Someone asked me recently if I liked John Hughes’s movies. Given that I was 13 when Sixteen Candles came out, this was like being asked if I like the English language. I don’t know if I like it; it’s just the one I learned to speak.
Hughes’s genius, as has been noted elsewhere, was as a comic anthropologist of the Reagan-era suburban-teen experience, with its cafeteria tribalism, its school-dance-as-cathartic-sacrament, and its dreams of geek mobility from misfit to prom queen. He presented teens as a distinct species inhabiting a highly coded world, complete with rituals, jargon, and castes. Hughes also recognized—and valorized—the fact that this world was indecipherable to adults. His grown-ups, with few exceptions, were self-deluded dunces, no more useful than the wah-wah-spouting adults in Peanuts. Pop culture may never produce a more resonant example of establishment befuddlement than the eternal echo of “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller.”
Hughes’s message, to a teenager, was doubly heartening: Here was someone who both understood us and understood that no one understood us. Ironically, his films became the lingua franca by which teenagers understood themselves (personally, I wanted to be Ferris but knew I was the Geek and maybe, on a good day, Duckie) and through which everyone else came to understand teens. Which is why, with Hughes’s passing, it’s startling to look around and realize that the teen experience he presented has passed away, as well.
For Hughes (who said he was a misfit but not unhappy), the teenage years were singular, precious, treacherous, and fleeting. (“When you grow up, your heart dies,” said Allison, the basket case.) But because a whole generation was raised on this romantic notion, no one now suggests that your life will change radically after high school. If anything, your teenage years can last forever, at least in spirit, as you grow up to be the unclueless adult your parents (and Ferris’s) never were.
Take a movie like Superbad, which borrows many of Hughes’s tropes (nerds seeking sex, a climactic house party) but in which Michael Cera and Jonah Hill are only incidentally in high school. In fact, Hill basically plays the same guy he plays in every Apatovian comedy. And just how old are the dudes in Knocked Up and Funny People supposed to be, anyway? Eighteen? Twenty-six? Thirty-two?
Hughes’s teenagers were oddball aliens from Planet High School. Now teens in pop culture are depicted as enviable, protean adults—basically, the people we adults wish we could be. The kids on Gossip Girl are sleek, stylish sophisticates. The moral of The Breakfast Club was that we’re all more similar than we think, regardless of labels—and when I watched Anthony Michael Hall, I saw who I was. Today, if I was 14, I’d watch Chuck Bass and see who I was not.
Tellingly, the adults in modern teen films are no longer clueless squares who can’t fathom teens; if anything, they understand them too well. They’re either Amy Poehler’s parodically with-it mom in Mean Girls, pathetically trying to hang with the kids, or the non-parodically with-it parents of The O.C., who actually did hang with the kids. This makes sense: We, the now-adults raised on Hughes, don’t regard teens quizzically; we emulate them. We trail them onto Facebook and sit alongside them at Harry Potter and Transformers. Whether this makes us better adults is debatable (who wants to grow up to be Principal Rooney?), but one thing’s clear: Hughes’s aliens landed, took over, and are running things now.