Recently, Saturday Night Live did a sketch with Larry David that served to shine a light on just how much the national vernacular has changed in the last three decades. Slang that was once widely accepted and commonly used has fallen out of favor in a huge way since political correctness hit the mainstream in the 1990s. The sketch, while very funny, is cringe-worthy for anyone who remembers the bad old days:
The skit is a reminder of just how acceptable and prevalent homophobic language in mainstream media was in the 1980s, but re-watching almost any teen movie from that decade does exactly the same thing. Recently, I’ve been revisiting beloved movies from my childhood, only to have every single one of them ruined by gay slurs. (There are a multitude of problems in movies from the period, but this is by far the most consistent one.)
Homophobia in the movies didn’t begin and end in the 1980s — LGBTQ slurs continue in the movies to this day — but it’s astonishing how it’s almost impossible to find an ’80s teen movie that doesn’t use a homophobic slur at some point.
The homophobic F-word pops up all over the place. One of the most egregious examples is in 1985’s Teen Wolf — yes, beloved, silly, supposed-to-be-innocuous, Teen Wolf, played by national treasure, Michael J. Fox. In one early scene, Scotty tells his best friend Stiles that he needs to talk to him about something. Then, the following exchange takes place:
Stiles: “Are you gonna tell me you’re a fag? Because if you’re gonna tell me you’re a fag, I just don’t think I could handle it…”
Scotty: “I’m not a fag… I’m a werewolf.”
Within moments, Stiles is relieved and happy about this because, in this film, being gay is worse than being a literal lycanthrope.
In (the obviously already problematic as hell) Weird Science, the newly-empowered Gary hurls the F-word against an intimidating party crasher, as an indication that he is A Man Now. In The Wild Life, it is used about a ballplayer specifically because he has moved to San Francisco. In The Breakfast Club, Andy hurls the insult at John Bender.
1984’s Sixteen Candles has aged terribly on a bunch of levels (racism, misogyny, ableism, etc.) and so it comes as no surprise that the script is also littered with other-F-bombs. And yes, even Molly Ringwald’s character Samantha uses it. Nobody gets out of this movie looking good.
Footloose, Pretty in Pink, The Monster Squad, and Heathers all contain the slur as shorthand to demonstrate the character uttering it is a terrible human. However, with the exception of Heathers — which contains an entire storyline about getting revenge for two jocks’ raging homophobia — the slurs could have been replaced by any number of more generic insults.
Some filmmakers have since looked back in regret. There is a scene in Adventures in Babysitting, where Brad tells his little sister that her hero, Thor, is “a homo,” which upsets her enormously. In a 2016 interview with LA Weekly, Adventures screenwriter David Simkins looked back on the line: “That one hurts me. I cannot tell you how much it hurts.”
Watching these movies in my formative years, growing up in the UK, I recall my sisters and I wondering aloud why Americans called each other the F-word so often, when to us, “faggots” were merely a type of food and “fags” were slang for cigarettes. In our naivety, it seemed like a really silly thing to use as an insult. It is doubtful at this point that there is a teen or tween left in the world that doesn’t know the word’s true intent. As Wikipedia explains: “Its use has spread from the United States to varying extents elsewhere in the English-speaking world through mass culture, including film, music, and the internet.” These globally successful ’80s teen movies undoubtedly had a hand in that.
Efforts have been made to reclaim the word over more recent years — the 2009 documentary Fagbug being a memorable example. In 2011, Domenick Scudera wrote for the Huffington Post: “You have probably heard of other people reclaiming offensive language to remove the sting, and now it is the gays’ turn… I cannot do this alone. I need the help of all the other fags and their supporters.” Other commentators simply don’t want the word used at all.
Culturally, America has moved so far forward socially, we are now at a point where homophobic terms bandied about in popular culture are impossible to ignore for most people, and utterly intolerable for others. According to the Chicago Tribune: “A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 67 percent of millennials (anyone born after 1981) support same-sex marriage. (Gen X, which includes all of the Breakfast Club, is at 53 percent now.)” As each generation of teenagers becomes more socially progressive than the one before, what were once considered pop culture classics will simply become ever harder to stomach.