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The rape culture of the 1980s, explained by Sixteen Candles

The beloved romantic comedy’s date rape scene provides important context for the Brett Kavanaugh accusations.

Anthony Michael Hall and Haviland Morris in Sixteen Candles
Caroline and the Geek, the morning after.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When a third woman accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct this week, Kavanaugh supporters immediately stepped forward with a familiar defense: It couldn’t have happened, because surely if it had, someone would have said something at the time.

In a sworn declaration delivered through her lawyer Michael Avenatti, Julie Swetnick avowed that she witnessed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh drug girls at high school house parties where the girls were later “gang raped.” Swetnick further says that Kavanaugh was present at a party where she herself was drugged and raped, although she does not directly say that he participated in her rape.

In a statement released by the White House, Kavanaugh (who has denied all three allegations against him) called Swetnick’s statement “ridiculous” and “from the Twilight Zone.” His denial was widely echoed by supporters to whom the idea that such terrible things could happen on a routine basis, and that no one would do anything to stop them or even avoid the parties, seems absurd.

If a crime happened, this argument presumes, surely everyone involved would have recognized that it was terribly wrong and someone would have spoken up at the time.

But if there’s one thing we can take away from the popular culture of the 1980s, when the alleged events took place, it’s that a sexual assault at that time might not have been immediately clear as what it was, for participants and observers alike. Some of the most popular comedies of the ’80s are filled with supposedly hilarious sequences that portray what in 2018 would be unambiguously considered date rape.

As long as everybody involved is acquainted with each other, these movies tend to treat those rapes as harmless hijinks. They don’t really count. They’re funny — even in movies as sweet and romantic as Sixteen Candles.

The cultural understanding of rape in the 1980s was fundamentally different from how we understand it today

“I have a difficult time believing any person would continue to go to – according to the affidavit – ten parties over a two-year period where women were routinely gang raped and not report it,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) after Swetnick came forward with her story.

“One obvious question about this account: Why would she constantly attend parties where she believed girls were being gang-raped?” asked National Review editor Rich Lowry.

“Please someone help me with this,” wrote conservative writer David French. “Georgetown Prep boys frequently committed gang rape. Lots of people knew they were committing gang rape. And despite this common knowledge no one has talked publicly for three decades, until the day before a crucial Senate hearing. What?”

This argument has been a common response to accusations of sexual misconduct over the past year of #MeToo discourse: It couldn’t have happened, because if it had, someone would have said so at the time. But as German Lopez has written for Vox, there are plenty of issues in our criminal justice system that prevent survivors of sexual violence from reporting.

Survivors who come forward are likely to be harassed and blamed for not keeping their mouths shut, they are likely to face a hostile response from police officers, and the process of investigating the crime can be so traumatic for the survivor that it’s sometimes called “the second rape” — and after all that, odds are low that the attacker is ever likely to face legal consequences for their actions.

It’s worth noting another reason that Kavanaugh’s accusers in particular wouldn’t have been comfortable coming forward about what happened to them in the early 1980s. The way our culture thought about rape at the time was fundamentally different than it is now.

In the 1980s, “rape” meant an attack from a stranger in a dark alley, not something that acquaintances did to each other at house parties where everyone knows each other. In 1982, it would have been difficult for women like Swetnick and Christine Blasey Ford to find the language to describe what had happened to them.

“I completely reject that notion,” said French on Twitter when presented with the argument that the way our culture talked about rape in the 1980s was different than it is today. “I was in high school in the 1980s. Gang rape was viewed as a horrible crime then, too.”

It’s true that gang rape was considered a horrible crime in the 1980s — but in the abstract, when thought of as a crime perpetrated by a group of strangers on an innocent, sober, virginal good-girl victim in a dark alley. But it’s simply not the case that the mainstream culture at large in the ’80s had the same ideas we do today about sexual assault — especially when it’s perpetrated by people who know each other, at parties, around alcohol.

We can tell that it’s not the case because there are many beloved, iconic movies made in the 1980s that built entire comedic subplots over what we can better recognize today as rape scenes. And in those movies, rape wasn’t a horrible crime. It was supposed to be funny.

Sixteen Candles’ Jake Ryan is the dream boy of the 1980s. He’s also an accessory to date rape.

The ’80s were a decade of film comedy hugely informed by the recent success of 1978’s Animal House, which features a rape fantasy scene filmed in what critic Emily Nussbaum describes as “the perviest possible way.”

It was the decade that gave us Revenge of the Nerds, which, as Noah Brand put it at the Good Men Project, “has so much rape culture, you could use it to make rape yogurt”; it gave us Police Academy and its “nonconsensual blowjobs are a fun and light-hearted prank” ethos. And perhaps most disturbingly, it gave us the comedic rape subplot in Sixteen Candles, John Hughes’s much beloved and iconic 1984 teen romance.

Sixteen Candles isn’t a college sex romp like Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House. It’s a high school love story. It’s been celebrated for 34 years for its sweet, romantic heart. Yet it is entirely willing to feature a lengthy, supposedly hilarious subplot in which a drunk and unconscious girl is passed from one boy to another and then raped.

The drunk girl in question is Caroline (Haviland Morris), the girlfriend to romantic hero Jake Ryan, and if you know one thing about Sixteen Candles, it’s that Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) is perfect. He is the impossibly cool, impossibly beautiful senior guy who is dating the impossibly beautiful senior girl — and yet as soon as Jake Ryan hears that gawky, awkward sophomore Samantha (Molly Ringwald) has a crush on him, he immediately begins to like her back, defying all the laws of God, man, and high school popularity.

Jake Ryan is the embodiment of a fantasy so compelling it instantly made Sixteen Candles iconic: What if the object of all your romantic high school dreams decided to pursue you without you having to expend any effort whatsoever, just because they could see that you were, like, deeper and more special than the rest of the school? What if they somehow saw that without you ever having to have a conversation or interact with them in any way?

“Jake stands the test of time,” wrote Hank Stuever in the Washington Post in 2004. He quotes a 34-year-old woman who grew up on Jake Ryan: “Oh, gosh, Jake Ryan. Just thinking about it now, I get … kind of … It’s all just too good to be true.”

Jake Ryan’s reputation as the ideal dream boy of every teenage girl’s deepest fantasies has lasted for decades. Jake, writes Stuever, “is Christ, redeeming the evil sins of high school. Jake as the ideal. Jake as the eternal belief in something better.”

Yet Jake Ryan cold-bloodedly hands a drunk and unconscious Caroline over to another guy and says, “Have fun.”

In 1984, you could be a perfect dream boy and also be an accessory to date rape. They were not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, they reinforced each other.

In Sixteen Candles, Caroline’s rape is presented as her fault — and as funny

In the moral universe of Sixteen Candles, Jake is allowed to be callous to Caroline without losing his dream boy status because, Sixteen Candles briskly assures us, Caroline is not the right kind of girl. She has breasts, and she drinks. She’s potentially a little bit slutty. “She doesn’t know shit about love,” Jake explains. “The only thing she cares about is partying.”

The fact that Jake casually despises his longtime girlfriend doesn’t reflect poorly on him because it doesn’t affect the fantasy at the heart of Sixteen Candles. What Sixteen Candles is selling is the dream of the unattainable guy falling in love with the everygirl. So for the fantasy to work, Jake must prove his deep and abiding love for Sam. Ignoring and degrading Caroline is an easy shortcut to that goal, because in the moral universe of Sixteen Candles, the more you degrade one girl — the whore — the more you can exalt the virgin.

So Caroline gets drunk at a party and passes out in her boyfriend’s room, where presumably she believes she will be safe. Jake, disgusted, comments that “I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to,” but now that the pure and virginal charms of Sam are in his sights, “I’m just not interested anymore.”

Instead, he passes her over to Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) — who is listed in the credits only as “the Geek” — reasoning, “She’s so blitzed she won’t know the difference.” The poor Geek has had no luck with girls, so Jake illustrates his generous magnanimity by installing the Geek in his own fancy car, with his own fancy unconscious girlfriend next to him, and says, “Have fun.”

In the car, Caroline regains consciousness long enough to ask who the Geek is, and Jake assures her that the Geek is, in fact, him, a casual manipulation that Caroline is too drunk to register as false. The pair drives off into the night, and Caroline climbs into the Geek’s lap and purrs, “I love you,” disoriented and out of it. The Geek looks straight into the camera lens and grins, “This is getting good.”

The next time we see Caroline, she’s unconscious again, and the Geek is having his friends photograph him next to her unresponsive body. “Ted, you’re a legend,” they gush.

The next morning, a newly sober Caroline and Geek conclude that they had sex the night before. The Geek asks Caroline if she enjoyed herself. “You know, I have this weird feeling I did,” Caroline says.

“She had to have a feeling about it, rather than a thought,” wrote Molly Ringwald in the New Yorker last year, in a long, empathetic reexamination of her work with John Hughes, “because thoughts are things we have when we are conscious, and she wasn’t.”

The camera lingers on the mismatched pair — the beautiful cheerleader and the Geek, who we all know never, ever would have had sex if the cheerleader had anything to say about it in her right mind — and waits for us to laugh. The joke is that they had sex despite the fact that the cheerleader didn’t want to. It’s funny.

The Geek’s culpability here is muddy. He is ostensibly relieved of responsibility for the encounter because Caroline is the one who came onto him — although he was sober enough to recognize that she wouldn’t do so if she weren’t drunk. And like Caroline, he was drunk enough to black out the next morning, throwing his own ability to consent into question — although he was sober enough to drive, and unlike Caroline, he wasn’t fading in and out of consciousness all night.

This is how rape culture was perpetuated in the ’80s — and still is today

Whether or not the Geek is directly responsible for committing date rape, the fact remains that Caroline had sex she didn’t consent to, and the movie expects its audience to respond to that development with righteous glee. Jake — perfect, dreamy, too-good-to-be-true Jake Ryan — orchestrated the situation while in perfect control of his faculties. The movie expects that fact to make him only dreamier, because every time Jake degrades Caroline it proves more firmly that he considers Sam to be special and above degradation.

Here are the basic ideas embedded in this plot:

• Girls who drink are asking for it. Girls who have sex are asking for it. Girls who go to parties are asking for it. They are asking for it even if they only drink and have sex and party with their monogamous boyfriends. Whatever happens to that kind of girl as a result is funny.

• Boys are owed girls. A good guy will help his nerdy bro to get a girl. Her consent is not necessary or desired.

• To avoid being the kind of girl who gets raped, you need to earn male approval. If you earn male approval, other girls might be raped, but you won’t be, and that will prove that you are special.

• Once you earn male approval, it can be taken away — as Caroline’s goes away once Jake tires of her — and then you’ll go from being the kind of girl who doesn’t get raped to the kind of girl who does.

• A good guy can participate in this whole system and remain an unsullied dream guy.

• The kind of girl who gets raped has no right to complain about what happens to her. Also it isn’t rape.

That’s how mainstream culture presented rape, and thus affirmed rape culture, in 1984.

On many levels, it’s not far off from how large parts of our culture think about rape today — but we bury those values now. In 2018, we no longer enshrine these values in stories of unambiguous rape that are embedded into beloved romantic classics. We offer alternative narratives and are capable of having conversations about date rape.

In the 1980s, though, alternative narratives were few and far between. They were mostly offered only by feminism, and in the 1980s, mainstream culture considered feminism shrill and unfashionable.

That doesn’t mean that people went to see movies like Sixteen Candles and immediately thought, “Wow, that looks like fun, I’d better go get a bunch of girls drunk and have sex with them without their consent.” Sixteen Candles is not single-handedly responsible for the rape culture of the 1980s. But like all popular culture, it does both reflect and help to shape the social context in which it exists.

The dominant cultural narrative at the time of Brett Kavanaugh’s high school experience was the one offered by Sixteen Candles. And it taught any girl who went to a party and got assaulted by an acquaintance that whatever happened to her was surely her fault, that it proved she was the wrong kind of girl, that it was funny, that she had nothing whatsoever to complain about, and that it absolutely wasn’t rape.

Under those circumstances, the mystery is not why “any person would continue to go to … ten parties over a two-year period where women were routinely gang raped and not report it,” as Sen. Graham argued. The mystery is why anyone ever came forward with their story at all.

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