When I was in middle school, I had a particular fascination with updating my name on Facebook to something absolutely ridiculous once every couple of weeks. These spanned from “Sashuh Fyerce” (a title I oh-so-cleverly spelled incorrectly on purpose to spite Facebook for telling me that the moniker of Beyoncé’s alter-ego was not a legitimate name) to the delightful “Ferocia Couturia” (because Season Four of Project Runway was an incredibly influential presence in my young adult life).
There was, however, one name that stuck around after all the rest. In 2009, I changed my display name to “Duckie Dale,” a sobriquet I bestowed upon myself in honor of my favorite fictional character at the time. This was a tribute not only to one of my favorite John Hughes films, but an ode to Jon Cryer’s hopelessly romantic and endlessly adorable friend-who’s-a-boy-not-a-boyfriend, the third obsessive love of my young adult life. (The first two were Legolas as played by Orlando Bloom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series and guyliner-clad television magician Criss Angel, respectively. I have varied tastes.)
But a few weeks back, I caught a rerun of Pretty in Pink and I was damn near appalled at young, impressionable (read: stupid and dumb) little Alanna for being in love with Mr. Dale. Sure, he’s precious. He lip-syncs Otis Redding! He spews cute turns-of-phrase! And have you seen those volcanic ensembles? What’s not to love?
Well. For one, male entitlement.
Look, unrequited love really, really sucks. I understand. As the haver-of-unreciprocated-crushes-for most of my adolescent (and fine, you monsters, adult) life, I know how much it hurts to like that friend a little bit more than they’ll ever like you. But Duckie Dale’s infatuation with his best friend Andy goes far beyond mere irritation and pain. The Duck-man ain’t just disgruntled; he’s childish and pissed and often doesn’t take no for an answer. And that’s not only problematic, but it reflects a greater issue prevalent in male-female dynamics in cinema and in real life relationships.
I know, I know. It’s a light-hearted romantic comedy! Why infuse it with social commentary?! Because the fact of the matter is, part of loving a movie (especially a movie that is generally considered one of the top of its genre in the grand American canon of film) is recognizing its faults and how those faults are typically received by audiences.
Let’s start by establishing one thing. Duckie’s a bit of a creep.
I was going to offer a little more commentary on that, but uh, I’ll let it stand. He’s that quintessential geeky scammer, tongue-in-cheek eye-rollingly bad flirtations flying at women he would be too self-conscious to pursue in any other manner. It doesn’t really matter whether these lines land, anyway. Because his heart belongs to one lady and one lady only, the titular pretty in pink Andy, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks leading lady who makes her own dresses, works in a record store, and is just generally everything I wanted to be at the age of
nineteen eleven. She’s swoon worthy. And he’s been swooning for most of their friendship.
An issue arises here because, well, Andy sees Duckie as, y’know, a friend. Because, bizarrely, men and women can be friends without sexual pretext, subtext, or literally any text! Imagine that. She cherishes his companionship, thrives on his advice and support, and loves him dearly…as a best friend, in a brotherly manner. She even tells him so. (Spoiler: He does not take it well.)
If you ask most women, they’ll likely be able to recount a similar conversation; conversations in which the women is often labeled a “tease” for “leading him on”. But Andy has not done anything to lead Duckie on. Ever. I have never seen a human being roll their eyes harder at another human being than Molly Ringwald at Jon Cryer in this film. Beyond that, she expresses to Duckie that she’s, y’know, really into that Blane character (who is entirely problematic in his own right, yes, I know, but I did not change my Facebook middle name to Blane McDonough so he is irrelevant at this juncture) and she wants to kiss him on the face whereas she would rather not kiss Duckie on the face. She makes this explicit. Duckie is still annoyed, because, hello, m’lady, he gave you the friendship and the affections and now he does believe you owe him the romantic love.
Duckie tips his fedora one too many times in this movie. His near constant proximity to Andy becomes uncomfortable as its clear that his love for her is unhealthily unbalanced. He is furious with Andy for considering Blane over him, lashing out, warning her of the big-bad-rich-boy as if she cannot make decisions for herself. He threatens that he won’t be there, won’t continue their friendship, and that he won’t be there to help her when her heart inevitably gets broken because, god, Ducky knows best, y’hear! Oh, and then he says he would’ve died for her.
Duckie Dale has again and again been canonized as the Patron Saint of the Friendzone. And that’s a neat title, huh? A title so bestowed with sad, sick reverence. And it’s a damn meaningless sad, sick reverence because after all, the friendzone doesn’t exist. At least not in the way that popular culture has defined it.
The concept of a sort of limbo that men in platonic relationships with women are constantly caught in, the mere notion of a “zone” or locale that they are trapped in is insulting to both parties. While non-reciprocal romantic feelings prop up on both side of the genderfence (oh, believe me, they do), we’re discussing the entitlement aspect of the divide, one intrinsically linked to male privilege. So whereas women in these relationships are made to feel like they don’t have the autonomy to be friends with a man without expectation, men are looked down upon, their peers and their masculine culture begging the question, “Well, when are you gonna put that on lock?” Their friendship is a transaction, their amicable affectations a pursuit. While the relationship itself may feel genuine, there is often an element of pressure underneath when one-sided romantic attractions begin to stir.
And that can be an incredibly painful experience. Painful experiences that can cause strain on friendships. When dealt with maturely, it may even mean taking a step back if it hurts too badly to just move on with the friendship as if these tensions don’t exist.
That is not the Duckie Dale Method.
Duckie is the quintessential “Nice Guy”. He wonders why he’s been SO kind and SO understanding and SO empathetic and just, god, SO-THERE-FOR-YOU-ALWAYS for Andy when that stuck-up little tart won’t even go out with him. Ugh, what a tragedy! Can’t she see how perfect he is for her? But nope, she’s gonna go for that bad guy who’s gonna break her heart! And not nice guy Duckie. No one ever goes for the nice guy!
And so in lies the myth of the Nice Guy. Women are not vending machines that you pour kindness and friendship into and punch all the right buttons until romantic affections fall out. And you’re not a very nice guy if you expect every woman you befriend, and subsequently every woman you fall for, to feel exactly the same way. Sometimes friendships bloom into relationships, and this is beautiful and lovely and healthy. But that also requires reciprocation. It doesn’t involve forcing the clearly uninterested object of your affection into consistently uncomfortable situations and then getting royally ticked off when she has the audacity to be attracted to someone other than you, her very clearly platonic friend.
When John Hughes first wrote the ending to Pretty in Pink, Duckie Dale won Andy’s heart in the end, beating out kind-of-a-rich-toolbag Blane. And y’know what? Test audiences absolutely hated it. And while it was hard for a twelve year old me to accept the fact that anyone wouldn’t want Andy (or any living, breathing woman for that matter) to wind up with the Duck-man, I now know that those original audiences salvaged one of my very favorite movies of the era.
Because “Girl Winds Up with Vaguely Creepy Boy She Sees as a Brother, Likely Due to a Mix of Guilt and Male Entitlement” really doesn’t make much of a tagline.