Perhaps only in the 1980s could someone such as Molly Ringwald have been a teen idol. She was pale, redheaded and from Sacramento (not even though, but from a quaint little suburb outside of it called Roseville, so I guess Greta Gerwig still has sole claim to California’s capital city). None of these qualities exactly scream, “Star!” But with Ringwald, there was an approachability, and a different kind of vulnerability that the 80s seemed to need in a sea of artifice and decadence.

In Sixteen Candles, as Samantha
In Sixteen Candles, as Samantha

With her first appearance onscreen as a character named Molly Parker on Diff’rent Strokes in 1979 and The Facts of Life in 1980, Ringwald’s natural charisma caught the attention of Brat Pack auteur John Hughes. When Ringwald’s first major starring role as Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles happened in 1984, there was no stopping the public’s craving for more of this “everygirl.” She was the type of person you could be friends with, someone who seemed open to listening to and commiserating with all your boy problems.

This previously untapped sort of ingenue instantly struck “the suits” at Paramount and Universal Pictures as a goldmine. Ringwald’s trilogy of flawlessness was completed by The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink and, though she had other roles in the 80s, nothing encapsulated her endearing nature quite so well as those narratives, so artfully written and directed by Hughes.

By 1986, Ringwald had arrived on TIME
By 1986, Ringwald had arrived on TIME

What each of Ringwald’s roles in these films had in common–between Samantha Baker, Claire Standish and Andie Walsh–was an earnestness and sense of self that most teenage girls are too insecure and lacking in the courage to possess. But Ringwald’s strong portrayal of each of these women (and her ability to show that through enough struggle and persistence, anyone can come out the other side as “a totally normal person”) paved the way for a generation of confident, self-assured females.

As Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club
As Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club

Her best role, by far, as the spoiled princess/”queenie” (a.k.a. a prerequisite to the over pampered Paris Hilton genre born into wealth and privilege that hadn’t yet been classified in the mid-80s) gave depth to a character that most audiences would have otherwise felt no sympathy towards. However, Ringwald’s rendering of Claire–who had a soft spot for her tormentor and the bad boy of detention, John Bender (Judd Nelson)–showed us that, beneath the surface, rich white girls had just as many, if not more, problems than everybody else. Then, of course, came her last notable character of the 80s, Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink. This time, Ringwald reveals her versatility by playing the part of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (like, literally she lives next to the train tracks).

Working a "Five and Dime" look.
Working a “Five and Dime” look.

As Andie falls hard for one of the “richies” in her school, Blaine (Andrew McCarthy, in the prime of his life), she must also deal with the insults and lust of Blaine’s gross friend, Stef (James Spader, who no one else can hold a candle to when it comes to sleaze). Even though she has the support of her older, more pie-in-the-sky friend, Iona (Annie Potts), and her best friend/devoted admirer, Duckie (Jon Cryer), Andie still has to endure the torture of being initially accepted by Blaine and then cast out under the pressure he feels from his friends to dump the “low-grade ass.” But it’s fine because she makes a really amazing prom dress and gets to see OMD play at the dance.

What it all amounts to is this: Never before was there someone as accessible and relatable as Molly Ringwald, and there may never be again. But it was beautiful and meaningful while it lasted. At least every teenage girl–no matter how many generations away from the original decade–will always have one of these Ringwalds (Samantha, Claire or Andie, or quite possibly all three at once) to turn to for comfort and advice.


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