Cinema, grad school, media literacy

A little while ago, I was listening to this podcast, on which the special guest was one of my friends from grad school, Chris. The subject of John Hughes movies came up, as it will, and inevitably the hosts noted that Hughes had a keen ear for the music of the time. OMD’s If You Leave was mentioned, and hoo boy, that’s a song that throws me back to 1986 in a hurry. When I later mentioned to Chris that I agreed with him that it’s a fantastic song, I reflected that the film in which it plays an integral part, Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (1986) was kind of a watershed for me.

“I could see that,” he said.

This gave me pause. Really? It shows? But it’s true. Pretty in Pink is the thing from which many things Megan come.

Check it: Poor girl from the literal wrong side of the tracks attracts a handsome “richie” aka wealthy boyfriend. It’s awkward, then goes well, then doesn’t, then she makes a questionable looking Prom dress for all the right reasons, shows incredible strength and (spoiler) Richie sees the error of his weak-spined ways. Kiss in the parking lot, and scene.

Also she has extraordinary friends, a missing parent, and an incredibly creative wardrobe.

Okay, except for the Prom dress making and the happy ending, this was my high school experience.


My parents split in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, plunging my mom and me into food stamps and scraping by. We lived on quite the wrong side of town, out of my school’s district, and fibbed to the school about my actual address until we finally moved into an even more wrong part of town, socially speaking.

In the next year, a friend named Kelly  taught me to shop at Goodwill. This was a revelation, and I could augment the so-so clothes we could afford with funky sweaters, cast-off sequined tops and hats. Oh, the glorious hats. I found myself in thrifting and in wearing ever-increasingly unusual things.

I wore hats I bought at antique stores and silver sandals, big hoop earrings and a little yellow leather box purse, slung across my chest like a messenger bag.  I’d gotten it on a band trip to Europe that fateful end-of-my-family summer – the last big thing my parents did for me before the divorce, and I still don’t know how they paid for it. And for all of junior year I had a wealthy boyfriend from the right side of town.

All of this is to say, I was living some Andie Walsh realness and I didn’t even know it.

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Andie and Me.

There are differences, yes. My boyfriend cheerfully took me to the prom, so we avoided the WHAT ABOUT PROM, BLAINE? scene in the hall. We broke up the next fall and it was sort of mutual. Kind of. I pined, but you do that when you’re 17 and your family is a mess and Boyfriend represents some kind of stability. You do that.

James Spader wasn’t there. But I knew a guy with a Trans Am and he was REALLY cute.

And no one performed this for me.

Duckie or no, Pretty in Pink is one of those movies that stuck in my consciousness and has never left. In my own desire for funky earrings and vintage hats, I think I was searching for the freedom of expression that Molly Ringwald’s Andie exhibited. Sure, she dressed the way she did because she couldn’t afford to shop where the rich kids did, but she also chose to express her creativity and sense of style honestly and openly. She wasn’t trying to look like everyone else, on a shoe-string budget. She was being herself. Perhaps something that started from necessity became for her a calling card, a statement, a declaration.

And beyond her clothes, Andie is a girl/woman who is fearless in declaring her right to be herself. In the WHAT ABOUT PROM scene; in her unusual and devoted relationships; in her final, defiant appearance in the ending scenes, Andie is Andie’s best champion and completely her own person. I love her for that.

And there’s something else in this film, a small but pivotal scene between Andie and the school principal, that moved me from the first time I saw it and continues to capture me.

In it, Andie has been called to the principal’s office for speaking out in class against some prototypical mean girls. I always want the principal to go to bat for her, but instead he turns the conversation slightly on its side.

“If you give off signals that you don’t want to belong,” he tells her,  “people will make sure that you don’t.”

At twelve I found this statement profoundly unfair. At twenty, I found it unsettling. And at forty, I get it. It’s true. And I wasn’t wrong at twelve – it is, indeed, unfair. But if you unpack it a little, you can see, deep in its heart, the notion that we are responsible for our own happiness. Whether we choose to fit in or not, we need to own our choices and own our joys and sorrows. We can’t always control what life hands us but we can decide how we react and how we deal with the people around us. Andie is eighteen; she’s just learning this. When I was young, I thought the principal was trying to stifle her sense of justice, but now, I see him guiding her through a world that will not always be easy, or kind, or fair.

To me, this was the genius of John Hughes. He could tap into the pain and humor of adolescence like no one else. And he portrayed the unique stories of teenage girls with a dignity, honesty, and respect that few ever have. He knew that growing up is complicated and messy and it largely sucks. There are few absolute truths. There are few absolute rights and wrongs. It is up to you to decide your truths and live by them.

And then there’s this, best scene ever:

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Me too, girl.