Prisoners of Time: John Hughes and the Cultural Unconscious

Snarky attitude aside, Bill Maher had an interesting New Rules segment called “The What Were You Thinking Generation” where he responded to the Molly Ringwald article “What About the Breakfast Club?”  in The New Yorker.  In Ringwald’s article, she revisits the three films she made with iconic writer-director John Hughes in the 1980s, Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink.  Hughes also made Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, Meatballs, among others in a prolific decade.  Ringwald writes about how surreal it is to watch one’s younger self with her daughter, and finds it something like cringe-watching these classics.



Ringwald doesn’t hold back on Hughes, noting how squeamish it is too look back on the racist, rapey, letchy and homophobic locker room innuendo.  Its white upper-middle-class frat house comedy stuck in its time.   (Anyone remember Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles?  Or Judd Nelson poking Ringwald in the vagina in The Breakfast Club?)  Hughes wasn’t alone here, the 1980s were full of these kinds of comedies (Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead) that champion panty raid prowess.   Along with the Harold Ramis pictures like Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Animal House which are baby boomer young Republican eighties canon, movies by men specifically geared for the entertainment of boys, (or … er … man-children).




Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles


Hadley Freeman in her humorous  article “Times move pretty fast!” in the Guardian counted down a top ten of the worst offenders.  And it’s in her humorous reading of the whole situation in which she provides a nice response to Maher’s complaint that one can’t be held accountable for being prisoners of the time in which one lives.


It begs the question, what does it even mean to be a prisoner of time, to be trapped in the Zeitgeist?  The biases of language itself make it tempting for us to pin blame for the past on the individuals who made it up.  It gives us a convenient out from any culpability by othering those people back then while at the same time secretly pumping ourselves up.  It is sometimes used as a cudgel to hammer historical figures.  But the truth of the Zeitgeist and the cultural unconscious is probably much stranger, kind of like what relativity is to classical Newtonian physics.


This cultural relativity, if you will, is challenging because it goes against the fantasy that we have free will, but are in fact products of culture.  That language, biases, and even the symbolic lexicon of our psyches are in some ways inscribed – like Kafka’s machine – by the culture being etched onto our wills.


To borrow from psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, this is the way history works on all of us – not as a dead past but as an undead present etched into all of our minds as children as enigmatic messages transmitted unconsciously from the adult world.  The culture itself is a kind of map inculcating us, delineating the contours of fear and desire.  It’s how the past haunts the present, how antiquated racism, sexism, have their own forward momentum despite our conscious selves or our best intentions.  It is the culture itself that creates what is conscious and unconscious within us all.


I love watching old movies in part because they are cultural time machines.  In some sense, they are cultural fun house mirrors.  Culture tells us what we can talk about and how we talk about it.  It also informs us what is taboo, or witty, or naughty, or funny because its riffing precisely on cultural neuroses.  I think it’s also why of all old movies, comedies rather than dramas, suffer the more through time.  They really don’t age as well because they are playing on the cultural hang ups of the moment.  Try re-watching Austin Powers.


Speaking of which, it would be an interesting experiment to see Mike Myers reboot his Austin Powers movies where this time instead of thawing out a cryogenically frozen British spy of the 1960s in the 1990s, have a British spy of the 1990s thawed out in the 2020s.  Austin Powers’ comedy rested on a fish-out-of-water tale in which his somewhat backward, yet endearing, ideas of culture.  He’ll thaw out in his nineties double-breasted and shoulder-padded suit and he’ll be satirized for his racism, sexism and transphobia.


Austin Powers frozen in time


Instead of condemning the past wholesale in some futile attempt to Purell the puerile culture, what we need instead is to form within ourselves a dualistic consciousness that Freeman and Ringwald endorse.  We can watch the old movies, enjoy elements that can still speak to us, such as how Hughes got so much right about teenage isolation and loneliness.  In effect, growing an acceptance of ambiguity, of both enjoying like a child and being critical like an adult, is integral to maturity.


At the same time it leaves open the question that perhaps we ourselves are not the bastions of enlightenment that we think we are, but are much the product of our cultural time.  I suspect every generation believes that they are the ones who have it all figured out.  Until they start to be replaced by a new generation and start to long for the good old days.  But the acceptance of this mutability and ambiguity leaves open the consciousness  possible directions for the future striving for the wokeness of self-knowledge.  A future in which, inevitably, future generations will look back at us as prisoners of this time and see us for the barbarians we are.


Will there be a time when people will look back at us and think our banal acceptance of poverty is deplorable?  And will curse us for our waste of food, or our dumping of toxic chemicals and plastics in the ocean is beyond reprehensible?  Will future generations be appalled by the way we treated each other and the earth?  I suspect yes.  And that this time is not too far away.   It may help if we can laugh a bit at our tragic folly.