Some ’80s movies have aged well, like Dirty Dancing and The Princess Bride, and are still enjoyable to view over 30 years later. But some other movies from the era of neon clothing, crimped hair, and Ronald Reagan have not fared so well. Unfortunately, Sixteen Candles lands squarely in the latter category.
Sure, it was a product of the time — which was arguably much different from today — so some of the unsavory elements can be chalked up to that. And other John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off didn’t age quite so poorly, so it’s not solely a directorial issue. So what exactly happened in the film that’s so perturbing to today’s adult viewers, even if you loved it back in the day? Here are the disturbing things only adults will notice in Sixteen Candles.
Mike, Sam’s brother, is a misogynist
Right out of the gate, viewers are subjected to misogyny and inappropriate behavior by Sam’s younger brother, Mike. After he’s chastised by his father for threatening to hit his sister, Sara, he responds, "I didn’t hit her, but I probably will later. Give me a break! You know my method. I don’t hit her when you’re just down the hall." If that was the end of it, you could chalk that up to sibling banter, but Mike’s just warming up.
Not long later, upon learning that his sister, Ginny, had gotten her period the day before her wedding, he tells his father all about it. He also remarks that it "should make for an interesting honeymoon." And when his seemingly aghast father asks him where he’s learning "that stuff," Mike responds that he’s learning it at school. His father then says, "Good! I’m getting my money’s worth," in a creepy pivot that indicates his approval.
Mike also calls Sam a "birth defect" as she’s coming down the stairs, and tops it all off by remarking that she only eats carrots to increase the size of her breasts. That’s some non-stop creepiness, from a kid no less.
Sam’s grandmother touches her inappropriately
Mike isn’t the only member of the family who lacks boundaries and disrespects Sam’s individual autonomy. In fact, Sam’s grandparents — Grandma Helen and Grandpa Fred — clearly cross the line as well.
At one point, when they’re sizing Sam up to see how she’s grown, Helen points out that Sam has "gotten her boobies" to Fred. He laughs, and says, "I better go get my magnifying glass," which is supposed to be a funny comment on her breast size. Helen, clearly amused, then remarks, "Oh, and they are so perky!"
As if that isn’t humiliating enough, she then reaches out to grab Sam’s breasts. The camera doesn’t show it, but Sam laments in the next cutaway that she can’t believe her grandmother felt her up. She’s a sweet old grandmother, so she may get a pass from viewers for this sort of behavior, but the fact remains: any touching of private parts without consent qualifies as sexual assault.
Racism is rampant
Plenty of ’80s movies deployed racist stereotypes, jokes, and characters, and Sixteen Candles is no exception. Early on, Sam’s dad calls the Ryszczyks the "rice chex," poking fun at foreign-sounding names. Sam’s mom admonishes him, but later in the film, she does the same thing for the same laughs. Additionally, Randy asks Sam if she wants "a black guy" when Sam’s referring to a car; Sam corrects her and says she wants a black Trans-Am.
But by far, the worst, most blatant racism in the film is the character (or caricature, really) of the offensively-named Long Duk Dong, a walking stereotype who’s treated terribly. For one, a gong sounds every time his name is said. Additionally, Mike muses that they will have to "burn the sheets and mattresses after he leaves." Later, Mike complains that he has to "sleep under some Chinaman named after a duck’s dork.
"Turning Japanese" even plays on the radio when Long Duk Dong drops Sam off after the dance, even though he’s Chinese (though, the actor is Japanese-American). After the party, he drunkenly leaps from a tree and yells, "bonsai!"
When the family finds him passed out on the grass, he comes to saying "no more yanky my wankie, the donger need food!" and laughs. When they realize he’s crashed the car, the grandmother kicks him hard in the stomach. He’s mocked to the bitter end.
Jerk and jock culture runs rampant
The jock traditions of objectifying women and bullying geeks is alive and well in Sixteen Candles. First, during the pull-up scene, Jake muses that Sam "isn’t ugly," but his friend responds by calling her a "void." Then Jake, who’s all about Jake, notes that "it’s kind of cool, the way she’s always looking at me." His friend dismisses him again, saying, "maybe she’s retarded," in another offensive move.
But Jake brings it back to himself yet again, waxing that, "She looks at me like she’s in love with me." His friend dismisses him, telling Jake that Sam’s "a child." Then he inquires, "What are you going to do with her? She’s too young to party serious." By "party serious", you can safely assume that he means drink and have sex.
Then, later in the film, the jocks at the party lock Farmer Ted (AKA The Geek) in a glass coffee table, where he could have suffocated and died had Jake not found him. They also put his friends in the trunk of a car and ride around with them locked inside, again using violence and dominance to assert their meathead authority.
Jake treats Caroline horribly
Even though Jake is the apple of Sam’s eye and an ’80s male ideal, he’s actually a real jerk to Caroline, his girlfriend. He pursues Sam while he’s still with her, at one point telling her to leave him alone while he tries to call Sam on the phone.
He’s so disinterested in her that he accidentally shuts the door on her hair, which she drunkenly doesn’t notice. (Her friends aren’t much better, as they cut her hair instead of actually helping her, while a crowd looks on amused).
After the party, when Jake and Ted are chatting in the kitchen, Jake says he can "get a piece of ass anytime" he wants, referring in this case to Caroline, who’s passed out cold in the bedroom from drinking. He adds, "I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to," to which Ted earnestly responds, "What are you waiting for?"
Toward the end of the scene, Jake trades Caroline to Ted for a pair of Sam’s underwear, with the implicit understanding that Ted could go ahead and rape her if he wanted to. Clearly Jake doesn’t care about Caroline, or consent for that matter.
Sam and Randy do and say messed up things, too
It seems no one in the film has any sense of what healthy boundaries are, Sam and Randy included. They both gawk and stare at Caroline when she’s showering, naked and clearly unaware. The camera amplifies her nudity by opening the scene with a close-up of her breasts. Sam and Randy continue to discuss her "perfect" body, and note how she had to "flunk about nine grades" to be so sexually developed.
Then Randy notes that Caroline’s brother is deaf, and points out that people practically worship her in the same breath, which shows they think she’s benefiting from his disability. So not only are they staring at her without consent, but they’re also making ableist assumptions about her and her family.
There are LGBT slurs
Sixteen Candles doesn’t stop at misogyny and racism. It also includes a dose of homophobia in the form of slurs. First, Sam calls Ted a gay slur while they’re on the bus. Later, at the party at Jake’s house, Ted hurls another gay slur at his friends. In both cases, the language is used to intentionally feminize people as an insult.
Ted constantly sexually harasses Sam
One of the most egregious things in Sixteen Candles is the non-stop sexual harassment of Sam by Ted. It starts on the bus when he sits next to her, quickly invading her personal space. He ponders, "I’m a boy, you’re a girl, is there anything wrong about me trying to put together some kind of relationship between us?" Sam expresses her disinterest, but Ted doesn’t take the hint.
Later, at the dance, he has a friend scope her out with goggles, and calls her "fully aged sophomore meat." He then makes a bet that he can "get it all" with her. He also remarks to Jake that she has "smallish tits" and "smells pretty good."
Eventually, he follows her into the auto shop, where she begrudgingly lets him sit in the car with her. While they’re talking, he tries to get on top of her twice, and she has to push him off each time. And even though he admits to Sam that he "didn’t mean to be a poozer on the bus," and that he acts like that just to impress his friends, he still asks her point blank to have sex with him.
In the end, he does finally leave her alone, but only after she gives him her underwear because she feels sorry for him. The accumulation of cringe-worthy encounters is exhausting to watch.
Intoxicated women are comedy fodder
Intoxicated women are used as a comedic elements several times in the film. First, Caroline is drunk and rowdy at the party, then alternates between being drunk and passed out in the car afterwards. At one point when she comes to, after Jake has "given" her to Ted, Jake tells her that he’s Ted and vice-versa; her ensuing, drunken confusion is clearly meant to be funny.
Once Ted and Caroline are on the road, Caroline acts recklessly, drinking, messing with the controls, and throwing booze bottles out of the window. She also feeds Ted a birth control pill and laughs hysterically. Then, when she’s again passed out, Ted and his friends attempt to get a photo of him with her to prove the encounter occurred.
The second character whose intoxication is used for laughs is Sam’s sister Ginny, who’s high on muscle relaxers at her wedding. She took them to deal with discomfort from her period, but clearly took too many. She stumbles around, slurs her speech, sits in a pew during her walk down the aisle, and pulls pieces of her dress off in front of the guests.
But rather than postpone the ceremony or help her, everyone props her up and does everything to keep the ceremony going. It’s clearly supposed to be hilarious, but it’s disturbing to watch her stumble around, the cameraman gleefully capturing every second on film. Even the groom thinks it’s all a gas.