All Grown Up
It is impossible to go through your teen years without watching one of Molly Ringwald’s 1980s John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink. Now, after a post-teen period spent appearing on stage and in indie films, Ringwald is back once again, this time on one of most conservative shows on television. The popular ABC Family drama, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, from the creators of the Christian soap 7th Heaven, revolves around Amy Juergens, a 15-year-old who gets pregnant the first time she has sex at band camp. Ringwald plays her conflicted and yet supportive mother. While most shows for teens have used pregnancy as a quick plot twist (often with a convenient miscarriage at the end), Secret Life focuses on it. The trimesters are funny, harrowing, and mostly inconvenient—it’s Juno on the small screen, with a touch more evangelism (15-year-olds getting married, talk of purity rings).
The Daily Beast caught up with Ringwald to talk about the show’s blend of hot topics and Christian values, her own new twin pregnancy, and why the fantasy of Jake Ryan ruined an entire generation of women.
Watch a Preview of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Season Two.
Why did you decide to join a teen show?
I don’t think of it as a teen show. I was disappointed that they decided to call it Secret Life of the American Teenager, because I consider it more of a crossover show, like Gilmore Girls. It has a huge teen following, obviously, but a lot of women who are older watch it as well.
Why do you think that is?
I think I have a lot to do with it, actually! When I took the show on, there were six episodes written. All the subsequent episodes were tailored to me and my strengths. My character is very liberal, one of the more liberal on the show. She’s pro-choice and anti-organized religion, which I like because the show has a whole Christian storyline.
What do you think of the Christian elements of Secret Life?
I don’t consider it a Christian show. I would think it would be racy for Christians but I’m not terribly up on what Christians enjoy.
Do you think the '80s Brat Pack era was less conservative than some of the pop culture aimed at teens is now?
I don’t think so. The stuff that’s been approached on the show has pushed the envelope: They talk about blow jobs!
What is it like transitioning to the mom role after being an ingénue for so long?
When I was first offered it, I had some reservations, I never played the hot aunt or a mom of a toddler. I went from playing the teen to mom of a teen. Ultimately I decided it didn’t matter. I’m old enough to be a mom of a teenager.
What would you do if your own 15-year-old were pregnant?
I think I’m a lot more pro-choice. My character says she’s pro-choice, but she can’t advise her daughter to have an abortion. It’s a personal thing, an emotional thing. In my situation, it wouldn’t be all that different—I would make my daughter make the choice. I don’t see myself being in that situation, but I guess no one does. I’m a big believer in preventative medicine and communication.
I’m actually pregnant now, and I showed my [5-year-old] daughter a birthing video the other day. I was watching the Ricki Lake documentary The Business of Being Born and there’s a beautiful home birth in it. [My daughter] was so horrified. She announced that she’s decided she’s never going to give birth. She said, “I’m going to marry a woman and she’s going to birth a baby.” I thought that was incredible problem solving! But I’m having twins, so no home birth for me.
How realistic is Secret Life?
Well, the kids aren’t texting as much on that show as in real life.
Gossip Girl can have that.
We’re beating Gossip Girl consistently in the ratings. That show has this aura of being a big success, but we’re slaughtering them. Gossip Girl has great clothes but it’s a certain milieu not a lot of people live. Our show is more relatable and what makes shows like this work is that people live vicariously through the characters. Even the Christians.
What are the child stars you work with like?
Most of them are in their early twenties, but Shailene Woodley, who plays Amy, is a teenager. She is such a humanitarian. On her birthday she wanted to have a party where everyone worked at a homeless shelter. I was like, “We went out for sushi on my birthdays.”
“I do own the clothes from Pretty in Pink, but I don’t have the prom dress. I never wanted to look at that dress again.”
Do you miss being a teenager?
I can’t say that I miss the '80s at all. I’m all about the here and now and the future. I have a book coming out next spring called Getting the Pretty Back. It’s about turning 40 and that phase where you’ve had kids or decided not to, for me it’s a real turning point. It’s kind of I Feel Bad About My Neck pimped out with illustrations. But I do miss hanging out with my friends, drinking coffee, and not having responsibility.
But you had a ton of responsibility! You had a full-time job.
I didn’t consider it a career and I hadn’t decided it if I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. It’s funny, people know me from Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles and now I have a whole new following. They discover me on the show and then they realizing I’m that girl and they’re doubly excited. Those films are evergreen. Seeing them is a rite of passage. You can’t go through your teen years and not have someone turn you onto those movies. It’s the way I was about Catcher in the Rye. I thought it was written for me, never mind I’m not a boy, didn’t go to prep school. It spoke to me.
I love the Breakfast Club poster—those boots you wore!
I wish I had those boots. I don’t own anything from The Breakfast Club. We had to wear the same thing every day and no one wanted them when we were done. I do own the clothes from Pretty in Pink, but I don’t have the prom dress. I never wanted to look at that dress again.
Was there really a Sixteen Candles sequel in the works?
I was excited to do it but I didn’t want to do it without John Hughes. I was interested in examining her. It’s such a Cinderella story and she gets Prince Charming at the end. But do you keep Prince Charming? Is that the most important thing?
A friend of mine has a theory that movie’s Prince Charming, Jake Ryan, ruined all the girls in my generation. None of us want to settle. We’re all waiting for him.
That is exactly why that one film would be great for a sequel! It gave the wrong idea to a lot of people. I haven’t given up hope the movie might one day be.
Marisa Meltzer is co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time. Her next book, Girl Power, will be published this fall.