Hadley Freeman: 6 reasons why film heroines were better in the 80s

Hadley Freeman - who recently joined us for a webchat - argues that 80s teen heroines by far outclass their modern counterparts

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1. Then: 80s heroines were awkward and real

I first saw Pretty in Pink when I was nine. Andie was the first girl I'd ever seen on screen who felt recognisable to me. While I pretended sometimes I was Sloane from Ferris Bueller, all pretty and confident and with a boyfriend who picked me up from school in a car, I recognised that the teenager I would be was the awkward girl who drove herself to school.

80s movies taught me something important: that I, a weird girl who lived too much inside her own head, whose looks somehow never seemed to coincide with the fashions of that day and wouldn't even kiss a boy until well into her third decade, deserved to be the star of my own movie. This is not a message girls and young women can take for granted any more.


2. Now: film heroines are either passive, or unrelatable


Twilight's Bella is as passive and blank and tedious as the most retro of Disney heroines, always requiring the services of males to save her.

'Passive' is not a charge one would ever lay at the feet of The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen - but Katniss also lives in a completely different world from that of her audience. Audiences might sympathise with Katniss, and maybe even Bella, but they could empathise with Ringwald and her contemporaries.


3. Then: 80s heroines dressed for themselves


Pretty In Pink's climactic prom scene  encapsulates one of the truly great things about girls in eighties teen movies: they dress like shit.

Andie turns up in what is – by anyone's measurement – the ugliest prom dress of all time, which she made for herself. Her vintage clothes – which she wears because she can't afford new ones – are depicted as proof of her admirable creativity. If she does then wear the ugliest prom dress of all time, that's a price worth paying for individuality. 


4. Now: heroines always need makeover


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By the time we get to 1999's She's All That, Laney has to take off her glasses (obviously) and show off her breasts (OBVIOUSLY) in order to go from school joke to potential girlfriend for the popular boy, Zack.

Girls in Eighties teen films don't dress to show off their 'big boobs' (Easy A) or 'to show a little skin – this reminds boys of being naked, and then they think of sex' (Clueless). What a makeover means for women in modern movies is: 'Conform and show off your boobs'. Change for men, in other words.


5. Then: 80s heroines looked like real teens

Director John Hughes recognised the appeal of Ringwald's "unconventional" looks from the start. As soon as he came across her headshot in his pack of photos while looking for young actresses for his next film, with her snub nose, slightly slack jaw and bright red hair, he stuck it up on his billboard and, without even meeting her, wrote Sixteen Candles for her in two days. He wanted his teenage actors to stay totally true to their teenage selves, to the point that they were encouraged to pick out their own clothes for the films.

6. Now: teen heroines look like models


Actresses in teen films and TV shows have become progressively thinner, more aspirational and glamorous over the past few decades. This means that not only are modern teenage girls seeing fewer representations of their lives onscreen, they're seeing fewer actresses who even vaguely resemble them.

Ringwald is one of the most successful teen actresses of all time, but her influence proved a lot shorter-lived than her fame. If Pretty in Pink were made today, Andie would be relegated to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, about two stone lighter with heavy eyeliner and blow-dried hair - see: Along Came Polly. Or, rather, don't.


Last updated: about 3 years ago