25th Mar2013

‘The Breakfast Club’ – A Retrospective

by Phil Wheat


“Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois. 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon… We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong, what we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are, what do you care? You see us as you want to see us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athelete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.”

Given that yesterday was March 27th – aka Breakfast Club day – here’s a look back at what I consider one of the most influential films of my life(time), helmed by one of Hollywood’s greatest, the legend that was John Hughes.

The 80s, the decade that brought us Ronald Reagan, Rambo, Transformers, The Goonies and Michael Jackson. The decade that brought us John Hughes seminal movie The Breakfast Club. A generation of kids born after the baby boom. A generation alternately tagged “Generation X” or the “MTV Generation”. The Pepsi commercials of the era proclaimed the latest taste of Pepsi to be the choice of “Generation Next” – not a much better moniker if you ask me. Next what? Next in line? Next best thing? It might just be an advert but that’s what we believed in as kids (before we knew better). The Children of the Eighties: a generation with a perpetually bad image. Whilst many were keen to sweep this 80s generation under the carpet, a few took up the mantel of generational spokesperson. Geoffrey Holtz, himself a member of this generation, coined the term the “free” generation. “Free because of the choices available to us, free of a defining catalytic event or experience, free as in free-spirited and uninhibited. But also free in the sense of rootlessness and free in the sense of extra loose or spare – in a society that has found us superfluous…” Whilst many have sought to define the 80s generation in terms of it’s relation to those generations previous and those that followed, as a teenager I always believed in an entirely different credo, a different moniker… defined in terms I could relate to. To me, my generation will always be known as “The Breakfast Club Generation.”

Like Holtz, others of the 80’s generation have also spoken out: novelist Douglas Coupland, who coined the “Generation X” tag; Bret Easton Ellis; Nancy Smith; Naomi Wolf and Eric Liu. These spokesmen and women – although they “do not pretend, singly or collectively, to be the voice of the generation” (Eric Liu, Next:Young Writers on the New Generation) – have contributed to the understanding of the experiences of growing up in the 80s, writing in magazines, journals and collected works. They successfully managed to illustrate that the Breakfast Club generation are more than the “superfluous” tag we were given – street smart and so individualistic that we couldn’t even come to a consensus on a name! Not wanting to be defined by the negative image thrust upon us by our elders we have strived to be acknowledged for ourselves. Unlike the baby boomers before us, whose outbursts were proactive – think Woodstock and the Vietnam Peace Marches – the Breakfast Club generation are seen as reactionary and even those reactions were explained away as a manifestation of frustration and alienation felt by a disenfranchised generation.

Few of the “Breakfast Club” generation would agree, or accept this sociological explanation. We do make our own choices and we do take responsibility, we have a track record of looking after ourselves, having accountability and understanding the consequences. As Geoffrey Holtz wrote, “the free generation long ago learned that exercising free will brings tremendous responsibilities.” We may find fault in our forefathers and the system they created but in the end we own up to our mistakes and our own actions, rather than simply laying blame on the frustrations of our disenfranchisement. In The Breakfast Club, Andrew explains the reason he is in detention is that he taped another students “buns” together, an action he links to his father’s pressure on him to be a macho wrestler. He never says “my father made me do it,” rather he accepts that is was his decision, and his alone, to act in the manner his father wished. He alone burdens the guilt of his behaviour, knowing the extent of his faults, as well as the faults of his father. The Breakfast Club offers many truths, not all of them are pleasant, but they are compelling. 24 years later the film has retained its power and significance because it’s not just another typical teen movie.

Adolescence: a time of transition, between child and adult, both physical and psychological, social and economical. Adolescence involves the development of identity, a questioning of relationships between parents and peers. As teenagers move away from their parents, peer groups play a more and more integral role. The cliques and crowds formed by adolescents define them within their social world. They place a lot of importance on belonging, being included and being part of a group and the boundaries between these groups are either ambiguous and flexible or rigid and unforgiving. The five students assembled for Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club represent five different social groups, stereotyped both by their fellow students and the school administrator who is their “warden” for the day:

John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the criminal, the rebel, the punk.
Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is the princess, the prom queen, miss popularity.
Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the athlete, the jock, the “sporto”
Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the basket case, the loner, the weirdo
Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the brain, the geek, the straight a student

The strict confines of their high school status groups separate the characters; whilst they all attend the same school, they may as well live on different continents. Claire and Andrew might know each other, they may even end up at the same “parents are out of town” party, but they do not hang out. None of the others would even speak to each other under normal circumstances. But that Saturday detention is like a parallel universe, creating a place where the social divisions can eventually be set aside. In this “parallel universe” the members of The Breakfast Club are able to move beyond the high school norms and social distinctions, they interact with each other – in a reactionary manner at first, but eventually finding truths behind the stereotypes and finding a common ground upon which to bond. Of course, movies aimed at teenagers are nothing new. Hollywood’s courtship of the teen audience began in the 1950’s when the classical Hollywood system was in decline, television was on the rise and teenagers found themselves with ample free time and money to spend. Hollywood, looking for a new audience found teenagers – a consumer for whom it could and did create a need. The original teen movie of the 50’s fell within the broader category of “exploitation” – much like other exploitation genres, the teen movie was marked by scandalous material, controversial content and bottom-line book keeping. The genre hasn’t changed much, what was true of the 50’s still held true in the 80’s…

Teen movies still continue to be churned out year after year, but at what justification? Steve Randall, speaking as Vice President of Tri-Star Pictures in 1984 said it best: “The 12-24 [year old] audience sells two-thirds of the movie tickets. It’s a fact of life and if we ever forget it, we’ll be out of business.” Given that teen movies have always been a staple of cinema and that the worries of teenagers of every generation are fundamentally the same, what is it about The Breakfast Club that makes it so special? Why does it still capture the attention of teens everywhere? And why does it still speak to those of that era? The Breakfast Club is a movie about teens, but is it a movie for teens? The film is rated 15, therefore most of the target audience technically couldn’t view it, but The Breakfast Club was just aimed at teens. Director John Hughes has often said that after witnessing  the struggles of the 80s generation he made the film not just to entertain teens but also to warn parents: In America in the 70s and 80s, parents were individuals first and parents second – committed to their careers and influenced by books such as “Ourselves and Our Children”, which insisted they consider themselves first and not shelter their children, for they did not need to have all the answers. So perhaps if parents wouldn’t listen to their children then they would listen to a movie. However “adult” reviews of The Breakfast Club were not favourable…

Highly acclaimed critic Pauline Kael (in New Yorker, May 1984) chided Hughes for “having gone the group therapy route… and [having] fallen back on the standard device for appealing to teen audiences: blaming adults for kid’s misery.” Scot Haller in People Weekly (Feb 1985) wrote that “the movie vaporises into a I’ve-got-a-secret roundelay that is part group therapy, part soldiers under siege movie cliché.” David Denby even went as far as to call it a “pretentious theatrical cheesy psychodrama.” Whilst some reviewers may not have thought The Breakfast Club measured up, the film somehow managed to achieve comparisons with both existential drama and classics such as The Big Chill.

One of the biggest supporters of The Breakfast Club was reviewer Ron Rosenbaum, who described the premise of The Breakfast Club “like the structure of The Big Chill, which is probably a deliberate parallel on Hughes’ part.” Whether or not this is true, it did earn The Breakfast Club the nickname “the little chill.” The Big Chill was a baby boomer look back at the 1960s which rejected nostalgia and the notion of clinging to the past and affirmed 80s yuppie values. Rosenbaum went as far as saying that The Breakfast Club “raises the same questions [as The Big Chill] about idealism and disillusionment, but disillusionment has come much earlier to the kids [of The Breakfast Club] before they even had the illusions the 60s generation lost.” Whilst People Weekly’s Scot Haller complained that Hughes’ film enshrined teenagers – suggesting that the problems of youth are more important than the threat of nuclear war, Rosenbaum recognised that The Breakfast Club was not about the size of the teens problems, but rather the difference in their perspective. Rosenbaum summed it up best in his 1985 review for Mademoiselle magazine:

“The peculiarly ’80s character of this movie can be found in the acquiescent tone of [the characters’] responses. They see no alternative. Unlike the rebellious youth of the Easy Rider ’60s, they don’t believe in an alternative vision of society. They’ve seen those visions fail or become exhausted. Unlike the characters in certain ’70s youth movies such as Saturday Night Fever, they don’t feel any pleasurable anticipation about the prospect of making it in the grown-up world. All they have is one another and the mutual pleasure they take in their sarcasm, which gives them a little distance from the fate-growing up-they’re going to embrace. And they don’t even know if they’ll have one another once their confinement in detention hall is over. They wonder if they’ll even speak to one another next week when they’re back inside their insulated cliques and roles”

The characterisation of the teens of The Breakfast Club as a cynical, somewhat pragmatic, perceptive and sensitive youth, resigned to their fate is close to the mark. In truth, the 80s generation is not all that resigned, nor that cynical. Much like the teens of The Breakfast Club, looking past our fascination [at least according to the media] with consumerism, sex, violence, drugs, race, crime, education and poverty, we can see hope – hope for ourselves and hope for the future. It is there, somewhere.


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