I couldn’t be more excited for Selena Gomez’s Latinx Sixteen Candles, a spin on John Hughes’s famous teen movie, which will be developed in collaboration with Tanya Saracho and Gabriela Revilla Lugo for Peacock.
A big part of the first-gen immigrant experience is never knowing which side of your identity to embrace more. In my adolescence, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to throw a quinceañera or a Sweet Sixteen. I thought, Am I more Mexican or American?, not understanding yet that I really could be both. But in the end, it didn’t end up mattering. I didn’t get the chance to throw either party because, despite the celebration’s popularity and visibility in Latinx media in everything from Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place to Hulu’s Superstore, quinceañeras aren’t attainable or realistic for daughters from working and middle-class families. In fact, I learned more about the traditions and customs of quinceañeras from the shows I watched than from my own family, none of whom attended or were thrown one. My dad was the one who had to finally sit me down and explain the reality of the party’s extravagance, all the money involved, and why we couldn’t replicate what I’d seen on TV.
Appropriately named 15 Candles, the comedy series will see its four main Latina leads preparing for their own quinceañeras, adjusting to all the sudden attention, and leaving childhood behind. But in order to understand the true significance of what Gomez and her team are doing, we have to go back to its source material, back to 1984.
I first fell in love with 80s movies during that rocky period of my teenage years when I was trying to figure out the duality of my Mexican-American identity. Within that decade, director and writer John Hughes ruled the teen market with his relatable coming-of-age films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and of course, Sixteen Candles. With my mom at my side to provide commentary and context, I saw them all and then begged her to re-watch them with me every time we found ourselves with a free evening.
This was a time when my mom knew I needed to be told these stories the most. When the teenagers I saw on screen were also trying to understand who they really were and separate from what their parents and teachers thought they should be. These films also showed me the beauty of falling in love for the first time.
Given what I was going through with my own teen birthdays, Sixteen Candles especially affected me. The film follows Sam (Molly Ringwald), a girl who wakes up on her sixteenth birthday excited about the approaching changes in her body, popularity, and life—only to realize that she looks exactly the same and everybody in her family has forgotten about her special day. She doesn’t get a party or balloons or gifts, and her mom is the only one who remembers, though by then, it’s too late. But it all works out when Sam shares a kiss with her love interest Jake Ryan over the cake and candles he bought for her.
Not only did Sixteen Candles give me plenty of eye candy with Jake Ryan, but it also gave me reassurance that an average girl like Sam could be forgotten and still wind up winning the guy. That you didn’t have to throw this huge celebration for your birthday to matter, that it really could just be a simple cake with sixteen candles. I needed to hear that when big bashes seemed impossible.
But like most media up until this past decade, these are all incredibly white films. You can watch them over and over, and still not see a single BIPOC character except for Long Duk Dong, a foreign exchange student from China in Sixteen Candles. When I originally watched this film, I didn’t get the answers I wanted about my own experience but was so entertained that it didn’t matter. It was only later in life that it dawned on me just how problematic it really was, not just about race but also about misogyny and sex.
Especially with the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, Long Duk Dong is probably the most obvious problem. He encompasses every racist stereotype every non-Asian person has ever heard or believed. Every time his name is spoken, a gong plays in the background. He speaks with a heavy accent that is played for laughs rather than something that is just a genuine part of him. Sometimes, he can barely speak English. The whole family either treats him like he’s dirty or an “exotic” specimen.
Not to mention the movie’s attempt at humor about date rape and sexual harassment. I can’t tell you how sick my stomach gets when I watch Sam’s other love interest Ted following her around, flirting with her despite her obvious disinterest, trying to get on top of her twice so that he can prove to his friends they had sex and win their bet. Even his desperate request for her underwear as a souvenir is played off for laughs rather than a humiliating, demeaning moment for Sam.
Jake Ryan isn’t perfect either when he spends an entire scene talking about how he could “have his way” any way he wanted with his girlfriend Caroline when she is blackout drunk on his bed. And when he makes Ted take her home, the movie surprises us with a twist and reveals that Ted and Caroline had sex on the way, though neither of them remembers it. And yet it’s supposed to be the start of a cute new romance?
Despite, or maybe because, of these problems, I’m looking forward to Gomez’s spin on this story. I want to see these mistakes corrected and history changed for young Latina girls who will hopefully be seeing themselves in ways that I didn’t when I was their age—all while Latinidad is being explored and celebrated by Latinx creators. While I’m always hesitant about spin-offs or reimaginings where actors from marginalized communities replace white characters, 15 Candles makes a lot of sense with or without its inspiration as a basis. If nothing else, this is a chance to celebrate the beauty of our culture and community, to provide representation that is at least a little more nuanced and analytical than the original.
Still, I do hope that class and privilege are discussed within the show’s plot rather than presenting the quinceañera as it always has been: as a right of passage for all Latinas, regardless of their family’s wealth. It’s just not true and it hurt me growing up, in ways I’m only beginning to process. Both in real life and on-screen, that narrative has to change.
15 Candles will stream on Peacock. No release date has been announced yet.