You can’t really talk about taking the wrong lessons from romantic comedies without talking about the ouvre of John Hughes. No one person – with the possible exceptions of Cameron Crowe and Nora Ephron – have done more psychic damage to impressionable nerds with the messages about love, requited and otherwise. Naturally I was going to have to cover him for Learn From This. Now, rather than try to pick from the rich tapestry of mixed messages and bad advice, I left it up to the readers on the Facebook page and Twitter feed to decide which John Hughes movie I should cover because I was only ever going to do one.
With the exception of a couple of smart-asses who voted for St. Elmo’s Fire (Joel Schumacher doing his best John Hughes impression), Curly Sue and the Home Alone series ( ha ha, it is to laugh, ho ho, very funny) Pretty In Pink won out easily.
It’s not terribly surprising; it’s easily Hughes’ most popular, even iconic movie, one that latched it’s hooks into an entire generation of 80s kids and managed to continue it’s hold nearly 30 years later.
But let’s face it: ya’ll aren’t hear to listen to me talk about the odd ideas of what constitutes shameful poverty (their house is paid for, she has her own car, there’s never any sign that Andi’s family is having issues keeping the lights on or food on the table), social stratification between the haves and the have-nots (which seems mostly to be about who gets to wear oversized linen suits to school) or the struggles of a young proto-hipster trying to date a rich kid where the only issues keeping them apart are painfully artificial and paper thin, or even my long-standing crush on Molly Ringwald.
Nope. Be honest.
Ya’ll are wanting me to talk about the Patron Saint of the Friend Zone: Philip “Duckie” Dale.
The Martyrdom of the Platonic Friend
As much as the movie is about Andie (Molly Ringwald) trying to negotiate the snobbish dickery of the rich kids at her high-school while dating Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), a not-insignificant portion of the film is devoted to the heartfelt suffering of poor, poor Duckie (John Cryer). Duckie’s plight was a mini cause-celebre amongst self-identified hopeless romantics. In fact, in an earlier cut of the film (reportedly Hughes’ preferred vision) had Andie getting together with Duckie at the end; this tested poorly with audiences and carried the unfortunate implication that people should ultimately only date within their social class. Thus a last-minute re-shoot has Andie dating Blane and Duckie getting a consolation prize in the form of an uncredited Kristy Swanson. Hughes would later go on to try to correct this in a gender-inverted followup “Some Kind of Wonderful”, a movie that ultimately ended his working relationship with Ringwald.
Now I will admit: having seen this at a younger age1 , I could easily identify with Duckie’s plight; god knows I’d cast myself into the Friend Zone enough times. But looking at the movie with a more mature and more experienced eye, it’s impossible to not notice all of the ways that Duckie manages to screw himself over as he tries to clown his way out of the friend zone and into Andie’s heart.
Well… at least until he becomes comfortable enough with himself to admit that he’s gay, but that’s another matter.
In many ways, Duckie is the prototype for the “platonic best friend” character who is always pining away for the girl who only sees him like a brother, paving the way for characters like Steve Urkel (Family Matters), Nick (Youth in Revolt), Jacob (Twilight), Xander (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Ross (Friends), Ted (How I Met Your Mother) and almost every nerd who’s ever had a crush on his childhood friend.
The problem is: Duckie’s kind of an asshole. So we’re going to be doing things a little differently this time. This time, what we can learn from this is how not to act.
Proximity Doesn’t Work Like That
Duckie seems to take the attitude that many love-struck nerds do: that the best way to win a woman’s favor is to insinuate yourself into her life as much as humanly possible; that way she’ll realize that she couldn’t possibly see a life without you and that she’s really been in love with you all along.
Unfortunately, while in rom-coms this can seem quirky and appealing, in the real world… well, it comes off as clingy and needy at best.
Duckie does himself no favors here. By insisting on hanging around Andie at every possible opportunity, he’s only making himself look like an annoying little brother who thinks it’s funny to bother her at work by repeatedly setting off the alarm in order to get her attention, calling and leaving messages on her answering machine 20 times in a row (with less than a minute between calls), using studying with Andie as a way to try to force her into spending more time with him.
Later on, he graduates to increasingly unsettling, even creepy behavior, riding his bike back and forth in front of her house for hours – hundreds of times by his own estimation – then following her all the way to Chinatown just to stand out on the street-corner and stare up at the window of Iona’s apartment. What he intends to accomplish by doing this is hard to say; call her to the window via telepathy where she will see him, realize just how hurt he is and be swept up in waves of sympathy that lead to sloppy makeouts in the back of her car?
The film wants us to feel sorry for Duckie, who, in the narrative of the film, is losing both his best friend and the woman he’s been in love with for most of his life.
In the real world, this is the sort of behavior that ends with a judge telling you that you now have to keep at least 500 yards away from someone or they get to call the cops.
Learn To Read The Signs. Learn To Accept The Truth.
There are undoubtedly those who feel that Duckie was cruelly used by Andie, lead on by all of those times when she tells him how wonderful she thinks he is and how she can’t imagine what they’re going to do without seeing each other 20 times a day or more. Anyone who has found themselves in the Friend Zone has almost certainly had similar conversations with their own crushes, carrying elation of “she cares for me” with the heartbreak of “like a brother”. But for all of the ways that Andie lets Duckie know that she does care for him, there’s no question that she’s not that into him… he’s just refusing to see.
At no point does Andie ever indicate a non-platonic interest in him. She rolls her eyes at his compliments, never cracks a smile at his only-joking-if-she-says-no come-ons. She doesn’t hold hands with him, touch him other than to smack him for being stupid or give him the big goofy grin she gives just at the thought of Blane.
Hell, the fact that she goes to a club that she knows won’t let him should, by all rights, be a huge sign by anybody‘s reckoning. When the person you’re in love with goes out of her way to go to a place where you can’t follow, it’s a pretty big clue that she’s trying to get away from you.
And on some level, Duckie knows this; this is why he spends so much time trying to convince himself that today is going to be the day that he finally confesses his love to Andie…. and chokes every time. He knows damn good and well deep down that the answer is going to be “I don’t like you that way,” and he’d much rather keep the illusion of hope alive rather than deal with the harsh reality that his crush is ultimately going nowhere.
I’ve said it before: sometimes you have to accept that people aren’t going to love you the way you love them. You can’t always escape the friend zone, and the sooner you can accept that, the happier you will be, ultimately.
Duckie doesn’t, which leads to…
Familiarity Doesn’t Breed Contempt. Whinging Does.
It’s one thing to know, deep down, that Andie isn’t going to love him back the way he wants her too. He – like many nerds before him – has convinced himself that he’s ok with just loving her from afar, being her friend and dwelling in the melancholy that makes him so special in the movie in his own mind.
As soon as he realizes that Andie is starting to show interest in somebody else, Duckie loses his shit. His attempts to capture Andie’s heart – or at least her attention – takes on a desperate quality. There’s a manic gleam in his eye as he realizes that Andie being involved with somebody else means that he’s going to be forced to acknowledge that it’s just never going to happen and he just. Can’t. Take it.
This ultimately culminates in a fight with Andie at her job when he realizes she’s planning on going out on a date with the dreaded Blane. He appeals to her sense of working-class solidarity and the us-vs-them mentality she’d been cultivating over the course of the movie before having a full-on tantrum and breaking up with her as a friend.
Pro tip: ending a friendship because somebody has the temerity to date someone (who is not you) says a lot about the true nature of your friendship. Duckie is willing to throw a lifetime of friendship under the bus because of his own selfishness, which carries the rather strong hint that he’s only friends with her because he’s been waiting all this time for her to finally fall in love with him. Nobody appreciates friendship under false pretenses.
But even if we allow for the fact that Andie and Duckie have a genuine friendship and not one built on a base of fundamental dishonesty, Duckie’s behavior later don’t make things any better. After finally getting in to Cat’s (with Iona’s help), he acts like a child when Andie and Blane show up. Andie is willing to forgive and forget; Duckie, on the other hand, graduates from annoying to full-blown pathetic asshole. He starts off by pointedly giving Andie the silent treatment and then compounds it by acting like a dick to Blane whose only crime is being the person Andie wants instead.
Let me tell you, there’s nothing women find sexier than a grown-ass man acting like a sulky child.
Oh, and he also assaults someone for insulting Andie. Because there’s no bigger turn-on than acting like a psychopath.
It’s Only By Letting Go That We Can Move On
By the end of the movie, Duckie has made peace with the fact that his love for Andie is one-sided. She may not love him the way that he wants, but she does love him as best that she can – and he’s willing to accept this. Pushing her towards Blane may hurt… but ultimately, if he wants to be a real friend to Andie, it’s the only thing he can do.
The fact that he’s immediately rewarded by a director’s attempt to clean up the romantic loose ends is an accelerated version of what ultimately would happen in real life.
In the movie, he turns around to find Kristy Swanson waiting for him. In the real world, there would be a painful adjustment period where he mourned the loss of a dream and slowly begin to heal and realize that his life is better for having finally accepted the inevitable truth. By being willing to finally let go of his futile hope for a romantic relationship with Andie, he’s able to move on and realize that there are other women out there – women who actually want what he has to offer, rather than a fantasy that only causes him pain.
- I was trying to impress a girl. Shut up. [↩]