As time passes and social norms change, some great films become…well, difficult to watch, if we’re being honest.
We’re not talking about political correctness gone mad; we’re just talking about the basic ways that some films treat their characters. Watch something like Revenge of the Nerds today, for instance, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the heroes aren’t very heroic at all.
We’re not saying that these films shouldn’t have been made in the first place—just that without major changes, these films would never get greenlit today.
1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The plot: Indiana Jones and his 11-year-old Chinese sidekick, Short Round (groan), meet up with singer Willie Scott, then end up in a village in Northern India. There, they’re terrorized by the evil Thuggee cult, eventually making their way to an underground temple (of doom).
If you’ve seen one Indiana Jones movie, you know the drill: Indiana and his friends narrowly escape death dozens of times, eventually making their way to safety. Along the way, they destroy hundreds of priceless artifacts, because as we’ve noted before, Indiana Jones is an absolutely terrible archaeologist.
The sequel to the tremendous Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom is almost as fun. It’s got plenty of memorable scenes, tremendous action sequences, and Harrison Ford using an inflatable raft as a parachute (keep that in mind the next time you hear someone complain about the refrigerator scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). It’s certainly one of the finest action films of the 1980s, but it hasn’t exactly aged well.
The problem: For starts, Indiana is sort of a skeezy dude. He’s romantically involved with Willie Scott, a woman much younger than him, and it’s not even the first time he’s done something like that.
If you don’t think that’s strange, check out this exchange between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, taken from a 1978 story conference transcript for the original film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (here’s the PDF). They’re discussing Dr. Jones’ relationship with his love interest, Marion:
Kasdan: I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don’t have to build it.
Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was 11.
Kasdan: And he was 42.
Lucas: He hasn’t seen her in 12 years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older than 22.
Lucas: He’s 35, and he knew her 10 years ago when he was 25 and she was only 12.
Lucas: It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s 16 or 17, it’s not interesting anymore. But if she was 15, and he was 25, and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he…
Spielberg: She has pictures of him.
Yeah, that’s disgusting. Granted, they were just brainstorming, but it’s a good example of how the entire Indiana Jones trilogy is a product of its time.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is more problematic than Raiders of the Lost Ark. The former film has its share of awkward racism, playing with the “Evil Asian” stereotype and portraying Hindus and Indians completely inaccurately. That comes to a head at the infamous monkey brain scene (linked here; we would have embedded it, but we’re not sure if you’re about to eat lunch or something, and we don’t want a big screenshot of fake monkey brains ruining your appetite).
The characters sit uncomfortably, watching their Indian hosts eat a variety of insects, snakes, eels, and eyeballs. When the severed monkey heads come out, it’s supposed to be a disgusting moment—and it is, but not for the right reasons.
2. Saturday Night Fever
The plot: The film that launched John Travolta’s film career (before he tanked it, then revived it with Pulp Fiction, then tanked it again with Battlefield Earth), Saturday Night Fever is the disco movie to end all disco movies.
Travolta is Tony Mareno, a disco fanatic working a dead-end job in Brooklyn. His friend, Annette, longs for a romantic relationship with him, but Tony is captivated by Stephanie Mangano, partly because she’s a much better disco dancer than Annette. Man, the late ’70s were weird.
Tony’s group gets into a back-and-forth battle with a local gang, and there’s plenty of disco dancing along the way because of course there is. At one point, Tony and Stephanie win a dance competition, but when they realize that they won over a more talented Puerto Rican couple due to the judges’ racism, they give the award (and cash prize) to the real winners. Sweet, right?
Well, the last act is pretty depressing.
The problem: Saturday Night Fever is remarkably grim. Depression and crime are major themes, and if you watched the film expecting a lighthearted dance flick, you’ll probably leave disappointed.
It’s still a fine film, but one scene toward the end is deeply disturbing: Several of Tony’s friends assault Annette while she’s passed out in a car. Then…nothing really happens to them. They’re still portrayed as the film’s heroes. Tony sees them doing it, and while he weakly tries to get them to stop, he ultimately just walks away, forgetting that the whole thing even happened.
In fact, all of the women in the film serve as playthings for the boys; when they try to show confidence, they’re immediately shut down. If a filmmaker ever remakes Saturday Night Fever, they’re going to need to completely rewrite the entire script—other than the dance sequences, of course.
3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
The plot: Judd Apatow’s 2005 breakout hit stars Steve Carell as Andy Stitzer, a salesman who’s kept his virginity into his 40s (hey, sometimes the title provides plenty of exposition).
With help from his friends David, Jay, Cal, and Mooj, he embarks on a series of dates to try to shed his V-card. Eventually, he meets Trish, with whom he starts to form a real relationship. She’s unaware of his, ahem, circumstances, which leads to some confusion that eventually causes a rift. Andy eventually tells her the truth, and they make up (and out). At the end of the film, all of the characters sing “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)”.
The problem: Pretty much every romantic encounter in the film is based on deception, and the male characters act like outright criminals at some points. In the #metoo era, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is an indefensible endorsement of deviant behavior, and while it’s still funny, we’re guessing that the film would have ended several careers if it had come out in 2018.
In one noteworthy scene, Andy’s friend Jay tells him to go after women who are inebriated, and therefore unable to express consent (the scene’s linked here, but we should note that it contains a great deal of not-safe-for-work language).
“All you’ve got to do is use your instincts,” Jay says. “That’s how a tiger knows he’s got to tackle a gazelle.”
When Andy tells him that it feels wrong, his response is “You need to try some wrong, dog.”
That’s pretty hilarious writing, Judd Apatow!
There’s also a transphobic scene in which Andy nearly hooks up with a trans woman, and the film’s only black characters have a racially charged confrontation that serves no real purpose, other than to elicit cheap laughs at stereotypes. Andy’s regularly mocked for enjoying his hobbies, and several scenes rely completely on homophobia (the recurring “you know how I know you’re gay” joke seems like something from the ’80s, not 2005).
In fairness, toward its conclusion, the film makes some overtures about how honesty is important in relationships. That might forgive some of its issues, but none of the characters actually act that way at any point, and the final song-and-dance number sort of falls flat when Andy leaves his newfound love to dance around with his male friends.
4. National Lampoon’s Animal House
The plot: Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman are two college freshmen who are rejected from the Omega Theta Pi fraternity. They quickly find themselves joining the Delta house, whose members are more concerned with partying than…well, anything.
The Deltas feud with Omega Theta Fi and the college’s dean, Vernon Wormer, until they’re eventually kicked off of campus. They get revenge by ruining the annual homecoming parade. It’s not the most complex plot in the world, but it gives its stars plenty of room to show their comedy chops. Notably, it stars John Belushi at the height of his powers, and there are a few excellent Donald Sutherland scenes.
This is a legendary comedy, and while it’s now more than 40 years old, most of the humor still holds up. If you don’t laugh at the food fight scene, you might not have a pulse.
The problem: We love Animal House, and we really hate saying anything bad about it. However, even if you take it as a parody of frat life rather than a celebration of it, it’s hard to miss the casual sexism and racism.
For starts, the most sympathetic character “hooks up” with a 13-year-old girl (in a scene that’s played for laughs). Bluto Blutarsky ends the film by kidnapping one of the only female characters with a name, but that’s fine, apparently, because they get married later. The heroes spy on women, lie to them to get dates, and treat them like conquests.
We know what you’re saying: “Yeah, but it’s a comedy. Lighten up.” We can toss aside some of the dumb jokes, but when the heroes visit an African American bar during the film’s road trip sequence, it’s hard not to cringe. It plays into harmful stereotypes, and what’s arguably worse, it’s deeply unfunny.
Even moving past that scene—which is really not excusable—we can’t deny that Animal House set the stage for horribly sexist college comedies that helped teach kids that criminal behaviors are excusable as “boys being boys.” Hopefully, viewers are smart enough to realize that Dean Wormer is ultimately right: This really is no way to go through life.
5. Revenge of the Nerds
The plot: It’s pretty much right there in the name. In Revenge of the Nerds, a group of nerds is terrorized by a frat—the Alpha Betas—until they decide to form their own frat, Lambda Lambda Lambda (a national African American fraternity that takes pity on the nerds’ plight and allows them to start a chapter).
The nerds engage in a prank war with the Alpha Betas, which eventually comes to a head at the Greek Games. After the nerds win, the Alpha Betas destroy their frat house, but thanks to a rousing speech about acceptance from Tri-Lambda’s president, the college’s Greek Council rules that the nerds can live out the rest of the year in the Alpha Betas’ house. Everyone lives happily ever after (except the jocks, but hey, screw them for liking sports).
It’s all pretty dumb, but the jokes are decent, and the ragtag team of nerds is pretty endearing. It also features one of the most uncomfortable rap scenes of any ’80s movie, and that’s really saying something.
The problem: Unfortunately, the nerds aren’t really into consent. They pass out pies with risky pictures of the Pi Delta Pies—the sorority equivalent to the Alpha Betas—and don’t really face any consequences.
More disturbingly, head nerd Lewis (played by Robert Carradine) tricks one of the Alpha Beta’s girlfriends into having sex with him…and she promptly leaves her football-player boyfriend, since, you know, the loving was just so good. That’s not how things work in real life, and it sends a troubling message: Assault is okay, provided that you’re a skilled lover.
The film’s also racially insensitive (in the scene above, the black nerd raps, while the Asian nerd plays a gong…dressed as an American Indian, for some reason), but at least it portrays all of its male characters as real people. The women don’t get the same treatment.
6. The Breakfast Club
The plot: Five high-school students spend a day together in detention. They’re told to write an essay about who they think they are; as the day progresses, they come to some profound realizations about themselves (while getting up to various hijinks, of course).
The five kids are from different social circles, and toward the end of the day, they realize that their experiences in detention won’t change their day-to-day lives. Nevertheless, they learn important lessons about treating one another with dignity.
Really, it’s a beautiful movie about learning empathy, and it’s one of writer/director John Hughes’ greatest works. Its point would be a lot stronger for modern audiences if the film’s male characters didn’t treat the girls like hot garbage.
The problem: Throughout the film, Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire Standish, suffers outright verbal abuse from the delinquent John Bender. At one point, he literally assaults her. The film treats that moment as a joke, and it’s extremely difficult to watch.
Ringwald herself pointed out The Breakfast Club’s flaws in a tremendous New Yorker piece. If you’re a John Hughes fan, it’s well worth your time.
“The bad-boy character, John Bender, ducks under the table where my character, Claire, is sitting, to hide from a teacher. While there, he takes the opportunity to peek under Claire’s skirt and, though the audience doesn’t see, it is implied that he touches her inappropriately,” Ringwald wrote, noting that Bender also treats Molly abusively throughout the movie.”
“He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Since Ringwald was underage while making the film, Landis used an older body double for the infamous scene. Ringwald recalls finding the scene somewhat inappropriate at the time, but she didn’t realize how problematic it was until she watched the film with her daughter.
“Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John [Hughes’] writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time,” she writes later. “I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.”
Ringwald notes that Hughes made bold moves in making films specifically for a teen audience. She doesn’t write poorly of her former director, but she concludes that while we shouldn’t simply cast off films with problematic concepts, neither can we celebrate them without noticing—and discussing—their flaws.
That’s a crucial concept to keep in mind when watching films like The Breakfast Club, or Animal House, or even The 40-Year-Old Virgin. When classic films have serious issues, that’s not a reason to cast them off entirely, but we don’t have to fully accept the nasty bits, either.