The Works of Catherine Berendsohn

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 Rape Culture At Work in Film Sixteen Candles- The Massacre of Caroline Mulford

 Rape Culture At Work in Film

     Last night I felt like watching an eighties movie. I wanted to go back to a lighter time in film, the weight of the world gets depressing watching the news, and I wanted a break. My parents and I had just eaten an easy pizza dinner. Mom had needed a break, too. It was our time to unwind and unplug by plugging into a movie. Get me to walk down a different path for a while, take a vacation from daily concerns. So we scrolled through the endless listings looking for a bite on our common interest. I was hoping for something with more of a humor or romance to it, but we came back to Sixteen Candles because it seemed the closest thing we were going to get. Daddy went to bed shortly as is usual, so it was my mother and I watching hero Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald) face the embarrassments of being a teen and the turn around of her sixteenth birthday.

     My memory of the movie was faint, I had just been commenting that I missed a bunch of eighties classics when I was younger and I didn't feel as connected to them as I would have if I had seen them at more formative relatable times. I even said I wished I had seen this when I had turned sixteen. It seemed a bit after the fact in my late twenties. 

     Now watching this film I expected the upswing of feeling of having a relatable heroine getting the focus of the lens for a while, bringing me back to my own heroism facing the pitfalls of teenage life, a way of reframing myself so to speak. This is after all the real pay off of seeing someone like you up there, having everyone tune into their perspective for a bit of time. It is a kind of flip of the switch, "oh, wow, look at what it is like". And I was prepared for that. To laugh and remember what that life was like, and come away with a bit of appreciation for that hero I can see myself as for one to two hours of my life.

     What I was not prepared for was the eeriness that started to fill my stomach when Samantha's competition for her dream guy was introduced into the story.

     The first thing that struck me was suddenly there were naked breasts in the movie, a close up of perky, young, completely thrown at our vision, boobs. "Boobs" seems the right word, the irreverent looping of Os makes a similar visual in its letter choice to that scene. And I was thrown, watching with my mother, and I exclaimed that I didn't remember naked people in this, and she was saying the same thing. We both had an assumed impression that it was a cute eighties film for sixteen year olds and didn't remember much else. It felt awkward, and then as I watched the scene it was becoming something more.

     I felt uneasy about the naked beautiful girl. I draw people nude, but what it has more to do with is the mind that looks than with the body exposed. I felt glad I never was in such a locker room, this very image, setting up a girl to stand naked under the lens for all to see, an assumed line to cross to get to be in film roles, brought up the disturbing warnings of people about what Goldie Hawn recently referred to as "staying off the audition couch" when I am getting work as an actor in things like "Ballers" and "Big Little Lies".  I'd felt shocked and told them these were good professional hard working people, I was deeply appalled at the warnings! Watching this actor in Sixteen Candles have no value placed on her nakedness seemed like an echo of confirmation of where all those thoughts came from. A pressure of having to go there if I want to be daring or real or push the human envelope as a female actor. I did not like the way this was filmed for the thoughtless eye here cast on the popular pretty girl, that was somehow missing the lens I feel as the artist drawing a figure. And the difference in viewer would grow as I watched, as would a growing horror of recognition for what was being done to her character.

      The truth is Caroline Mulford was massacred at her very introduction. She was destroyed by the removal of self at the first view of her dislocated breasts. The girls staring at her give us an excuse as a society to stare at her time alone with herself in the water. And we are meant not to like her, we side with the "different" appeal of Samantha contending with this perfect specimen of sex. That, there, is already the problem. That is all she is. Even Samantha is trapped already in the same box, glass walls never noticed, ubiquitously allowed, by her competition and being into this arena. She never questions how she sees this girl, or any of the exchanges going on. And neither are we meant to as the audience.

     The nastiest mean girl there is, still is what here? A seventeen year old? She is playing claw stabs with what is afforded her by social games. She may be a complete mask to herself. But no matter how shallow or unaware of herself she is, she still is someone you never know with her own favorite song that she loves. She still was the girl with her life, her memories, her family. I can imagine her running across her front lawn laughing at the wind through her hair when she was six. What is the secret world of Caroline Mulford, that she does not even acknowledge out loud? What are the string of pearls that compose her moments of self? All of this is dead at her introduction, even as she represents all "mean", "popular"- or guilty as charged- "pretty" women of the world for which this removal is not true. The reality of the person is destroyed without a bat of an eye. It is her fault. She asked for it. She brought it on herself. She is too hot for the moment to be taken to notice such things. So by our example, she never learns to notice them herself. She does not ask theses things of herself. She is shallow, see? She gets things easily by the tyrannies we all fashioned around her before she was born and perpetuate without question now. All of this is contained in the way we are made to look at Caroline Mulford. 

     As the movie went on, I found the other exchanges with the nerdy blonde freshman "Farmer Ted" that Samantha undergoes as part of her embarrassments of the day also would take a sudden dip in the wrong direction. He approaches her on the bus and sits next to her invading her personal space. See now when I am watching this, it starts cute- kind of- but uncomfortable memories start rising in me. I feel how wrong it is to have a boy that close without permission, raising uncomfortable familiarities, and realizing that the guys watching this, even myself in the past, probably let this slide more, a numb kind of taking in by watching in the projected light hearted humor of the movies environment, getting me to subconsciously lean toward giving the director the benefit of the doubt. But watching with my mother changed this. I was more aware of what I was really seeing, and when my discomfort I might have stomached and brushed aside was written on her face, that stayed with me. My mom is a funny woman, she can take a joke better than me, she is wild and hilarious and not phased, unless something is actually wrong. Something was happening as we watched this together. That lighter dismissal asked for by the glib pass by of the director's lens for a lovable eighties teen movie was being removed as we watched this with the most important woman in our lives: each other.

     I also recognize behavior like I never have before. I saw that too, watching sixteen year old Samantha just feel a deep bother at this boy's "overbearing" advances, and later make friends with him. But I knew how wrong this was for her as a slow beating down of her sense of rightness before it ever got to fully develop. I know as someone who has done that, because I went through the slowly breaking away pieces of trust over the hazy transition of teen years, years traversed by the mounting of violations to educate me on what was truly wrong with exchanges with men and boys that I should not have ever undergone. Here it was, with the deepest horror painted on top, that it went completely unnoticed. There was a complete allowance of this behavior as a "funny" device.

     The thing is, it did succeed at first. My mother and I felt for the awkward boy with out of place enterprise to approach the girl out of his league. But at certain moments he crossed her physical rights, sometimes by the grossness of what he said and also by touch. At these moments we both actually reacted, our bodies moved by the deep personal disturbance. It was not timed well, it was not of smart effect, because it was an ignored contribution, an accident because the film makers did not intend it, it was obvious to us. This disturbed us more deeply than any scary movie. It was the scariest, its implication was so deep that these were crimes, violating offenses, so allowed it was presented as a humor, equal to embarrassments a girl must suffer on her no good, terrible, very bad day, and it was obvious a man had come up with this who did not know at all what these things were like, he was using what he remembered from that time of children budding into their puberty, plays at partnership and first sexuality and unsupervised freedoms.

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