An In-Depth Look at The Legend of Billie Jean

First of all, this is a LENGTHY post and it’s a little more serious than my usual fare. So please skip the hottest Buzzfeed “long form” post and read this instead (while you’re pretending to work at your desk. Happy Friday!)

Before we go any further, please watch this music video. It also has some introductory information to today’s very special movie.

So, I have to admit that I was very conflicted about reviewing this movie namely because: it is SO dumb and because I love it SO much. And I don’t even love it because it’s so bad (not like I love Carnousaur 2) but I legitimately LOVE this movie. Also, this movie features Pat Benatar’s most underrated song ever “Invincible,” which is also my #2 driving song. The #1 being “Power of Love.”

Several things happened within the past week that convinced me to write this post:

  • I watched the debate and saw Donald Trump speak for far longer than I ever care to ever again in my entire existence. And I watched him rudely interrupt a far more qualified woman for much of that debate.
  • Secondly, Stephanie from Listful Thinking did a very funny but sobering video about how few movies past the Bechdel Test.
  • A man somehow thought that a successful approach to flirting with me would involve some combination of following an insult with a compliment.
  • I went to church with a friend and sat in a class full of women who talked about how WOMEN are tempting rape by wearing revealing clothing. They somehow felt that saying “it’s no excuse but it’s a temptation” absolved them of blaming the victim or perpetuating the rape culture that directly affects them as women. And I sat their disgusted with myself for saying nothing because I didn’t know how to turn to the woman next to me who has been like a second mother to me for my entire life and ask her how she could agree with this crazy talk.And that’s when I realized, this movie is important. Campy, yes. Well-written, no. But it’s important.

legend-of-billie-jean-the-legend-of-billie-jean-2973229-353-250Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her brother, Binx (Christian Slater), are on their way to a lake near their home when a group of guys see them and decide to follow Binx’s Honda Elite Scooter because they think Billie Jean is hot. As they follow them, they become increasingly aggressive. One dude is literally crawling over the hood of the car as they ride down the highway, another snaps pictures of her.

When Billie Jean and Binx stop at a drive-in, so do her harassers. At first they mostly pick on Binx. But when Billie Jean doesn’t respond to their sexual advances, they get aggressive with her too. When one of them grabs her, Binx shouts at him “get your hands off that” and it’s unclear to everyone, perhaps Binx included, as to whether he’s referring to the bike or his sister.

I first saw this movie when I was ten. It was fifteen years after it came out and that was over fifteen years ago. I wish I could say “how far we’ve come, but Billie Jean’s impassively polite reaction to this banal harassment strikes me as utterly timeless. 54308221131685781449

Binx throws his shake on the guy, who we later learn is Hubie Pyatt, and they flee on his scooter. Billie Jean looks shocked that Binx tossed his drink on this dude–most likely because Hubie Pyatt has a reputation for being untouchable. His father is a wealthy store owner, whereas Billie Jean and Binx live in a trailer with their mother.

240562_origHubie and his friends track Billie Jean and Binx down shortly thereafter. Hubie steals Binx’s scooter while he and Billie Jean are swimming. Remember, Hubie’s pal with the camera? He doesn’t miss the opportunity to take some more shots of Billie Jean as she and Binx race out of the water.

Billie Jean tries to file a police report but the Officer Ringwald (played by Peter Coyote) tells her that Hubie was probably just trying to get her attention and will most likely return the scooter. She returns home to find both Binx beaten and his scooter destroyed.

the_legend_of_billie_jean_1985-movie-helen-slater-christian-slater-3Billie Jean decides to give Hubie the bill for the repairs. When he won’t listen to her, she talks to his father–who tries to rape her “in exchange” for giving her $50. Binx walks in on this happening. He doesn’t realize what’s going on at first because Billie Jean and Mr. Pyatt are in the office above the store. Believing Billie Jean won’t be successful in getting Mr. Pyatt to hand over the money, Binx decides to help himself to the cash register, where he also finds a gun.

Meanwhile, Billie Jean breaks away from Mr. Pyatt. Binx sees them and threatens Mr. Pyatt with the gun. Mr. Pyatt tells him that the gun is unloaded. Binx looks at the gun curiously and squeezes the trigger, shooting Mr. Pyatt in the arm. Binx, Billie Jean,and a couple of friends decide to run away and be outlaws. From this point on, the movie slides quickly down a slippery slope of melodrama and camp, which is actually pretty fun. But it does diminish the sobering first ten minutes of the film.

the-legend-of-billie-jean-1Billie Jean and her crew run around doing “outlaw things.” They go to the mall and leave IOUs for walkie-talkies. Shortly after seeing this movie, I requested to leave an IOU for a notebook and was informed that this is definitely not an acceptable practice. They also squat in a mansion, which is pretty cool. There’s even a cool teenager, Lloyd, who lives in the mansion. He even offers to be their hostage, so they can gain a little leverage. While at the mansion, they watch the news and learn that Billie Jean is famous. Meanwhile, Mr. Pyatt capitalizes on her fame by selling Billie Jean memorabilia.

Remember how I said things get campy? The entire motivation for the scene below is that Billie Jean saw several minutes of Saint Joan on television and decided to cut her hair and film a video–which basically means she’s a teenage girl like any other. She’s struggling to find her own voice, so she takes on one that gives her more resources than the one she started out with.

She also gives herself a catchphrase. And unfortunately, to see her video manifesto you’ll have to watch it on VHS like it’s 1985…

And it’s at some point after this that Billie Jean becomes some sort of Christ figure. She’s recognized everywhere she goes as a symbol of truth, fairness, and justice. She even helps rescue a child from his abusive father.

img_7234As Billie Jean and her friends flee one neighborhood in a hail of bullets (**eye-roll**) one of the girls in Billie Jean’s group thinks she’s been shot, but really she’s just gotten her first period. Man, I’m all for the triumph of the female spirit but are you kidding me? She gets her first period in the middle of a gunfight and we have to stop and talk about how great it is? Like pass me a tampon and let’s move on, I’m a freaking outlaw motherfu**r. Also, shout out to The Simpsons‘s Yeardley Smith for playing the girl who gets her period.

MSDLEOF EC081Eventually, Billie Jean turns in two of her friends for their own safety. So this leaves only Billie Jean, Lloyd, and Binx. But in the midst of an argument while trying to steal a car (Billie Jean doesn’t want to but Binx and Lloyd insist it’s necessary) Billie Jean become separated from her friends.

Left only to rely upon the kindness of strangers, Billie Jean realizes exactly how big of a celebrity she’s become. Girls are cutting their hair like her and turning themselves in at police stations like this is Spartacus. Dozens of teenagers give her safe passage like she’s traveling on the underground railroad. But when we remember that this was all about a rich kid bashing a motor scooter, it’s hard to believe this became a phenomenon.

Those are of course not the real stakes, but no one knows what really happened. Billie Jean video manifesto didn’t talk about the sexual harassment and near sexual assault she experienced at the beginning of the movie. As far as anyone knows, she’s just a very passionate anti-property damage advocate with a cool haircut.

pat_benatar-invincible_sIt largely seems that this celebrity safe passage is meant to serve as an opportunity to play an extended montage over the full length of Pat Benatar’s theme for the movie. Ultimately, she finds Binx and Lloyd at the abandoned miniature golf course where they spent their first night as fugitives way back at the beginning of the movie. When she rejoins her friends, Billie Jean admits that she’s lost her sense of self in all of this. The Joan of Arc persona that was once so liberating has taken over everything and she can no longer be a normal person.

The next day, she agrees to meet with the police publicly and to make a statement. In anticipation of Billie Jean’s arrival, a crowd of gawkers and fans alike gather at the beach around Mr. Pyatt’s store–her supporters cavalierly purchase memorabilia from the man who couldn’t buy her and is selling her instead.

But having been betrayed earlier when attempting to meet with the police and Mr. Pyatt, Billie Jean concocts a rouse. Binx will dress as Billie Jean and walk their “hostage” toward the police, while Billie Jean stands in the crowd incognito. Unfortunately, Hubie Pyatt is standing near the front of the crowd and realizes their trick. Binx pulls at a toy gun to try to scare Hubie away and is shot by the police. In potentially the most melodramatic scene in the movie (though it is tough to say with any certainty since there are so many) Billie Jean chases after the ambulance in a ridiculous brown, curly, mop of a wig.

Eventually the ambulance is out of her reach and she realizes she’s in front of Mr. Pyatt’s store, where people are browsing merchandise covered with her likeness.

legendofbillyjean19857_zpsb66cc157It’s at this point that I have to ask, what exactly is this commenting on? Is it celebrity? Mob mentality? A really extreme example of subjugation? Or maybe this movie got so caught up in making an “important point” that it became a soap opera with nothing to say. And then Billie Jean sees Mr. Pyatt. She pulls off the wig and approaches him alone, just as she did earlier in the movie. But this time there are plenty of witnesses. And this time she’s a celebrity who get a lot of press. She confronts Mr. Pyatt and learns that it was Lloyd’s father who paid for the scooter’s repairs. Trying to save face, Mr Pyatt gives her a ton of cash “for [her] troubles.”

Okay, so now is probably a good time for me to share some essential plot information that I’ve left out thus far. Remember that cop from earlier, Ringwald? The one who didn’t take Billie Jean’s police report seriously? He realized as soon as he heard about Binx shooting Mr. Pyatt that he had ruined the investigation. The more time that Ringwald has spent with the Pyatts the more he realizes that Billie Jean and Binx are just scared kids who were bullied by a very sleazy adult. In fact, the entire reason she agrees to show up at the beach is that Ringwald tracks her down at the miniature golf course and promises that he wants them all safe and will get Binx’s scooter fixed “better than new.”the-legend-of-billie-jean-5
Bille Jean has always said she wants Mr. Pyatt to pay them back because it’s only fair that the person responsible for the scooter damage be the one to pay for the repairs. Only, he’s not responsible for the scooter damage. His son is, but Billie Jean’s not on a rampage to get this obviously wealthy kid to fork over some of his allowance. And that’s because it was so obviously not about the scooter in the first place. Even when the scooter is fixed and Binx is definitely not going to jail, it’s still of the upmost importance to her that the money came from Mr. Pyatt.

So why didn’t she just go ahead and expose him when she made that “fair is fair” video? Well go ahead and say I’m giving this movie more credit than it’s due, haters, but I think it’s fair to say at this point that I’ve made a cottage industry out of over-analyzing low-brow culture. (And by cottage industry I mean I use free WordPress hosting and do not make any money off of this. If I did, the first thing I would do would be to remove the Donald Trump ad that I saw on here yesterday. Ugh. I’m so sorry, America. I don’t want that smarmy face on this website anymore than you do.)

8976ec8a4a3cc0f307c39b0639f408a5Simply put, Billie Jean didn’t confront Mr. Pyatt in her video because she wasn’t ready to yet. This whole campy-mess of a movie is her path to finding those words. What we’re basically seeing here is a really heavy-handed coming of age and recovery from trauma all rolled into one. Billie Jean starts off as a girl who doesn’t really say anything when she’s uncomfortable. Then she becomes some neo-Joan of Arc vigilante who is all about “fairness” (like in general and somewhat materialistically at that). And then finally, she pulls off that damn muppet wig and straight up calls that jackass out for trying to violate her. And when she does that, she’s transcending “Bille Jean the Legend,” to become a much more complex Billie Jean, the person.

And I’ll just let you watch what happens next

Then the movie just kind of ends. Binx and Billie Jean are at a ski lodge in Vermont and still sporting matching haircuts. Roll Credits.

So here’s why this movie is important: This is a movie about rape. It’s a movie about Mr.Pyatt using power (wealth, gender, age) to take advantage of Billie Jean sexually. It’s a movie about how she stands up to him with integrity and becomes a stronger person because of it. Perhaps the most remarkable thing The Legend of Billie Jean does is trick everyone into thinking it is a movie about a scooter. And maybe it needed to do that in order to be greenlit into a 1980’s teen movie. Maybe it would even need to trick us to be made today.

Or maybe it’s so effective because Helen Slater took the character of Billie Jean and gave her an incredible arc under harrowing circumstances even if everything else around her was glam makeup and Pat Benatar music. But I have to say that there’s something very powerful in this movie. It’s a movie that made me feel like I could kick some serious ass when I was a 10-year-old kid. And it kind of makes me feel like I could kick some ass today too.

7 thoughts on “An In-Depth Look at The Legend of Billie Jean

  1. 1. This comment is going to be a list. Sorry! It’s not a gimmick. I just have several thoughts and they’re all sort of unrelated and, you know, that’s what lists are for.
    2. WORDPRESS PUTS POLITICAL ADS ON BLOGS? So help me, if there is a Trump ad on Listful Thinking I am going to burn the internet down.
    3. I loved this! I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not 100% convinced I WANT to see the movie (because of the Muppet wig) (and also the campiness), but I think you make an incredibly important point here and that almost makes me want to sit through a Pat Benatar-centric montage.
    4. “Like pass me a tampon and let’s move on, I’m a freaking outlaw motherfu**er” is probably going to have to get tattooed on my body now.

    1. Ugh yes, it was horrifying enough that I almost wanted to purchase the premium ad-free version but I decided it was cheaper to put this disclaimer instead. You definitely need to tolerate some extensive camp to watch this movie, but the muppet wig’s appearance is thankfully brief!

  2. This movie is important today, just as it was when it first came out. You speak well to the heart of the matter when you say: This is a movie about rape. It’s a movie about Mr.Pyatt using power (wealth, gender, age) to take advantage of Billie Jean sexually. It’s a movie about how she stands up to him with integrity and becomes a stronger person because of it.
    And when you say: But I have to say that there’s something very powerful in this movie. It’s a movie that made me feel like I could kick some serious ass when I was a 10-year-old kid. And it kind of makes me feel like I could kick some ass today too.
    A movie, a song, a poem, a statement all are good no matter the form or level of polish when they get the above messages out!
    Well done TVSB for getting this very special lesson out again! We all need to speak our truth and it is ok to mess up along the way while we learn to do just that!

  3. This movie is terrific. It’s not as “campy” or **eyeroll** as you and so many of its fans seem to feel compelled to claim that it is. It’s okay to love this movie! Wish people had the confidence to express the love they have for it instead of making excuses. For those who think they’re too cool for this movie or whatever reason they think it’s beneath their time, they’re wrong, and that’s a shame.
    Would like to chat with someone about the commentary on the Blu-ray but seems I’m the only one who has listened to it. Go watch it and get back to me.

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