A GenX Chicano Reflects on John Hughes

There are flurry of John Hughes remembrances floating around in cyberspace today. I suspect few are surprised. Hughes had a hand in most of the movies GenX folks associate with themselves. Some of his films are the cinematic outlet to our generational struggles, even the voice that helped give them shape and clarity. And we are all over the place on the internet. Between blog posts and tweets, who needs to read a “real” obituary today?

As a young Chicano kid growing up in the greater LA area of the 1980s, John Hughes–through his films–had an impact on me and my sister as well.  He is being famously remembered today as a filmmaker who made movies for our generation, quite literally.  Yet, even in his most productive time, Hughes was understood to be making movies about a segment of the post-boom generation.  His characters and their struggles were almost always framed by a racially-white, suburban, and wealthy reality.

This isn’t a criticism. It just is. To his credit, the limitations of his characters and their surroundings were hardly equal to the limitations of the meaning and significance of his work.  Even though they might have been rich white kids, their experiences had a kind of transcendence to them.  When Hughes incorporated class into his films–most famously in Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club–it served to help broaden the “truth” of what he portrayed.

As these films resonated with my generation, they gained credibility in the public eye. His ability to create those characters who could speak for “all of us” meant Hughes made movies about a generation that helped define who we were to the world.  Before “GenX” was named, before the media and the marketing industries had a firm hold on who we were as people and consumers, John Hughes helped name us as people.

But that doesn’t mean I “related” to everything I saw in a John Hughes film. It’s a little complicated, but for people like me, people whose experiences growing up were not always identical to the ways people understood the “GenX experience,” Hughes and a handful of others helped bridge the gap.  They didn’t do it by reaching out to make movies that incorporated my realities.  They did it by making artifacts that were so culturally powerful and dominant that they created a target for people like me to move toward.  John Hughes provided cultural products that facilitated my assimilation.

That’s the tricky part with popular culture. Like others of my generation, when I saw Hughes’ films I saw and heard my own fears, struggles, inadequacies, and strengths.  When he crafted teenage characters that thought and acted like adults, that struggled with love and being loved, who were nerds and geeks and wanted to remain true to themselves, when he did all of this and more, I could relate.  But he also created characters that were so powerful and so popular that even when I couldn’t relate I tried. Or is it that I couldn’t resist?

I don’t think the Chicano experience is unique here, just particular. I’m sure Hughes’ films were the same for other Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and even a lot of white kids.  One of the legacies of providing these kinds of “authentic” depictions of a generation that is not fully understood is that you play a role in defining who they are.  Most baby boomers in the Sixites weren’t radical hippies.  But that minority became the archetype for the entire generation because of their place in the popular media.  For the GenXers, this was both more so and less so.  Hughes had his finger on the pulse of our generation in emotionally significant ways.  There was and is something particular about being a teenager at a time of impending nuclear disaster, the birth of AIDS, and commercial ascendancy of the boomers.  Hughes captured it in words and images.  But we also came of age in a time of profound maturity in the marketplace, when your identity as a consumer became your identity as a generation.  And the illusion of reality in a John Hughes film provided one of many shortcuts to defining our generation before we were ready to be fully defined.

Hughes might be the most prominent voice in the popular culture that told me what it was to be a teenager before I was quite there.  In his films I saw myself, and I saw what “they” were like.  In the end, somewhere in the balance between the two, is me.