It doesn’t matter the decade; Teenage angst has always been a prevalent factor in the development of teenagers. Adolescents are crafted and molded by the era they live within, thereby formulating a generation of ideologies about life. There are expectations placed upon these individuals, usually by parents who either wish to see their children succeed where they didn’t, or are living vicariously through them. Or worse, parents could be passive, leaving these teenagers with the understanding that their concerns and aspirations are not worth acknowledging. Regardless, such parenting formulates specific demeanors with adolescents. Oftentimes, teenagers are regarded with the following adjectives: Moody, angry, depressed, and misunderstood. Most important, most teenagers who fall into this category resent their family life and attribute their emotional core to the inferior parenting they have received.
This is the very foundation of director/writer John Hughes’ 1984 film, 16 Candles, yet the film is much more than the typical films of the 1980s that focused on teenage angst. What differentiates 16 Candles from other films is what is in its subtext. 16 Candles is a film that suggests teenage angst is linked to social status and how status forces individuals to conform within specific groups. Yet teenage angst blossoms due to people believing that they must comply with the social circumstances placed upon them, to which they shouldn’t openly complain. Instead, these adolescents internalize their feelings and sentiments, crafting a resentment not just towards their family, but society entirely. Due to internalizing their feelings, they come to believe they exist in a world that lacks the possibility of meeting their dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
The premise of 16 Candles is catapulted into a narrative with an instance of accidental parenting passivity. “I can’t believe this. They fucking forgot my birthday,” says an incredulous Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) after she has realized her entire family has forgotten her birthday. In fairness, her family has forgotten due to the high-maintenance stress of Samantha’s older sister’s wedding, which happens to coincide with the next day. What transpires is a day-in-the-life with Samantha as she copes with the reality that her family has forgotten about her special day, which enhances the typical nuances and annoyances that plague her daily life.
What is particularly impactful with the character of Samantha Baker falls in that while her life has flaws she wishes to be rid of, she never is demanding attention to be drawn towards her. That is the brilliance of both Ringwald’s performance and Hughes’ script. Rather than screaming at the world for validation, Samantha subverts her emotions. She internalizes her qualms and fears, believing nobody would care to hear her openly speak of them. This is a sentiment that is reinforced when Samantha states, after divulging her internalized fears about life to a would-be-suitor, known as “The Geek” (Anthony Michael Hall), “It’s really human of you to listen to all my bullshit.” In this moment, Samantha openly acknowledges her belief that her feelings are not relevant to anyone else, that keeping her inner secrets silent is the socially acceptable thing.
As 16 Candles portrays in its narrative, adolescents are not merely coming-of-age, but actively trying to be acknowledged as someone beyond their age demographic. Worse, these teenagers are placed within specific social circles that they seemingly cannot break out of. For Samantha, she is fortunate in that she fits in the average click. She’s not popular, but nor is she someone at the bottom of the status ladder either. Despite that, Samantha still deals with the qualm of being noticed. Being average means that one is noticed, but not in an impactful sort of way. One is born into their social status and are somewhat expected to remain within it. Samantha has come to believe that to conform to this status is what is socially acceptable for her. This translates into the main narrative point of 16 Candles, which is that Samantha is in love with Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling). Due to Jake being a senior, popular and with the perfect girlfriend, Samantha automatically assumes he wouldn’t ever give her the time of day. “He doesn’t even know I exist,” Samantha says repeatedly throughout the film, referring to her invisibility due to her social status.
The ironic and endearing component of 16 Candles is in that Jake Ryan actually does know Samantha exists. More importantly, he’s intrigued by her and is hoping she will muster the courage to talk to him. The audience never gets a glimpse into Jake’s family life, but one can deduce with the mansion home he lives in, the corvette he drives, and his seemingly perfect exterior, that he comes from a family of wealth and status. One would presume that Jake could have anything he wanted if he so much as asked for it. He comes from a family of entitlement and with that comes this societal presumption that Jake has nothing to complain about because he lives a life that most spend their entire life trying to achieve. Yet this life of seeming perfection has an adverse effect for Jake; He is socially expected to conform to these expectations placed upon him. To a degree, Jake has met these expectations: He is a football jock, his looks are flawless, and he is popular.
However, John Hughes’ script flips the popular jock cliché and stereotype regarding Jake. Rather than being self-serving, egoistical, or having a sense of superiority, Jake is the polar opposite of that social expectation. Jake is actually sweet, caring, sensitive, and loving. Yet, like Samantha, he internalizes his true feelings and his exterior is one that frames himself as perfect. He doesn’t believe his true feelings would be socially acceptable. Therefore, Jake inadvertently has framed himself to fit within the jock stereotype and is treated as such. This is particularly noticeable in how Brenda, his girlfriend (Haviland Morris), views him. She views Jake as her property and associates his social status as a means to party. She doesn’t see who he is internally and only views him as a representation of the jock stereotype. Thereby, when she invites the school over to have a party at Jake’s house (which essentially destroys his home), she doesn’t necessarily do this out of insensitivity, but because she has automatically presumed Jake would embrace the idea. As she states to Jake during the house party, “I fantasize that I’m your wife, and we’re the richest, most popular adults in town. I owe all my great weekends to you.” Brenda is unaware of Jake’s true feelings because social status outranks and voids true sentiment.
Yet, how does Jake Ryan openly acknowledge his feelings? Like Samantha earlier in the film, Jake divulges his internalized self to The Geek, who by this point in the film has been established as geeky, yes, but utterly refined due to his ability to be different. “I want a serious girlfriend,” Jake confesses to The Geek. “Somebody I can love, that’s gonna love me back. Is that psycho?” This is a particularly revealing moment with Jake in that he is openly admitting that he has long accepted his social status, but isn’t content with it. Like Samantha, he has long accepted that he must conform to the expectation set upon him. For a jock to want love instead of partying, that is a deviation from the narrative set on what spoiled rich jocks want. Jake’s desire for love is enough to potentially make him a social pariah and he knows it. The Geek reaffirms this notion with his response to Jake: “I think a ton of guys feel the same way as you do…It’s just they don’t…They don’t have the balls to admit it.”
This links to the final irony of 16 Candles: The Geek. When The Geek states to Jake that guys don’t have the balls to admit their feelings, he fails to recognize that he himself has ostracized himself socially due to having his internalized self being blatantly on display for all to see. The Geek, throughout the plot of 16 Candles, is striving for upwards social mobility. In his efforts to do so, The Geek’s sense of desperation is put on full display, thereby making him appear pathetic. He is taunted and teased, especially by Samantha, who pushes away his repeated advances towards her, yet this doesn’t deter him. The Geek realizes that the only way to take himself out of the lowest societal tier, he essentially has be adopted by someone within a higher social class, which would allow him to be inducted into a more acceptable world. However, The Geek further realizes that in order to excel, one must be noticed.
The Geek isn’t like Samantha or Jake in that they have accepted their social position. Instead, The Geek recognizes he must be noticed in order to build himself up. He has to be willing to humiliate himself in order to be accepted, which occurs repeatedly throughout the film’s narrative. For The Geek, the only way to be accepted and have the clout to move up the social ladder is to be a ladies’ man who is irresistible, which is quite the contrary to who he actually is as a person. This is why The Geek has the opposite effect as Jake and Samantha when he confesses his inner self to Samantha. “I’ve never bagged a babe. I’m not a stud,” he informs to Samantha, who bursts out laughing. What The Geek doesn’t realize is that his internal self is so public that everyone already is aware that he is a virgin. In fact, it is because of his internalized self being so public as to why he is unpopular. Yet it is because of The Geek’s openness to humiliation as to why both Samantha and Jake confide their inner selves with him, which inadvertently makes him the center and heart of 16 Candles.
This ultimately leads to the conclusion of the film, to which it can be argued that the internalized self has been stripped away for both Jake and Samantha. Jake’s worry of being regarded as a “psycho” because he wants love is abandoned when he says, “Yeah, you,” to Samantha from across the street before running to her. At the same time, Samantha’s internalized belief that she is invisible is debunked. When Jake notices her, she realizes that Jake does, in fact, know that she exists. This is largely as to why the film’s conclusion is both impactful and touching at the same time: Both Jake and Samantha have stepped away from society expectations that have been put on them and have instead embraced love as they see fit. For both of them, this is achieving the seemingly impossible. This is why the final lines of the movie, as Jake and Samantha sit across from each other over a glowing birthday cake, is so touching:
Jake: Happy Birthday, Samantha. Make a wish?
Samantha: It already came true.