How do you survive fame?
We talk to Molly Ringwald, formerly the most famous teenager in America
We have entered the month of February.
Some people think of it as the worst of the month of the year. I must confess, I am ”some people.” February, like life in a Russian novel, is senseless, brutal, and relentlessly cold. I guess unlike a Russian novel it’s short.
But! I remind myself that February is winter’s August, the month where the season is so obviously on the brink of death that all it can do is over-compensate by becoming the most intense version of itself. I’m so glad winter’s almost over. Winter sucks.
Anyway, that was your weekly bulletin of the Weather Talk Newsletter. Here’s a new episode of Search Engine for you.
This week’s episode
Molly Ringwald joins us to talk about a time in her life when her job was to pretend to be a normal American teenager, a job which made it impossible to actually be a normal American teenager.
How did she learn to survive? In an era when the internet has turned many more people into public figures, what can everybody else learn from her?
Plus, Sruthi Pinnamaneni tries to learn more about a rare and enchanting song.
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More from this week’s episode
At the end of the show, our editor Sruthi interviewed musician Olympia Vitalis, whose song “Curls” she found so hypnotic.
And here’s Olympia’s latest song.
I really enjoyed the feeling of the interview. I liked hearing from Olympia. A person who is stepping out onto a stage for what feels like the first time. I’m excited to hear more music from her.
More about Molly Ringwald and her teen movies
I mentioned this in passing in the episode, but Molly wrote an essay for The New Yorker about her John Hughes films that I really liked. I read it as kind of a model for how to think about certain tricky artistic questions.
In the essay, she looks back at these movies she starred in. These movies were so important to so many people. At the same time they contain moments that don’t translate to our present ideas about what’s appropriate.
Obviously we’re always re-evaluating the pop culture of the past through the lens of the present. Our ideas about what’s funny, what’s appropriate, what’s normal, etcetera are always changing, blah blah blah, we all know this. But the essay stood out for me because of how thoughtful it was.
The piece so well balanced what the movies meant back then versus what they mean now, as well as how up for grabs their meaning even is. It reminds me how tricky it is to have one final or definitive feeling about anything, but particularly about a piece of art.
You should read the whole thing, but here’s a long-ish passage I liked.
John [Hughes] believed in me, and in my gifts as an actress, more than anyone else I’ve known, and he was the first person to tell me that I had to write and direct one day. He was also a phenomenal grudge-keeper, and he could respond to perceived rejection in much the same way the character of Bender did in “The Breakfast Club.” But I’m not thinking about the man right now but of the films that he left behind. Films that I am proud of in so many ways. Films that, like his earlier writing, though to a much lesser extent, could also be considered racist, misogynistic, and, at times, homophobic. The words “fag” and “faggot” are tossed around with abandon; the character of Long Duk Dong, in “Sixteen Candles,” is a grotesque stereotype, as other writers have detailed far more eloquently than I could.
And yet I have been told more times than I could count, by both friends and strangers, including people in the L.G.B.T. community, that the films “saved” them. Leaving a party not long ago, I was stopped by Emil Wilbekin, a gay, African-American friend of a friend, who wanted to tell me just that. I smiled and thanked him, but what I wanted to say was “Why?” There is barely a person of color to be found in the films, and no characters are openly gay. A week or so after the party, I asked my friend to put me in touch with him. In an e-mail, Wilbekin, a journalist who created an organization called Native Son, devoted to empowering gay black men, expanded upon what he had said to me as I had left the party. “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.
“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 pummeled.”
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. . . .
Again, just go read the whole thing! It’s not very long.
Okay, that’s us this week. We have a new one for you next Friday, a story about house cats that we’ve been working on for awhile.
It’s such a joy to be here. Thanks for listening, thanks for reading, just a few short weeks till March.