Amanda Peterson died this week of unknown causes, at the tragically young age of 43. A relatively unknown actress, her big part was the character of Cindy Mancini in the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love, a film that came out the year I turned 13. I saw this movie in the theater and then, when it came out at Blockbuster (Blockbuster!), I watched it over, and over, and over, and over. And over.
I was obsessed with Amanda Peterson as Cindy Mancini, the popular, almost-perfect cool girl who was smart enough to know it was mostly bullshit, but not so smart that she didn’t realize her friends wouldn’t swallow the bait when she pretended to go out with the school nerd. Enter a ridiculously young, curly haired Patrick Dempsey (who is the epitome of the old adage that men just get better looking as they age) playing the school nerd, Ronald.
Ronald pays Cindy a thousand bucks he’s saved up mowing lawns (which he intended to use to buy a telescope, a nerdy touch I loved), and for that grand, she’s got to pretend to be head over heels for Ronald. His plan works, and the cool crowd loves Ronald. Ronald and Cindy become closer, and each knows a crucial secret about the other: Cindy, that Ronald bought her, and Ronald, that Cindy…writes poetry. This was SO RAD. As a 13-year-old poetry-obsessed, nerdy human with blonde hair and aspirations to be cool, this movie was like a highlight reel of my imagination. Everything about it struck me as so iconic—even though at the time, I had no idea what the word iconic meant. Cindy’s phone, thrown carelessly in her beautifully cluttered bedroom. Cindy’s white VW Rabbit convertible, stuffed with laughing, hoop-earring-wearing, hair-sprayed teenage girls, was the very picture of teen girl sexy-cool. Just to keep her from having too perfect a life, Cindy was being raised by a single mom.
Cindy Mancini was, for one shining moment, the incarnation of everything I wanted to be as a teenage girl: a popular girl with a poet’s heart, beautiful and desired by boys but also beloved by girlfriends, a partier who still dutifully attended school and pulled good grades, a cool dresser, and slightly tough. Cindy Mancini called to me, with my face still round, freckles splattered across my cheeks, hair lying thin and lackluster, and an aura of insecure nerdiness. I was more of a Ronald than a Cindy, but Cindy gave me the prototype. I could be cool! I could be tough! I could wear blue eye shadow and light pink lip gloss! At least, I could try.
I spent so many nights sitting in my teenage bedroom, trying to get it to have that “I’m effortlessly cool and fun and girly” feel of Cindy Mancini’s bedroom, imagining myself driving in the convertible that I was sure I would be driving in high school, laughing with my oversized earrings entangled in my hair-sprayed bangs. It was a time of simple dreams, and Cindy and Ronald were the sweet ridiculousness of ’80s teen movies. The plot of the movie was like a spoken acknowledgement of both the caste system of school and its stupidity, and it gave me a flicker of hope for my future.
Every time someone like Amanda Peterson dies, I open a small memory, like a tiny jewelry box, that somehow holds a piece of the atmosphere of my inner world at that time. Can’t Buy Me Love was a simple, corny ’80s movie. And it gave me so much happiness—so many giggling slumber parties and so many daydreams. For that, I am grateful to Amanda Peterson.