Friday, May 24, 2013

Pretty in Pinko: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Marxism but Were Afraid to Ask Molly Ringwald

Imagine this. It's just a decade after the U.S. is withdrawing the last troops from the war in Viet Nam. The nation is mourning the loss of school teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe and 6 fellow astronauts who died on the Space Shuttle Challenger. And an actor and former FBI informant on communist sympathizers is serving his first term as president of the United States.
The neoliberal attitude had replaced the sense of compassion and community that came out of the New Deal, civil rights, and anti-war eras. Posters, t-shirts, and bumper stickers all celebrating the virtues of arrogant wealth became popular. Ironically, it wasn't the wealthy who watched the snobbish Robin Leach rant about the wealthy lifestyles of America's elite, but rather the lower and middle-class hoi polloi who were driving Dodge K-Cars. In the middle of all of this Ayn Rand ideology, a guitar chord rang-out that changed our view of the world -and still resonates in my adolescent ears. In 1986 John Hughes released a film called Pretty in Pink that became wildly popular. The story is timeless; a girl from the wrong side of the tracks is pursued by a rich prince, both suffer rejection from their friends and families, but in the end love prevails over social class. Looking back, it is more striking to me now than ever before just how brave Hughes was in this film, peddling a message that directly confronted the popular ideology of 1980s America. So poignant was this movie in describing social class struggle that I use it to teach Marxist theory in the college classroom. Andie (Molly Ringwald) is a working-class, high school Senior attending a privileged school. As her principal suggests in one scene, she is "lucky" to be at the school. Andie is an individual in a school of homogenized affluence. Her clothes (all self-designed and handmade) typically center around the color pink. Her ne'er-do-well father (played by Harry Dean Stanton) is a loving and lovable father who can't seem to either get over his ex-wife, or get a job. Andie and her father can be used to understand Marxist theory. Both of the working class, proletariat, each represents an aspect of that class. Jack is an example of the guy who has given up, what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat. The Lumpenproletariat sees no point in struggling against their lot in life and instead feeds off the bottom of the social structure. They wait for crumbs to drop from above. Andie is a different sort of proletariat. She possesses a certain cultural commodity, something that separates her from the rest of her social class. Still, she remains firmly one of the proletariat. She has upward mobility, perhaps through marriage, education, artistry, an entrepreneurial spirit, or her beauty. Andie, her dad, and their friends are what we today call the 99%. On the other side of the tracks, we find a group of teenagers who come from affluence. All members of the same country clubs, these kids sport Armani suits and drive Porches and BMWs to school. They represent the bourgeoise. This is the ruling class, for whom money is the answer to all problems. They live increasingly isolated and hedonistic lives of drugs, sex, and privilege. The archetypal bourgeoise teen is Steff McKee (James Spader). Snobbish, arrogant, and hyper-contemptuous, Steff embodies the rich "bad boy". His best friend, a bourgie named Blane (Andrew McCarthy), has fallen in love with the natural beauty of Andie. For his love, he suffers social ridicule, cold-shouldering, and disapproval from his friends and family. Blane and Andie both illustrate what Marx called class consciousness. They are aware of the roles they play in the structure and of the consequences that those roles have. The tensions between the bourgeoise and proletariat class structures illustrate Marx's material dialectic. Steff epitomizes the ideology of being materially-determined; in other words, we are what we have. Duckie (played by Jon Cryer) is the manifestation of the proletariat historical dialectic; an angry but impotent man, emasculated by free market capitalism. Iona (Annie Potts) plays a special part in the Marxist narrative. The owner of a small business (the record store TRAX where Andie works), she is an outsider, she is the future Andie. She floats between the proletariat and the bourgeoise, and like most self-made people are not fully accepted by either class. Marx referred to this group as the petite bourgeoise. TRAX serves as the meeting place of the classes, a place where popular culture and burgeoning love serve as the synthesizer of the material dialectic. In the end, love prevails over class structure as Andie and Blane embrace at their Senior Prom. A good American ending to a Marxist fairy-tale. Perhaps in real life the revolution is a bit different. If Stalin had directed Pretty in Pink, the prom might have looked more like Carrie, and the title would have to be changed to Revolution in Red. By the way, Duckie gives his approval to Blane and Andy, which results in his raising to masculinity. But that's a Freudian story for another day.