Molly Ringwald's brilliant essay about John Hughes is a superb exploration of what it means to love "problematic" art

If you've been paying attention, you might already know that Molly Ringwald is a brilliant writer with smart things to say about the movies that made her famous.

But her essay on John Hughes movies, the Breakfast Club, #metoo, and the useful and versatile concept of "problematic" art and artists is a whole new level of excellence.

Ringwald has an insider's view into the attitudes that prevailed among the decision-makers who shaped the beloved movies of her era, and how those decisions came to be. What's more, Ringwald commands enough respect that when she has a blank spot in her understanding, she can just email the people who can fill it in and get together with them for lunch or chat on the phone and interrogate them in uncompromising -- but empathic -- ways, to assemble a full picture of what was going on.

What emerges from her recollections and investigations is a thoroughly mixed bag: from John Hughes on down, the people involved were thoroughly flawed vessels who, at times, did, thought and said things that are unforgivably monstrous, and who also were, at times, noble, selfless, thoughtful, compassionate and altogether good. They made art that helped people struggle with oppression and alienation -- and they made art that abetted oppression and alienation.

They were problematic.

I love the idea of "problematic." Problematic art isn't bad art, it's art that has problems. "Problematic" is an idea that lets us lower the cost of acknowledging and fixing bad and wicked things in our world. Without "problematic," all you have is "bad" and "good," and that means that any stain on a piece of art that moved you, improved you, opened your horizons and lifted you up is a disqualifier -- being virtuous means that you have to reject the art because of its irredeemable sins.

This is, I think, a major source of denial, and a major impediment to talking about -- and thus fixing -- the problems with our culture. Without "problematic," then imperfect art is "bad" and you have to choose between cherishing the ways in which it improved your life and jettisoning the art and its effects on you. That all-or-nothing framework makes acknowledging imperfections needlessly expensive and thus unpopular.

But with "problematic," we can have it both ways: "This art, whose flaws I acknowledge and wish to see improved upon, made me happy and improved my life and my understanding of the world." That statement doesn't give a pass to the flaws in art, it doesn't make a virtue out of the work's hurtful or ugly imperfections -- rather, it opens a space to talk about (and thus address) the flaws without having to deny your pleasures, influences and loves.

The same goes for artists (or people in general, really): people who do bad things can make good art. We don't have to enrich them and reward them once we learn about their wicked deeds, but we can denounce and repudiate the artist without denouncing and repudiating their works. You can admire the beauty of the Crown Jewels without endorsing colonialism or monarchism, or denying the blood and suffering that is inseparable from the jewels. They can be problematic: that is to say, having good qualities and bad qualities that do not balance each other nor cancel each other out, but simply co-exist, there to be seen and admired or decried depending on the way they're affecting you right now.

So: Ringwald describes a baffling conversation with Emil Wilbekin, founder of Native Son, which advocates for gay black men, who told her that he was "saved" by John Hughes's movies, which had no black people and no gay people in them to speak of, and, moreover, made liberal use of homophobic slurs and racial stereotypes. She tracked down Wilbekin later and asked him what John Hughes movies had to say to someone like him: "'The Breakfast Club,' he explained, saved his life by showing him, a kid growing up in Cincinnati in the eighties, 'that there were other people like me who were struggling with their identities, feeling out of place in the social constructs of high school, and dealing with the challenges of family ideals and pressures.' These kids were also 'finding themselves and being ‘other’ in a very traditional, white, heteronormative environment.' The lack of diversity didn’t bother him, he added, 'because the characters and storylines were so beautifully human, perfectly imperfect and flawed.' He watched the films in high school, and while he was not yet out, he had a pretty good idea that he was gay."

Wilbekin's life was improved by Hughes's movies, his hurts succored by them. Not despite Hughes's homophobia and racism, nor because of it, but alongside of it. Hughes's movies are problematic, and their racism and homophobia (and their misogyny) are a force for evil in the world, while their compassion and their wittiness and their beauty are a force for good. We don't have to balance or cancel these forces, we can just acknowledge them and move on -- by which I mean, "use our critical analysis to make art that is less problematic, learning from Hughes, not letting him off the hook, and neither denying his virtues."

Like many people of my generation, I grew up admiring Ringwald by way of her screen presentations, which offered little insight into her as a person; now that we're both adults, I'm delighted to learn how un-problematic she turns out to be, and revel in her wit, insight and compassion.

“Pretty in Pink” features a character, Duckie, who was loosely based on my best friend of forty years, Matthew Freeman. We’ve been friends since I was ten, and he worked as a production assistant on the film. Like Emil, he’s out now, but wasn’t then. (It’s one of the reasons I’ve often posited, to the consternation of some fans and the delight of others, that Duckie is gay, though there’s nothing to indicate that in the script.) “The characters John created spoke to feeling invisible and an outsider,” Matt told me recently. They got at “how we felt as closeted gay kids who could only live vicariously through others’ sexual awakenings, lest we get found out with the very real threat of being ostracized or pummelled.”

John’s movies convey the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel, and seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teen-agers experience. Whether that’s enough to make up for the impropriety of the films is hard to say—even criticizing them makes me feel like I’m divesting a generation of some of its fondest memories, or being ungrateful since they helped to establish my career. And yet embracing them entirely feels hypocritical. And yet, and yet. . . . 

How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? What if we are in the unusual position of having helped create it? Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art—change is essential, but so, too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism, so that we may properly gauge how far we have come, and also how far we still need to go.

What About “The Breakfast Club”? [Molly Ringwald/The New Yorker]

(via Kottke)

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