated ’80s fare such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds, Caddyshack or (though it’s actually from 1978) Animal House—you might not recall one other important element in all of them: treating rape, sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact as a joke.

In light of our society’s growing awareness on this issue, a number of cultural voices have begun to revisit these films with a different perspective. Instead of, “Boys will be boys,” we’re moving toward a more honest assessment: “Sexual assault is sexual assault.”

In her Real Clear Life article “How Your Favorite ’70s and ’80s Movies Condoned Rape Culture,” Rebecca Gibian explores this idea in depth, examining scenes from several of these films. About Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, she writes,

Another [Molly] Ringwald and [John] Hughes movie, Sixteen Candles, has multiple instances of sexual misconduct. For starters, the 1984 film, which follows Ringwald’s character Samantha Baker on the day of her 16th birthday (which everyone forgets), glamorizes non-consensual sex. After a wild party, the romantic hero Jake (Michael Schoeffling) doesn’t feel like dealing with his very drunk girlfriend, Caroline (Haviland Morris), though he does say, “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.”

Instead, he hands her off to a young, sober boy, Ted (Anthony Michael Hall). Jake tells Ted and his friends to “have fun with her.” Later, we find out that Ted and Caroline had sex, but Caroline doesn’t remember it.

In April, Molly Ringwald wrote about these “beloved” films (in an article in The New Yorker) from the perspective of the #MeToo moment. Specifically, she talked about watching The Breakfast Club with her daughter, and navigating a scene in which a male character looks up her skirt under a desk and, it’s suggested, touches her there without her consent. Her daughter didn’t have much to say about it, but it bothered Ringwald:

We kept watching, and, despite my best intentions to give context to the uncomfortable bits, I didn’t elaborate on what might have gone on under the table. She expressed no curiosity in anything sexual, so I decided to follow her lead, and discuss what seemed to resonate with her more. Maybe I just chickened out.

But I kept thinking about that scene. I thought about it again this past fall, after a number of women came forward with sexual-assault accusations against the producer Harvey Weinstein, and the #MeToo movement gathered steam. If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.

Though she wasn’t trying to do so, Ringwald makes a very Plugged In kind of point here: What we watch influences what we believe, what we value, what we think is acceptable. In other words, the entertainment we consume shapes our worldview, our perspective on reality.

And back in the ’80s, many influential and popular films dealt with the subject of sexual assault and harassment in extraordinarily cavalier ways—often treating it as a joke or punchline.

Later in the article, Ringwald adds,

If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time.

Popular culture exerts enormous influence in defining “what is considered normal.” And even as our broader culture is currently reckoning with how women have so frequently been mistreated, it’s simultaneously elevating other messages and worldviews that future generations may look back and recognize as being similarly misguided and damaging. (Our current cultural embrace of marijuana as being harmless constitutes just one such example, I believe.)

Christian youth culture expert Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding wisely and frequently observes that popular culture serves as both a mirror (reflecting what’s already going on) and a map (indicating the direction our culture’s values are travelling in the future).

And the only way to see our culture’s pervasive values clearly is to continually compare them to what Scripture tells us. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, emphasis mine).

What the world values will continue to swirl and shift. Sometimes, our broader culture gets it exactly right. Sometimes, it’s way off. More often, it somewhere in between, slipping and sliding through various hues of grey. Our responsibility, as followers of Christ ourselves and as parents is to be grounded in God’s Word, to actively help those whom we influence to be shaped by His truth instead of by the fickle moral whims of the cultural moment.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 6 months ago
A major part of Back to the Future does revolve around rape and or sexual assault, but it doesn’t treat it as a joke. Biff is the villain of the movie, and it is clear his attempted actions are neither funny or acceptable. While it is not a movie that is appropriate for kids, it doesn’t have the same issue as the other movies mentioned.
Dan Haynes 6 months ago
Short answer: Yes. 
Anonymous 6 months ago
I haven't seen many of the movies mentioned (I was born in '88). From the sound of it there are several that I wouldn't watch at all due to the content that you brought up and the fact that I'm just not into teen drama/romance movies anyway. However, I have to generally disagree on the whole idea of a "rape culture". There is no culture of rape in this country (except maybe in Hollywood, apparently).

There are some despicable individuals that commit the heinous crime, but that does not make a "rape culture". As a people we do not encourage it, tolerate it, or look the other way. Most of us want rapists punished to the full extent of the law. It just surprised me to see that term here. I found it a bit odd for one of my Christian websites to be using terminology largely confined to radical left-wing gender studies majors.