Rich People Have Problems Too: Teenage Angst in ‘Sixteen Candles’

A film like Sixteen Candles suggests that wealthy teenagers are not immune to life’s harsh caprice, and that no amount of affluence can cure high school’s sense of alienation and anxiety

Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) just wants her family to remember her 16th birthday, and for Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), her high school crush, to take her virginity. Is that really so much to ask?

In John Hughes’ world of sullen girls and geeky boys, Samantha might as well be reaching for the stars. Sixteen Candles (1984) is Hughes’ first film in a series that aims to portray the trials and tribulations of affluent white teenagers. It’s also among a type of film from that era that can be defined as the “teen comedy”. Others include Porky’s (1982), Risky Business (1983), and Heathers (1988). As Catherine Driscoll alludes to in her book Teen Film: A Critical Introduction (Bloomsbury), these films feature teenagers as the main characters, focus on the difficulties of being a teenager in some way, and are often made for a teenage audience.

However, what separates Sixteen Candles from the pact is its sincerity. Sixteen Candles is not as raunchy as Porky’s, as critical as Risky Business, or as cruel as Heathers. Rather, Sixteen Candles is an earnest depiction of first world problems.

Consider, for example, the upbringing of Samantha in Sixteen Candles. She lives in a white picket fence house in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. In the film’s opening scene, we observe the morning ritual of the Baker household. Samantha’s father, Jim Baker (Paul Dooley), rushes to work at his white-collar job, as illustrated by his suit and tie and the accessory of a brown briefcase. Jim, we infer, is meant to represent the conventional American father in suburbia. White, well-groomed, and business-professional, Jim is the financial provider. We do not learn the details of his profession, and I think there is a significant reason for this omission. It’s appropriate to assume the possibility that Samantha is unaware of her father’s profession, and that she is too wrapped up in her own world to care about his work day.

The story is told from Samantha’s point of view, and Hughes wants us to get a sense of what this household is like from a teenage girl’s perspective. As Jim hurries to get ready for work, Samantha lays sluggishly in her bed, conversing with her friend on her bedroom telephone. Her biggest concern—as would be for any teenage girl of privilege—is that it is her 16th birthday.

As Jim leaves for his anonymous white-collar job, Samantha’s mother, Brenda (Carlin Glynn), a stay-at-home still in her bathrobe, does her major deed for the day and gets her children ready for school. Samantha’s younger brother and sister playfully bicker before they exit the front door to enjoy the comfort of having their father drop them off at school, and Samantha stalls before being reminded that she is going to miss the school bus. She sits on the stairs and looks hopelessly at her mother.

“I can’t believe this. They fucking forgot my birthday,” Samantha says to the audience, and then the film’s opening credits scan across the screen over a generic ’80s synthetic soundtrack. Cue the title of our movie: Sixteen Candles.

Welcome to the world of the wealthy elite. Mom stays at home, Dad goes to work, and the children complain about their miserable lives. In Sixteen Candles, there is no such thing as a small problem. As the opening scene demonstrates, the only problems that exist for the affluent whites are minor trivialities. In effect, they become larger problems by default. By small problem, I refer to the main conflicts of the film as embodied through Samantha’s angst, namely, Samantha’s inability to get her family to say “happy birthday”, and her uncertainty over whether or not Jake will reciprocate her romantic feelings.

Gone are the days of ’70s nihilism, in which midnight cowboys sleep on the streets and taxi drivers wreak havoc upon civilization. By the ’80s it seems crime is nonexistent and poverty is not an issue. Ironically, however, there are still elements of existential angst in Sixteen Candles, albeit in a more mundane, superfluous fashion. Thus, when I use the term “small problem”, I don’t intend to suggest that the characters in Sixteen Candles care any less about their romantic adventures as the characters in Midnight Cowboy care about surviving a cold winter night without food, but I do want to imply that more is at stake for the characters in Midnight Cowboy, even if the characters in Sixteen Candles don’t possess this self-awareness.

This isn’t the first time that art has attempted to depict the suffering of the elite. Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton often dealt with the plight of the rich in their novels, and Woody Allen continuously plays the neurotic New Yorker who isn’t satisfied with his successful life. But Sixteen Candles is different because it is about teenagers, and it suggests that their struggles are worthy of care and attention.

For the most part, Sixteen Candles deals with the daily struggles of high school life. Much of the film revolves around Samantha’s obsession over Jake as she strolls through the school’s corridors. In one telling scene, Samantha’s friend says to her, “He doesn’t even know you exist.” As Susannah Gora claims in You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, the need for acceptance is a common theme in the film.

Since birth, Samantha has been given everything she could ever need. As she comes of age, however, she is confronted with the painful truth that she has not exactly earned her privilege. She is entitled enough to expect her parents to remember her birthday, and to assume that Jake would ask her out, but she is also insecure, and feels as if she must go to great lengths to earn everyone’s attention. Still, she is not self-aware enough to realize that these trifles are hardly worth commiserating about. It is this lack of self-awareness that defines the characters in the film and arguably Hughes’ entire oeuvre.

In addition, the film shows the ways in which affluent teenagers use alcohol to numb their pain. On the surface, these “party scenes” appear to be fun and harmless, and indeed, many ’80s teen comedies use them as a centerpiece for comedic gags or dramatic revelations. However, in Sixteen Candles they underscore the teenager’s hopeless search for meaning, and the endless quest for acceptance.

The party scene culminates in various characters that have not previously shared the screen together to form an emotional bond. For example, Samantha and Ted “The Geek” (Michael Anthony Hall) relate sad stories about love and heartbreak in the middle of a party. Or, Ted and Jake will discuss the difficulties of getting girls as they prepare cocktails at the same party in a different scene. The vulnerability of the characters shines through, and the alcohol allows them to reveal their deepest pains to one another. Whereas Animal House (1978) makes light of this, or a contemporary film like Spring Breakers (2013) criticizes this, Sixteen Candles merely portrays it.

Despite Samantha’s plight, the film ends affirmatively as Jake reciprocates her feelings in the final scene. The characters’ problems are solved with a kiss and romantic embrace and the world can once again continue spinning. As a result, Sixteen Candles provides just enough suffering to engage the teenage viewer and generate sympathy, but not enough to completely depress the viewer and turn him or her off from enjoying the film.

Sixteen Candles avoids the ambiguity of The Graduate (1967) or the bleakness of Kids (1995), and instead aims to please with a romantic, upbeat ending. What will happen to Samantha and Jake? What will their future be like? Will they be happy? Such questions are often asked in other films about youth, but not in this one. Samantha Baker and Jake Ryan represent the typical affluent teenage girl and boy, and the thought of their relationship dissolving over time would not sit well with an affluent audience that turns the smallest frivolities into the biggest problems. Thus, Hughes ends his film with an affirmative freeze frame to bring hope and optimism to ordinary teenage life.

Just as the film honors Samantha’s problems as legitimate, it also showcases the difficulties of teenage boyhood. As Susan Jeffords demonstrates in Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era, one of the goals of ’80s Hollywood cinema was to “redeem” masculinity. During Reagan’s presidency, Americans were increasingly reverting back to the conservative values of the ’50s, and depictions of men on the screen illustrated this conservatism in numerous ways.

The geeks in Sixteen Candles are not as muscularly built as John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (1988), but they similarly struggle to display their masculinity. These characters are on the cusp of puberty and are learning how to become men. For the teenage pubescent boys of this film, the idea of manhood is synonymous with a loss of virginity. Therefore, many of the masculine conflicts in Sixteen Candles revolve around a male’s quest to sleep with girls.

For example, Ted “The Geek” makes a bet with his friends that he will have sex with Samantha. After many failed attempts, Ted confesses the bet to Samantha in a perceptive scene in which he pleads her to go along with the story. Ted’s friends think that he is a ladies man, but in reality, he is a virgin. As he tells Samantha, “This information cannot leave this room. Okay? It would devastate my reputation as a dude. I’ve never bagged a babe. I’m not a stud.” In order to prove his masculinity to his friends, Ted asks Samantha to borrow a pair of her underwear to show his friends — the ultimate symbol of conquest. Samantha agrees, and Ted continues to promote his reputation as a ladies man.

This scene illustrates the ways male characters assert their masculine power. As Reagan and his conservatism favored the strong, silent type—the American brute—old and young men in ’80s America were figuring out how to channel this idea of masculinity into their daily lives. As we see with Sixteen Candles, “true” manhood is identified with sexual prowess.

The cultural implications of Hughes’ earnest portrayal of affluent teenagers are pertinent, and perhaps the film is partially responsible for the 21st century help culture Elizabeth Kolbert describes in her article “Spoiled Rotten”, in which affluent teenagers lay on therapy couches and complain about their daily lives. (“Spoiled Rotten”, The New Yorker, 2 July 2012)

A film like Sixteen Candles suggests that wealthy teenagers are not immune to life’s harsh caprice, and that no amount of affluence can cure high school’s sense of alienation and anxiety. Other teen comedies of the era, like Heathers, satirize the social experience and tend to portray wealthy teenagers in a negative, self-absorbed light, and while the teenagers in Sixteen Candles may appear self-absorbed to the critical viewer, Hughes portrays them with noble intentions.

Sixteen Candles was released before the arrival of the internet generation, which now allows teenagers to tweet their every concern and commiserate to one another in collective seclusion over electronic communication devices. Have things changed since the ’80s? Have affluent teenagers become happier or more self-aware? Or has the invention of more technology and the proliferation of more stuff created further anxiety and deepened an already empty void?

Cinema may not be able to answer all of these questions, but whenever teenagers of means discover morally dubious Hollywood classics like Sixteen Candles, they are reassured that rich people have problems, too.