What amount of ink hasn’t been spilled over the oeuvre of John Hughes and his many-splendored universe of characters? There has also been no shortage of backlash and vitriolic criticisms of the auteur’s work, mainly discussing his tunnel vision of depicting only exemplars of white privilege (Ferris Bueller, in particular, gets a lot of flak). But no matter what one’s stance is on the man that essentially made the 1980s his marionette, there can be no denying that one of his character creations in particular–Jake Ryan–is what ruined a legion of subsequent generations of primarily white suburban-raised females still clinging to movie romance for life. Jake’s mild-manneredness, self-effacing smile and timeless flannel shirt and khaki (or were they more classifiable as simply green?) pants ensemble remain enough to make any remaining straight female swoon.
Michael Schoeffling, the actor who portrayed him and would go on to do little else after Vision Quest (best known for Madonna making a cameo as a lounge singer) and Mermaids co-starring Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci, was the very pinnacle of what every girl wants in aesthetic. The man was, at one point, a GQ model, after all. But it was Hughes’ ability to imbue Schoeffling, the ultimate female fantasy based on looks alone, with the type of personality that made him a double threat. The sort of knight in shining armor for the modern era that renewed the female faith in love of a monogamous and, yes, heteronormative nature. Because, to be sure, for as maligned as the heteronormative is now, its subjugation only serves to make Jake Ryan the last talisman of a time when it was still possible for the wide-eyed wallflower girl to be convinced of love that lasts. Of men being capable of romance when, at best, they’re really only capable of ignoring you over time should they choose to remain with you at all.
I’ve had perhaps too many heightened senses of disappointment as a result of watching Sixteen Candles ad nauseum in my youth. It wasn’t even a movie “of my generation,” so much as the fact that Hughes simply got to me thanks to having cable and an older sister–and because his worldview spoke to the prison of my suburbia, the isolated castle tower where I expected to be rescued from a life of dullness and parental neglect by the likes of a Jake Ryan type. But there were definitely none to be had at my own high school, peppered only with Steff (James Spader) in Pretty in Pink brethren rather than anything even remotely resembling the warmth and attractiveness of Jake. So I assumed maybe I would find him–or rather, he would find me–in my collegiate years. But no, the person who found me there was a rapist who seemed “nice” in my inebriated reverie on Hollywood Boulevard, where I lost my virginity against my will at nineteen. I suppose I had the Sam Baker (Molly Ringwald) naïveté about me that made me seem an easy drunk target. In short, I got the Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris) experience. Though it’s so often downplayed in the film, she has sex she doesn’t remember with, of all people, Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), and the morning after claims to “think” she enjoyed it. That’s what I told myself too, brushing off the incident and going on my not so merry way. It would be another couple of years before I decided to engage in sexual activity of any sort again. I didn’t want the PTSD, or worse, the trauma of anticlimax–a total lack of feeling for the other person–to make me start sobbing afterward. When I did finally do it again, it was, once more with a random guy who I wouldn’t see again.
So far, my existence was not falling in line with Samantha’s, with encountering a Jake who would would treat me well and for some bizarre reason lust after me in spite of my average looks. But still, I persisted in placing confidence in the yarn John Hughes had spun me. Was even foolish to revisit the film multiple times in my early and mid-twenties for reassurance. And though watching it in my “old age” should have been the wake up call I needed to make me see that I had been wearing the rose-colored glasses of youth while viewing it in junior high and high school, it only made me cling all the more desperately to this notion of a guy who would come to the ends of the earth–a.k.a. someplace anachronistic like a church–to fetch me–save me from the banality of something like family–in his Porsche, no less. It’s in this way that, apart from Disney, Hughes fed all women the grandest lie of all: that we could sit back and wait to be saved, that it would all work out in the final act and we would be rewarded for our efforts of devotion and pining–the way Jane Austen characters were, too.
On the twentieth anniversary of the film’s release, an article in The Washington Post described the phenomenon that is Jake Ryan–of the female obsession with him–and by a male writer, no less. Hank Stuever wrote, “there are women out there in their late-twenties to mid-thirties (and even younger, including teenage girls today who weren’t even around in that era) who to this day are still pining for a fictional character, the perfect high school crush.”
At the end, the scene every person versed in Pop Culture 101 is familiar with by now, Jake takes her back to his empty rich boy’s palace and provides her with a cake to belatedly celebrate the birthday her own plebeian-by-comparison family forgot. Sitting cross-legged atop a table together with the flaming candles in between them, Jake insists, “Make a wish.” Well, the only wish any girl ever had after seeing this was that a boyfriend like him could actually materialize.
Little is known about Schoeffling since he stopped acting, other than the minor details that he opened a woodworking business in Pennsylvania where he lives with his his wife, Valerie, also a former model. Or maybe his life is just too common to extend any further details beyond that, another crushing blow to the lore of Jake. When GQ attempted to track Schoeffling down for an interview in the early 00s, he was dubbed “the Salinger of male model/actors.” And yet, someone that never existed–Jake Ryan–can’t really disappear.
Maybe primarily white women reared in suburbia shouldn’t be so hard on Jake and Hughes though, instead turning the mirror back on themselves to place the blame for their own false expectations. Maybe it’s as the Pet Shop Boys–another staple of the eighties–have said, and “love is a bourgeois construct.” There can be no better indication of this than the films of Hughes, and Sixteen Candles especially. White girls with nothing but so-called time on their hands to fixate on a nonexistent man, and, by extension, fixate on themselves. Jake Ryan ruined us all by allowing us to ruin ourselves, permitting us to indulge in the dangers of a fantasy that, now more than ever, can’t be fulfilled.