The Breakfast Club (1985) – OBEY! CONFORM!

Like many people of my age, I loved a good John Hughes movie growing up, but never considered that there might be any subtext to his films. After all, he was a director who made a career writing, producing and directing frothy, fun, mainstream flicks aimed primarily at younger audiences.

However, I only saw The Breakfast Club for the first time recently, and the touchy-feely story of teen angst was instantly my equivalent of Nada’s special shades in John Carpenter’s They Live! – suddenly I saw the innate conservatism behind Hughes’ work, which is fine, and the hidden message behind his superficially rebellious pictures – OBEY and CONFORM!

I guess even at an early age I was aware of the peculiar little world Hughes’ films are set in.  It is a privileged, comfortable white middle class existence largely absent of people from different ethnicities.  They say write what you know, and Hughes freely admitted that he wasn’t au fait with black culture, which explains why there are no lead roles for African-American actors in any of the films he directed.

He clearly wasn’t au fait with any other culture either, given that characters in his movies from a different ethnic background were usually portrayed as hoodlums or a hideous racial stereotypes (the garage attendants in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) It has become fashionable to retrofit Hughes as a racist, but I don’t think there is any malice in these cultural blunders. It is more ignorance, an accurate reflection of his characters who come from a white, middle class environment in the mid-Eighties.

Far worse is the hidden message in The Breakfast Club, one of Hughes’ best known films, which along with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, withstood the test of time to remain a popular 80s classics. The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller are similar as both are set over the course of one day, both films pit their protagonists against a humourless head teacher, and both appear to celebrate youthful rebellion before the characters u-turn and return to a life of comfortable conformity.

That’s OK with Ferris, because he’s clearly one of life’s winners.  He is cocksure and selfish, and you know that no matter what happens he will land on his feet.  He may be popular with the Sportos, the Motorheads, Geeks, Sluts, Bloods, Wastoids, Dweebies and Dickheads, but what group does he belong in?  None, because he’s a natural born politician, and he’s glad-handled everyone to appeal to the broadest possible base, to the extent that everyone in school is campaigning for him – “Save Ferris!”.  You know that after he’s graduated and done with tweaking the tail of authority, he’ll settle down with a nice wife and nice kids in a nice house somewhere in complacent white surburbia, have a career in middle management where he can be the big man and patronise his underlings, play golf and shag cocktail waitresses behind his missus’ back.

The tone is far more uncomfortable in The Breakfast Club, because the battle lines are clearly delineated.  Five high school kids turn up for Saturday detention – there is the “Athlete” Emilio Estevez, the “Princess” Molly Ringwold, “Brain” Andrew Michael Hall, “Criminal” Judd Nelson, and “Basket Case”Ally Sheedy. In other words, typical high school comedy drama stereotypes – Jock, Prom Queen, Nerd, Rebel and Ugly Duckling.

The five spend the day bickering and taunting one another, before eventually finding common ground in their mutual hatred of head master Vernon (Paul Gleason). They then display a brief surge of rebellion (with a lower case “R”, in a smaller font), running around the school, smoking ganja and treating the audience to a very 80s dance routine. They hate each other to begin with, but after some heart-pouring moments, become soul mates.  However, the Athlete, Princess and Brain are clearly part of Square society, while the Criminal and Basket Case, the two characters who show any true individuality, must conform to more socially acceptable traits if they are to be accepted.

Some critics likened the set up to 12 Angry Men – or 5 Slightly Miffed Teens – but by the end, I was more reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing.  The villain is Ringwold’s Prom Queen Claire.  In Ann Bilton’s brilliant analysis of Carpenter’s The Thing, she describes the creature as Vagina Dentata (a toothed vagina) – it figuratively castrates and absorbs the men of the isolated Antarctic research station.

Claire does a similar thing to the guys in The Breakfast Club – Andy the Athlete admits that he can’t think for himself, and is quickly drawn into defending her against the more physically imposing, masculine Bender. While Estevez’s character is the “Jock”, he appears more feminine than Bender’s Criminal. He’s smoother skinned and more sensitive, and his choice of sport – wrestling – leads Bender to query his sexuality.

The Brain, whose back story surprisingly reveals the more dangerous tendencies, is quickly pussy-whipped into writing the group’s essay. He is the dork doing the dork’s work, writing homework assignments for the popular Princess.

The relationship between the Criminal and the Princess is more interesting.  He incessantly taunts her, and in some scenes it sounds uncomfortably like sexual harassment.  He dismisses her as a “tease”, but starts changing his attitude after catching a glimpse of her panties under a desk. Surely if she was the prude she makes out, she wouldn’t have her legs spread so far knowing he’s under there?

By the final reel, Bender sneaks back to the store cupboard where he was locked by the head master like a good little bitch, only to be released by the Princess with a kiss. As they go their separate ways, Bender wears one of her diamond earrings that he scorned so much before – the first step in a process of being absorbed into Claire’s world.

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In British slang, “Bender” is a derogatory term for a homosexual, but in The Breakfast Club, it hints at an outsider bending to the overpowering whims of peer pressure. He is certainly the most interesting character in the movie, but he is frequently emasculated. At one point he whips out a comically small knife, only to be deprived of it by the Basket Case.

It later turns out that the Brain has a gun, but ten years later, disenfranchised teens wearing long coats like Bender had traded in their flick knives for semi-automatic weapons and embarked on killing sprees in America’s high schools. The knife, as weapon of choice, was as outdated as Sharks and Jets in West Side Story, and Lyndsay Anderson prefigured the dread of high school massacres years before in If…

The most disturbing part of The Breakfast Club is the Basket Case’s final reveal. She’s an introverted tomboy with emo stylings, but she eventually allows the Princess to make her up into another generic pretty girl.  She emerges as an ugly duckling transformed into a swan at the end, and it was as unsettling to me as Donald Sutherland’s horrific scream at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, when you realise that the hero has been absorbed by the unsmiling, anonymous pod people.  Suddenly she is a suitable mate for prissy Jock Estevez.

By the end of the film, Ringwald’s Vagina Dentata has the two Square guys under her spell like worker bees, has lured the Rebel and converted the tomboy into a regular girl. The Squares win and the message is: if you want to fit in with Normal society, you’d better change your look, your thoughts, and ditch your individuality.

They Live!

 

 

 

 

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 25/02/2015, in cinema, Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Movies, Reviews, Teen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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