by Courtney Duckworth
In one of Pretty in Pink’s most iconic sequences, Duckie (Jon Cryer) enters a record shop where Andie (Molly Ringwald) perches atop the counter like a teenage sphinx. Just before, Andie’s female friend Iona sets the tone while placing the record needle: “One more tune and it’s off to enjoy a terrible relationship.” The tune is Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”: a prayer and, in Duckie’s case, a possession followed by an exorcism. He lip syncs within Andie and Iona’s view; Redding’s voice flowing through him, and the movie’s complete surrender to the song’s length, lends everything a jarring, fantastical quality.
As a teenager, I loved Duckie for this moment, and admired his dedication to Andie—and to the performance. But watching it now, the scene saddens me: its early, easier pleasures dissipated. Duckie pirouettes, shimmies, tap dances in sneakers, hurls himself against record shelves and an iron staircase. He flops to the ground and ricochets back up. His song is a plea begging Andie’s mercy, if not her romantic attentions. (Fat chance: Leaning conspiratorially towards Iona, Andie asks, referring to Duckie’s persistence, “Have you ever had one of these?”) Love is awful, the movie asserts again and again. See what it does to people.
If this seems cynical, remember teen movies cloak their toughest conversations in quirks or fantasy, because to be a teenager means to live in a world you do not yet devise. In another iconic John Hughes picture, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the charismatic title character draws his town’s animated concern for an illness he fakes to skip school; later, he dances atop a parade float to “Twist n’ Shout” within full view of his unsuspecting father, before whom he is magically invisible. It is redundant to point out his maleness; by contrast, Andie is simultaneously hypervisible and read as unappreciated by those around her. Popular boy Steff (a golden-haired James Spader) and friend Duckie lust and love after her, respectively; each feels he’s the only one who values her properly. And Andie does wants to be seen—in a way of her choosing. She doesn’t desire the exuberant freedom of Ferris’s invisibility, but a gaze that encompasses her completely, that understands her as she is, without assumptions: “I wanted him to love my body forgetful of what one knows of bodies” (Elena Ferrante).
Redheads are so alien that people often familiarize us: the bully in an afterschool special, Pepper Ann, Little Orphan Annie. At sixteen, red hair suddenly shorn a dramatic ten inches, I often caught Molly Ringwald comparisons, not least of which because at school I wore multiple layered skirts, clashing patterns, or 80s brooches pilfered from my mother. Now I tramp New York in jeans and oversized sweaters like the rest of the winter-dogged crew, but back then standing out was important to me, and my greatest anxiety seeming too normal. I didn’t look down on others for their side of the coin; those costumes simply didn’t suit my character.
But I was neither committed nor brave. Halfway through some days I would dart into the bathroom to lose a brooch, ditch an extra skirt, untie a knotted shirt so it didn’t bulge playfully like before’s bargain Comme des Garcons. In other words, I hedged. I never stopped coming to school in elaborate outfits, nor did I ever stop sabotaging them. For a teenager, the greatest sin is visible effort, and the theology of high school hallways compelling. Wanting to be both myself and desired by others, I felt forced to choose. And at sixteen years old I arrogantly imagined myself the only one pressed to make this choice.
If Pretty in Pink were the imagined fable of those high school days, the moral would perhaps be: Someday someone will appreciate you for who you are. But that platitude is simplistic: ill-fitting for the movie and myself. Despite Andie’s floral tights, circular wire glasses, and door knocker earrings, Steff and Duckie pursue her unceasingly; her crush Blane (Andrew McCarthy) soon follows. As a teenager, boys stammered that I was “intimidating” before fleeing, passed notes asking for dates only to rescind when I laughed out loud. I wasn’t mean, only stubborn; like Andie, I wanted to know the rules of engagement. Desire without respect seemed irrelevant.
When Duckie sees his offbeat humor has not, in fact, charmed his childhood friend Andie—and that she truly intends to date Blane, whose riches lay outside both their orbits—he confronts her. This revelation follows his song-and-dance number, deepening its sting; Duckie empties himself of everything via performance and still loses. He turns Nice Guy: Andie! You really piss me off. They shit on everyone, even you. I can’t believe you’d be this stupid. Andie rebuts: Who’s shitting on me? I’m not going to let anyone shit on me.
She’s right; thus far, she hasn’t. If Pretty in Pink favors one character trope, it is the disappointing man. In this world, men are types (remember: “Have you ever had one of these?”), and Andie practices first on her unemployed father (Harry Dean Stanton). In a reverse echo of Paris, Texas, Andie’s mother walked out on the family years before and—unable to contend with this lack of love from someone he loves so much—her father buckles, avoids work, reverts to a child. In the first scene, after Andie has armored herself in one volcanic ensemble, she goads him from bed to seek a job. She often prepares his breakfast; in one revealing scene, she pleads that he get over her mother, only to grasp said mother’s photograph and burst into tears the moment he leaves.
On the same day, at school, she wards off attentions from Steff, who evidently not for the first time wants what he insists is “more than sex.” So it is a surprise, then, that Duckie doesn’t trust her. Ironically for Andie, not letting anyone shit on her is a full-time job—from her father, to Steff and even Duckie, to the platinum blonde Mean Girls who mock her visibly working class clothes. Lacking much else, she guards herself and prioritizes the future. No one can touch her who she does not care for; meanwhile, she cruises by rich houses and selects her favorite, imagining decorations and the man who could ferry her there. If the math problem is How can Andie dodge these disappointing men and avoid working in a record store forever?, the solution is a better man or the scholarship to which her principal alludes.
The movie doesn’t reveal its hand. The final scene, Andie kissing Blane in prom’s rain-drenched parking lot, is a teenage Cinderella story but not The End. Her friend Iona is a warning, also imprisoned by male typologies: the deadbeat BDSM fetishist, the pet store owner she loves but who alters her. Andie’s escape isn’t so much a particular path; it is her assertion, after Duckie’s song, that she will not let anyone shit on her (the true moral).
As a senior in high school, the same age as Andie in the film, I dressed as her character for Halloween. The outfit was a collaboration with my mom: free or thrifted. Andie rattling off the prices of each item of clothing to her dad in a wry but proud way is a familiar exercise to me. My favorite boutiques were Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity; they undercut any anxiety I felt about using my parents’ hard-won money for “frivolous things”, and deepened my creativity. Even now I brag “only two dollars!” without anyone having asked, chest swelling at how nimbly I can ape style, cultural capital, at bargain prices.
The costume, however, was easy; my mother was in her twenties in the ‘80s and, among other things, lifted a clear plastic box of chunky earrings and brooches from the top of her closet. A button-up pink shirt followed (in the movie, Andie’s father about her mother: She always wore pink); a black blazer with considerable shoulder pads and gold buttons at the cuff; a brooch fashioned like a trippy, multicolored coat-of-arms; a hat with artificial flowers pinned at the brim; a tweed pencil skirt; white patterned tights; booties paired with colored socks (Andie’s favorite). Pearls, too, which Andie often wears (a drunk girl mocks them at a house party while she’s on a date with Blane), and which I like to imagine were her mother’s.
At school, I fielded questions. I don’t remember who anyone thought I was and, glancing boys in Superman T-shirts and girls in cat ears or bunny tail poofs, I felt somewhere between shaken and brave. Invented problems; in retrospect I was insecure; no one who mattered mocked my costume and, in fact, a few girls approached me in admiration, fingering the pearls or asking where I’d purchased this or that. Still, I encountered ogling eyes. As a teenager you mimic apathy out of necessity, not nihilism: Oh, yeah, I threw this together (the truth: my mom and I had carefully selected each element the night before). Creativity requires effort; effort is not considered an attractive quality by teenagers; I faked effortlessness.
Andie, who at that age I viewed as brave, seems vulnerable in retrospect. She can’t quite decide if she desires popularity. When rich girls bite, she defends them or bites back in turns, frustrated with “the way that we get treated.” On a date with Blane, she attempts to sidestep him driving her home, only to sob when this insecurity over her house and neighborhood is incomprehensible to him: a language he not only fails to recognize in her, but also would not know how to employ himself. On the same date, trapped by his insistence at Steff’s house party among the young elite, Andie finally begs to go, again with tears, and only smiles when Blane offers that she hit him for his mistake (she doesn’t). At prom, when Blane has dumped her to keep his rich friends, to theoretically please his parents, even with Duckie at her side she wavers like a mirage in the doorway. The prom’s wealth intimidates her; only those with money can afford hotel suites above for sex and camaraderie, dresses elegant enough to withstand ruthless teenage critique.
I didn’t care a whit for Halloween, instead jumping at a day to be acceptably, publicly creative. Andie’s battleground is not prom, though her ability to attend is a point of pride. Instead, Blane disrespected her; she sought respect: I just want them to know that they didn’t break me. To be a teenager sometimes means only to escape alive. To kiss in the parking lot. To reunite with your friend, who could never leave you in truth, even if you broke his heart.
At prom, when Blane half-heartedly apologizes (You couldn’t believe in someone who didn’t believe in you. I believed in you. I always believed in you. I just didn’t believe in me. I love you) and exits the ballroom, stage right, Duckie interjects: Andie, he came here alone. Okay, you’re right, he’s not like the others. Blane is different; while Steff feeds his blonde fuck buddy by hand like a demented child or future Trump, Blane grows, if only incrementally. He is Andie’s charming prince: handsome, popular, admiring. In an earlier scene, he whisks her away to a stable as in a fairy tale without deflowering her like some dime novel wastrel. Yet his tendencies remain the same, his worries about his parents, his shyness and hesitancy in defending her the unspoken privilege of a rich body.
And so I like to think of Duckie as a Nice Guy deprogrammed. He voices what the story needs. From Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn: “The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things.” Teen movies are often fairy tales whose villains are caricatures (the Mean Girls), with heroes overcoming a series of obstacles (Steff, her lax but loving father, even Duckie’s overbearing love) or laboring secretly (designing her iconic prom dress) to achieve happily ever after (a kiss), if just for a moment.
Sometimes equations are simple; Andie pursues Blane because he is what she desires. (And famously, Molly Ringwald altered the ending of the movie because she preferred Andrew McCarthy to Jon Cryer.) This desire, unpacked, could be as naive as his floppy hair and soft lips, or as tangled as the sense that he can provide her the house to decorate, the security to create. Viewing the movie as a high school student, I admired Andie’s obstinacy and pride, but mistrusted her choice. I loved Duckie’s song; I had never been pursued so insistently, and reveled in it vicariously. Watching now, however, I read his entitlement (they are childhood friends; he has been by her side and believed in her for years) as little different from Steff’s. Longevity versus status: both currency to buy her love.
Whether Andie marries Blane, dumps him for some college boy (or girl!), or ends life joyously alone, contented with her creations, it doesn’t matter. The teen movie is above all dedicated to the Cinderella story; what matters here are the triumphs among childish hierarchies, romantic fumblings, and grim fluorescent lighting. In this sense, Andie wins; she asserts her dignity and acquires a prince in one movement. She demands appreciation on her terms, in a prom dress handmade and spliced from two gifts: one from Iona and the other from her father.
At twenty-two, I like to imagine Iona’s dress is a hint. The design is pure A-line 60s: bubblegum pink and polka dots, purchased by her mother, Iona’s hair done up in a beehive. Iona is older than Andie, and years later she remembers: It would have been a fairytale if my date hadn’t been the only one at the prom with a wife and two kids. The comment is a punchline, and perhaps Andie’s completed fairytale presages something different. But Iona’s dress outlives the relationship, outlives old versions of herself, is transformed by Andie. Scrolling back through the photographs of me dressed as Molly Ringwald’s Andie, I feel no embarrassment (except for my embarrassment), only smile. The boys, the onlookers, those with the ogling gaze, do not matter. They pass away. And at the end Andie has her creation of gauze, tulle, and floral appliques; she has her vision for the future; she has her desire for respect. Whatever the ending, I trust her.
Courtney “Kit” Duckworth lives and writes in Brooklyn, though her heart remains in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Film Comment and Slate, among others.