“These Children That You Spit On”:
The Teen Film Comes of Age (or)
How The Breakfast Club Redefined a Genre
Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an 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, the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed…
It would seem unexpected, even oddly appropriate, that the first reputable study of teen film was published in 1985, the same year that John Hughes’ magnum opus, The Breakfast Club, appeared in American movie theatres. David M. Considine’s trailblazing and insightful survey of youth on film, The Cinema of Adolescence, arrived at precisely the right moment in the development of the genre he helped to identify: after several decades of gradual development the teen film was about to experience a rebirth. During the second half of the 1980s the teen film was more prevalent than it had ever been, and Considine somehow anticipated that renaissance. The high school movie, the sub-genre with which we are here concerned, had its own dramatic renewal in The Breakfast Club.
Though many films have depicted American youth in school, the first significant film about high school was Director Richard Brooks’ cinematic expose, Blackboard Jungle. Blackboard Jungle was presented to audiences as an honest depiction of the state of our inner-city schools, promising to increase “public awareness” about “juvenile delinquency – its causes and its effects” with the intention of taking a “first step toward a remedy” for this social ill. While the purported intention is laudable, the means adopted to achieve that end remain questionable, as David Considine remarks:
When ‘Rock Around the Clock’ exploded from the screen at the opening of the film, it did more than announce the arrival of rock and roll, or of Hollywood’s realization that the nation’s schools were in trouble. It announced that the film industry had found another social concern from which to reap profit. (118)Indeed, Blackboard Jungle was both profitable and influential. Considine suggests that, “for the next twenty years the depiction of the school on the screen would, to a greater or lesser degree, represent a variation on the image as defined by The Blackboard Jungle” (124). It was a model for teen films to follow, as it established tropes that are still used today, but whatever the extent of its influence, films of this ilk continued – and continue – to appear in the years following its initial release. They have often tended toward sensation rather than representation, prompting some to categorize these films along with other “teensploitation flicks”. Movies like High School Confidential , Over the Edge , and Class of 1984  were all formed from a similar mold, with varying proportions of fact and fiction, and increasingly sensational depictions of juvenile violence and delinquency.
All of the films just mentioned begin with a sort of preface, appearing just before the main titles; these are messages meant to suggest that the following film is “based on true events” and often give statistical information related to teen violence. The ensuing scenes depict what one can only assume are meant to be shocking and sensational acts of violence perpetrated by young hoods. Fully aware of the sordid history of the high school movie, it was with a nod and a wink that The Breakfast Club made reference to its predecessors, as a preface to revolutionizing the genre. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget about Me),” a song that may as well be referred to as “the theme from The Breakfast Club”, explodes from the screen in much the same way as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” had done thirty years earlier . The film also has its own preface – more of an epigraph, really – appearing onscreen just after the main titles. However, instead of relevant statistics from the “National Council for Teen Reform”, Hughes quotes perennial pop icon David Bowie: and these children that you spit on/ as they try to change their worlds/ are immune to your consultations/ they’re quite aware of what they’re going through . Then shortly thereafter the screen shatters, like a brick thrown through a plate glass window, and we hear the voice of Anthony Michael Hall (as Brian) begin the voice-over that introduces the narrative: Saturday, March 24th, 1984, Shermer High School, Shermer, Illionois, six-oh-oh-six-two.
The epigraph manages to accomplish some interesting things – making reference to films of the past, situating The Breakfast Club within that tradition, setting the tone, etc. – but primarily it is a challenge, a call to arms. Here it should be noted that the teen film has always been at a particular disadvantage. These stories have always been told second-hand because the writers, directors and producers responsible for bringing these narratives to the screen are, almost as a rule, far removed from the teen experience. Occasionally productions may involve professionals in their early twenties, but members of the crew are usually much older. Even the actors that appear in teen films are often significantly older than the characters they portray. Breakfast Club director John Hughes comments on what the industry standard was when he made his first teen film:
At the time I came along… the last thing Hollywood wanted in their teen movies was teenagers! I mean, look at them - it was all 25-year-olds in those movies. When I did Sixteen Candles, all the extras, the kids on the bus and in the gym, they were all real freshmen boys and girls from the same high school. [Anthony] Michael Hall was a freshman, the sixteen-year-olds were actual sixteen-year-olds, except for Molly, who was a year younger. You may not realize it now, but it had never really happened before, for very simple reasons: it's more expensive and harder to use kids. You only have four hours a day to shoot because of labor laws, but the results were worth it, I think. (Ham)Using teenage actors was just one of many ways that Hughes attempted to portray a more authentic high school experience. By including the epigraph at the beginning of The Breakfast Club Hughes is throwing down a gauntlet. It is as if to say: this movie is not another sensationalist story, told by someone who was a teenager in a previous life, this is a movie for real teenagers, now! The Breakfast Club is a movie about teenagers, for teenagers, where “teenagers” refers to a set of individual persons with thoughts and feelings of their own, not just a demographic group or a social phenomenon.
And although John Hughes was in his thirties when he made the teen films for which he is most well known, he introduced sensitivity for the concerns of teenagers that had been wholly absent from Hollywood teen film. In his exhaustive survey, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen, Timothy Shary estimates the value and extent of John Hughes’ influence on teen film:
No other contemporary director has had such has had such a consistent (albeit brief) record of portraying adolescence, nor has anyone else so thoroughly affected the way that young people are shown in films… He simply made films about young people on their level, appreciating their experiences rather than exploiting them. The best teen films since then have done the same. (72)In spite of his age, Hughes was able to connect with teen audiences by seeing the world through their eyes, and presenting their perspective without mediation .
The influence of John Hughes’ six teen films, from Sixteen Candles in 1984 through Some Kind of Wonderful in 1987, cannot be understated. In a few short years he was able to completely revive and redefine a genre that had up to that point been largely known for a shameless string of movies involving teens either trying to “get laid” or to avoid death and dismemberment at the hands of some psychotic slasher. This simple yet revolutionary act – of taking teenagers seriously – helped to establish a new tradition in teen film. As Roz Kaveney, author of Teen Dreams, observes of the Hughes canon:
The mere fact that films consciously imitated him, or consciously subverted tropes that he established, is crucial to the existence of teen films as a genre rather than merely a marketing niche. After Hughes, teen movies would always be knowing, had lost that blandness of affect, and lack of recursiveness and reference, which is often termed innocence. (12)That is to say that the difference between “marketing niche” and full-fledged genre is the fact that these films established artistic patterns and standards that future films either copied or commented upon. Hughes’ teen films had something to say – not just something to sell – and that something was compelling enough to establish a canon in the literary sense.
What makes The Breakfast Club so important, as distinguished from other teen movies, and even from other teen movies by John Hughes, will be the subject of this chapter. What is it about this The Breakfast Club that inspires Jonathan Bernstein, author of Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of The Teenage Movie, to call it “the most powerful example of its genre” (69) and compels Timothy Shary to refer to it as “one of the most important teen films of the entire decade” (68)? What puts it above the rest? Its authenticity is certainly of prime importance, but there are other things that make it valuable. The Breakfast Club explores the fundamental dynamics of the high school experience, reducing teen tension to the essential conflict between authority and rebellion, both between teachers and students – or parents and children – and also between teens and their peers. It does so with wisdom and wit, not to mention a keen dramatic and cinematic sense. The preceding pages will explore these social dynamics, while simultaneously illuminating the cinematic craft that helps bring them to life on screen.
The narrative conceit of The Breakfast Club is deceptively simple: five teenagers, from very different backgrounds, spend a Saturday together in detention. Lacking any direct adult supervision, or anything better to do, they gradually get to know one another, ultimately concluding that they have more in common than they previously assumed. One of the most rewarding aspects of this simple set-up is the opportunity it provides to examine the high school social hierarchy more closely. There is something almost scientific about this approach, as Jonathan Bernstein highlights in his commentary on the film:
In Sixteen Candles, Hughes displayed a David Attenborough-style delight in excavating and exhibiting the teen tribes secreted in suburbia. In The Breakfast Club he continued his anthropological theme, this time enclosing a quintet of representatives from disparate social groupings in a controlled environment, delving beneath the tribal markings in search of an underlying common humanity. (62)In fact, the five personality types – the nerd, the jock, the delinquent, the rebel/freak and the popular girl – form the basis for Timothy Shary’s chapter on “Youth In School” in Generation Multiplex, in which he examines “the impulse of smart students to transform, the impact of delinquents on the school order, the threat of conformity to rebels [freaks], the sensitive depiction of athletes, and the effects of popularity on teen girls” (9). These narrative “impulses” are played out in a considerable number of teen films – both before, and certainly after, The Breakfast Club – and John Hughes helped to codify this phenomenon both on and off screen.
We will not whole-heartedly attempt to prove the latter implication beyond the shadow of a doubt, but rather ask the reader to entertain the possibility of its veracity while thinking about our analysis of high school films. In some ways, it is an assertion that is impossible to definitively address, much like John Cusack’s – and Nick Hornby’s – query at the beginning of High Fidelity: “What came first, the music or the misery? …Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” That is to say, these social groupings existed long before moviegoers met Allison, Andrew, Bender, Brian and Claire, but nonetheless, has The Breakfast Club contributed more to their prevalence than it has to their malleability? Either way, the presence of these five stereotypes makes it possible for the film to examine how they relate to one another, and how these relationships may develop. In the narrative structure of The Breakfast Club these dynamics are largely exhibited in two ways, in how they are (1) set against each other, through resisting or yielding to conformity, and (2) how they unite against a common enemy in the form of school administrators, parents or teachers. We will examine these two dynamics in a narrative sense, but will also draw on the cinematic vocabulary of this particular film to make our points.
The five social types are first presented in the film through voice-over – brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal – each with a quick accompanying visual cue – computer lab, locker room, guidance counselor’s office, etc. – and then by introducing each character in isolation. These short scenes – brief interactions between the main characters and their parental figures, or lack thereof – help to establish their lives outside of school and away from their classmates, before throwing them together to fend for themselves. They also lend credence to the accounts each character will later give about their parents and their lives at home, as well as establish their socio-economic status.
Once they come together in the school library we are able to see how they relate to one another in terms of their social roles as high school students. Claire (the popular girl) and Andrew (the jock) are among the first to arrive, sitting next to one another in the front row. Claire is high school royalty – the Prom Queen – and Andrew’s status as an athlete of some renown affords him the privilege of sharing space with her at “the head of the class”. Brian (the nerd) actually arrives before Andrew, but knows better than to sit next to Claire. He first sits behind her in the second row – perhaps out of a desire to be counted among the social elite – but he is forced to move when Bender (the delinquent) arrives. Bender towers over Brian, motioning for him to relocate to a seat across the aisle, staring at him confrontationally until he does. Both Andrew and Claire turn around to watch this exchange, but do not interfere. Bender takes his seat directly behind Claire and Andrew, perhaps also out of a desire to insinuate himself into their social milieu, but also because it will give him the best vantage point from which to instigate trouble. Allison is the last to arrive, taking a long arc around the outer perimeter of the seats and even beyond the sculpture that divides this classroom space from the rest of the library. All four students watch her as she walks in and takes her seat in the last row, as far away as she can be from the others and facing away from the rest of the group. Claire and Andrew look at one another and share a disdainful laugh at her expense. Even Brian raises his eyebrows in disbelief; Allison is clearly an outcast.
These seating arrangements will remain fixed for the remainder of the film, with two exceptions. Bender is not static; he freely moves throughout the room, going where he pleases. This allows him to antagonize his classmates, acting as the catalyst for the various confrontations that will occur during their day together. Later in the film, when Bender is removed from the library, Brian will temporarily reclaim his seat behind Andrew and Claire. The significance of their arrangements solidifies their positions in relation to one another, in social as well as physical space.
The camera reinforces these relationships. Andrew and Claire are frequently shown in the same frame, as are Brian and Allison: the high school’s aristocracy and its outcasts. Bender most often appears alone onscreen, unless he is confronting another character. When any one of the other four appear alone on screen it is usually to highlight their reactions to a particular event, but it sometimes serves to distance them from the rest of the group. For instance, after Richard Vernon (the principal) first enters the room Claire interjects, “I know this is detention, but I don’t think I belong in here.” Her remark is meant to distinguish her as superior from the other students in the room, and the camera obliges by showing her alone onscreen for the first time since her arrival, as opposed to sharing the screen with Andrew as she has done up to this point. If the teenage characters are visually set against one another, then they should be at least as distanced from Vernon, who operates as the film’s primary authority figure. Vernon is consistently shot at a slight low angle, making him appear as if he is looking down at his students – which he is doing both literally and figuratively. He also appears to be looking down at the audience. In contrast, the students are always shot at eye level, prompting the audience to view them as peers. This is emphasized when Brian stands up during an early scene in order to express his intention not to return to detention; the camera follows him, appearing to stand up when he stands up, and to sit down when he sits down. These visual relationships will be explored further as we continue.
One of the most authentic aspects of Hughes’ screenplay is how fluid the teen characters are in terms of their allegiances to one another. Beyond the rigid social contract that allows and disallows certain interactions, the only logic that applies to the ways in which they interact is the fixed rule that anyone is open to derision or ridicule at any time. Though one might expect that the nerd and the freak would be the most frequent targets of scorn, in his role as instigator Bender is an equal opportunity rabble-rouser. In fact, at first it seems that Claire and Andrew will be his special targets of enmity. It is from his vantage point directly between and behind them that Bender first fires a warning shot – tossing a wad of paper between them – before launching into his first round of inflammatory dialogue. As the day continues, all of the characters – even the most timid in the bunch – seem to take equal pleasure in attacking one another. For instance, when Bender denigrates Andrew’s involvement on the wrestling squad by saying that the only thing he would need to join them is “a lobotomy and some tights,” Brian enters the conversation by first inquiring with some amount of curiosity, “you wear tights?” But when Andrew replies that he wears, “the required uniform,” Brian shoots back triumphantly, ”yeah, tights”. Later, Allison, who had been completely silent up to this point, reacts vocally, and violently – a single loud “Ha!” – when Claire remarks that her parents “just use [her] to get back at each other”. Andrew had invited Claire to go out to a party with him just moments before this exchange, but that doesn’t stop him from ganging up against Claire. When she complains that if she didn’t, “feel sorry for [her]self, no one else would”, Andrew replies sarcastically, “you’re breaking my heart”. Like real teenagers they dismiss any notion of friend or enemy in the higher interest of defending their own insecurities.
However, as much as they mistrust each other, that is of secondary concern to their hatred and mistrust of authority in the form of Richard Vernon. They may be at each other’s throats, but once Bender removes a screw from the library door, making it slam shut unable to be propped open, Vernon comes to confront them everyone stands up to him, covering for Bender. Of course, they are most likely protecting Bender out of fear of retribution, not because of any special affection they have for him. However, later in the film when Bender escapes from the storage room where Vernon is holding him captive, they all conspire to conceal him as he hides underneath Claire’s desk. At this point in the narrative it is far more plausible, and even likely, that they are protecting Bender because they have developed some attachment for him. In either instance it is perfectly clear that they are compelled to challenge Vernon because they instinctively regard him as a common enemy. Furthermore, it is worth noting that until the “confessional” scene toward the end of the movie, the only times that we see all five characters together in one shot – with only a few circumstantial exceptions – are the times when Vernon is also in the room. Actually, the visual language in The Breakfast Club demands further examination as it not only illuminates several plot points, but also speaks to the cinematic sophistication of a film intended for an assumedly unsophisticated audience. We will take a closer look at two relationships – in four scenes – to see how they are visually represented: Andrew and Allison, Vernon and Bender.
When Andrew and Allison leave the library to fetch drinks from the soda machine for lunch we see them walking down the hall toward the camera, which always stays a few feet ahead. They are confined on both sides by the lines of perspective terminating at the end of the hall. Behind them a hand painted banner shows a drawing of the liberty bell, with the words “Freedom for All” in red. Andrew walks slightly ahead with his back facing Allison. He initiates a conversation with the slightly confrontational, but mostly detached query: “So, what’s your poison?” It’s a ridiculous question. It’s precisely the sort of question that one high school student with nothing better to say might ask another in the hopes of appearing tough. At first, it elicits no response from Allison, so Andrew tries to dismiss it: “Alright, forget I asked.” After a look of disdain, and a short pause, Allison replies with some gusto, but obviously playing along, “Vodka!” Andrew replies incredulously, “Vodka? When do you drink vodka?”
“Whenever,” Allison retorts as she looks Andrew in the face and then takes the lead, stepping in front of Andrew and closer to the camera. Allison’s back is to him, her head held high, nose in the air in triumph. She has won the first volley.
When Andrew asks if Allison’s self-proclaimed enthusiasm for vodka is the cause of her stay in detention, Allison hesitates uncomfortably. Andrew asks again, “Why are you here?” Allison panics and avoids the question, turning the tables on Andrew, “Why are you here?” At this point they stop walking and turn to face each other for the first time, standing eye to eye in the middle of the hall. The camera also stops moving. At this point Andrew literally backs down, taking a few slow steps backward to the wall behind him, where he comes to rest in the far right hand side of the screen. The camera follows, swinging to the right and excluding Allison from the frame, setting the stage for Andrew’s soliloquy. The horizontal lines of the bricks in the wall – which look like the bricks in the wall of every high school, everywhere – confine him. The slight angle makes them appear to run left to right, boxing Andrew in on the right side of the screen.
Andrew begins to tell his story, and we see the reverse shot of Allison. She is on the opposite side of the screen (far left) in an almost mirror image of Andrew. Her impatient sigh, and general look of bored contempt, give her a superiority that is highlighted by the shot. Where Andrew looks trapped, Allison looks powerful. The horizontal lines of the wall behind her also look like they run left to right, but because of her position she appears to be at the source of movement or action. Allison replies dismissively to Andrew’s tale of woe, “Now why don’t you tell me why you’re really here.” Andrew replies with defeat, “Forget it,” sulking off of the right hand side of the screen, as if pushed by the force of the horizontal lines.
In another scene later in the story, when everyone is smoking pot and just beginning to open up to one another, Allison joins Andrew and Brian. After emptying the contents of her purse in front of them, Allison tentatively discusses her “unsatisfying” home life, but walks away when things get too personal. Andrew pursues her and encourages her to open up. The ensuing scene is both confrontational and confessional, but it brings Allison and Andrew closer together. This is displayed by what the camera shows, as much as by what the characters say.
Throughout the scene the over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot and the extreme close-ups of both Allison and Andrew’s faces impart a feeling of their growing intimacy. Never mind that not much is said; these are high school students, so the degree of intimacy is relative. In other words, when Andrew gently prods Allison for details saying, simply, “parents?” Allison’s hesitant and watery-eyed, “yeah” is more than enough to get the point across. Coupled with the subtle visual reinforcement the dialogue brings these two characters closer together.
The relationship between Bender and Vernon is also developed on both visual and narrative levels. In the case of Allison and Andrew the familiar over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot technique gave their relationship a sense of intimacy. In the case of Vernon and Bender it is used to heighten the confrontation and to illustrate their relative levels of power over one another. The first significant confrontation between Bender and Vernon, when Bender’s determination to challenge Vernon’s authority consigns him to two more months of Saturday detention, begins with a simple shot-reverse-shot, each character appearing alone in the frame. Vernon is shot at a slight low-angle, and Bender from a slight high-angle in order to emphasize perspective. This shows that Vernon is in a superior position. As their argument intensifies a few over-the-shoulder shots are thrown in to increase tension. Now each character is occupying the other’s space, intensifying the conflict. At the height of their argument the camera closes in on some extreme close-ups of Bender and Vernon’s faces for maximum emotional impact. All of these techniques, used previously to bring Andrew and Allison closer together, serve the same purpose here, but for opposite emotional ends.
In a later scene – Bender and Vernon’s “final showdown” in the storage closet – very similar camera techniques are used, but some subtle variations make a considerable difference in conveying the intent of each character. Shot-reverse-shot is used mainly to give Bender’s reactions to Vernon, since Vernon is doing most of the talking. However, when we see Vernon facing forward, speaking toward the camera, we see him alone in the frame in a tight close-up shot. When we see Bender in the reaction shot – with the exception of two extreme close-ups of his face at the climax of the scene – he always appears in the frame along with Vernon. Bender is sitting, clutching his knees, belittled and vulnerable in the right hand side of the screen, with Vernon standing above him, his right arm extended and finger pointing challengingly. Vernon dwarfs Bender in these shots, frequently taking up the majority of the screen. The effect of this is to make Bender appear small and helpless while Vernon clearly controls the action.
This scene’s emotional significance cannot be understated. Vernon, as the sole figure of authority, challenges Bender, the most active proponent for rebellion, to prove his physical superiority. Vernon, who previously appeared to be merely an imbecile or a jerk, is here revealing himself to be a vicious bully. Though his previous actions were often inappropriate – for instance, several cases of verbal abuse: telling Brian, “shut up, Pee-wee” and mocking Bender, “whatsamatter, John? You gonna cry?” – he is now openly threatening Bender, practically begging him to “throw the first punch” so that he is justified in retaliating with physical violence . You can see in Bender’s face, even more than fear, a sense of shock and disgust. Bender is stunned because he is just now realizing the extent of Vernon’s corruption. If there were any lingering doubt, Vernon confirms his role as the villain when he takes off his jacket, revealing the black dress-shirt underneath: bad guys always wear black.
While “Vernon is the embodiment of all that is rotten, decaying and worthless in adulthood” (Bernstein, 62) Bender is “the classic delinquent, disgusted with his place in the world but unsure of what place would be better, taking on a demonstrative toughness to shield his vulnerable desolation” (Shary, Generation Multiplex 43). Roz Kaveney observes of Vernon:
One of the film’s strengths is the combination of neurosis and authority that Paul Gleason brings to the part [of Vernon] – it asks the valid question of whether the delinquent is as dangerous as the authority who is trying to control him. (19)And while one would hope that Vernon is more sinister than your average high school principal, John Bender is not your average juvenile delinquent. For a vandal whose active disinterest in literature – or his passive assent to boredom – compels him to destroy library books, he is actually quite literate. His charm is more in his quick-witted responses to anyone and everything than it is in his bluster and bravado . When Andrew tells Bender to “speak for himself” and Bender replies, without so much as a moment’s breath, “Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.” it’s clear that Bender is more Puck than palooka . Timothy Shary remarks that his first altercation with Vernon is Bender’s “early stand for his authority in a brief showdown with the principal” (Generation Multiplex 43). The two of them are locked in a struggle for authority throughout the film, and victory for Bender means a victory for youthful rebellion. Although there is no decisive victory at film’s end, there are a few indications that Bender has won the war even without formal surrender on Vernon’s part. Vernon openly mocks Bender saying, “If you want to see something funny, you go see John Bender in five years. You’ll see how god-damned funny he is.” The obvious implication being that John Bender has a life of failure to look forward to, but Vernon’s life is already pathetic. Aside from repeatedly bullying and demeaning the students he is meant to inspire, we repeatedly see Vernon as the butt of the joke: he spills coffee all over his desk, he leaves the faculty restroom with a paper toilet seat cover hanging from the back of his pants, etc. Vernon is only a role model insofar as he is taken as an indication of what not to do.
Regardless of whether it is Bender or Vernon that finally comes out on top, many of the other aspects of the film’s ending have been frequent sources of disagreement and controversy. In these final scenes the tension that has played out between Andrew, Allison, Bender, Brian and Claire comes to some unexpected resolutions. It is because these resolutions deal directly with questions of conformity – the arena for authority and rebellion among peers – that they are of interest to our study. Addressing the apparent simplicity of the film’s plot, Roz Kaveney observes:
We know the sort of film this is, almost from the beginning. It will be an ensemble piece, something like an opera, in which each character, pair of characters or group of characters will sooner or later express their inner feelings, show off their public selves or enter into clashes and reconciliations. It is almost inevitable, given that the film’s exposition establishes the differences between the five principal young characters, that the film’s resolution will reconcile them and that much of its action will be devoted to the dialectical personal clashes whereby this reconciliation will be achieved. (13)The problem with Kaveney’s analysis is that it is based on assumption that The Breakfast Club actually achieves reconciliation between its characters. On the surface this is not incorrect, but we will argue that the reconciliations are not entirely authentic. Through experience we have long come to expect that Hollywood movies deliver happy endings, so much so that we often assume that they are there even when they’re not. As the final image of the film serves to highlight – Bender, fist upraised, stands alone at one end of the football field underneath a clear blue sky, captured in perpetual freeze-frame – any ending is artificial; it is one point among an infinite number of possible points of resolution. As we will shortly discuss, the resolutions chosen by Hughes are each deceptive in their own ways, but suffice it to say that they do not add up to the happy ending we may be making them out to be. John Hughes suggests as much in the following quote:
The studios never perceived those films as hits - they'd always bring them out in February, which is when the studios usually dump the movies they have no confidence in. Of course, I was naive, I thought, "Fantastic! Right in the middle of that long stretch between Christmas and Spring Break, your coats are getting dirty, everything's dark, dingy - what a great time for a movie!" Especially one that's a little depressing. You see, one of the bits of wisdom I've picked up about adolescence is that joy and sorrow are equally pleasant to a teenager; those extreme states of mind are pretty cool whatever they are! (Ham)It is therefore fair to assume that the ending Hughes arrives at is just as likely to be depressing as it is uplifting. It may even contain elements of both. Let’s take a closer look at the elements that come together to form this resolution, whatever its emotional content may be.
A particularly consistent point of contention among fans of The Breakfast Club is the romantic pairings that end the movie. These pairings often catch first time viewers by surprise, and even to long-time fans they often seem arbitrary. However, the couplings of Claire and Bender, Allison and Andrew are not arbitrary, they are clearly established at points throughout the film. Aside from the evidence that we will provide shortly, these relationships follow the logic of teenage attraction, which is to say that it is practically unnecessary to make any case for their being logical or illogical. Attraction between teenagers often requires little more than close physical proximity, and many times follows nothing more rational than an established cliché – good girls are attracted to bad boys, girls (of all stripes) are attracted to popular athletic boys. After all, clichés exist because they relate to phenomena that occur frequently enough to be identified as fairly consistent patterns.
The most emotionally charged divide among the students in The Breakfast Club is the economic one, so it is no surprise that viewers are sometimes startled by the fact that Claire and Bender end up with one another at the end of the movie. Their relationship is not without precedent though. There are many instances during the film that we can see Claire and Bender’s interest in one another taking shape. This is not to say that their relationship is as simple as it seems. Aside from the occasional lingering gaze that Bender fixes in Claire’s direction, we can see Claire’s interest in him growing from scene to scene. One compelling case in point: Claire physically retaliates when Bender tries to molest her while he’s hiding underneath her desk, but then moments later when he leaves to smoke pot, she is the first to follow. Soon afterward the two of them are seen sitting together apart from the rest of the group. There is a familiar idea that love and hate can sometimes be paradoxically similar emotions, and the intense emotional exchanges that occur between Bender and Claire may be as much a sign of their affection for one another as they are signs of their distaste.
Roz Kaveney again objects to Hughes’ denouement: “One of the film’s weaknesses is its assumption that all of the problems of its five iconic teenagers have quick and simple fixes.” She cites Allison’s makeover and Claire giving her diamond earring to Bender in order to prove her point. It is arguably naïve to insist that these resolutions are either simple, or that they have fixed anything in a substantial sense. In both cases there is something significant in the fact that Claire is the catalyst for the solution, as if it were the “generosity” of the rich and influential high school aristocracy – literally the Prom Queen – that were required to bring about change. An act of charity may hurt as much as it helps, in the sense that it serves to reinforce an already existing social inequality. This makes these two “resolutions” particularly problematic. They have not come to any substantial redefinition of their social roles, they have merely found a new way to express the old relationships.
In the case of Claire’s earring the charity has actual monetary value, making it all the more troublesome. Shary argues that “the gesture [of giving her earring to Bender] shows [Claire’s] pity on him as well as her appreciation of his reciprocal affection” (69) to which there can be no reasonable objection . Furthermore, it is especially appropriate because it shows the negative and positive aspects of Claire’s offering. To make reference to another film in the Hughes oeuvre: Some Kind of Wonderful ends with the hero (Keith) giving his long time best friend, and new girl friend (Watts), diamond earrings that he used the entirety of his college savings to purchase. After she puts them on, Keith remarks, “You look good wearing my future.” It is among the most heart-warmingly romantic of teen-movie endings. With that in mind, what can we say about the earring that Claire gives to Bender? It was already suggested by Bender, with no compelling objection from Claire, that the earrings were a gift from her father. Given that there was no amount of time or money expended by Claire to obtain the earring in the first place, what value does it really have to her, monetary, symbolic or otherwise? Granted, there is something poetic about it, but when compared to Keith and Watts, it’s not all that significant. It is more or less on par with the blue sweatshirt or varsity patch that Allison takes home with her; it is a ritual act of teen infatuation.
Allison’s make-over – again the result of Claire’s growing sense of philanthropy – and her concomitant romantic pairing with Andrew are easily the two plot points in The Breakfast Club that have raised the most criticism. What Jonathan Bernstein calls the movie’s “biggest blunder” (67) may draw objection not so much for its implausibility, as for the level of disappointment it inspires in viewers. Allison is the rebel, the most idiosyncratic and fiercely independent character, and her transformation to a benignly pretty girl indicates that she is not being accepted for who she is, but rather who she is willing to become. Her new appearance is “simply another false façade behind which she can hide her anxieties” (Shary, Teen Movies 70).
Throughout the film, Allison may seem to be the most independent, but she is also the character most desperate to make some connection with her classmates. For all of her attempts to protect herself – her silence, the long dark hair in front of her face, the dark eye make-up, etc. – she also wants to be included. As she admits at the end of the “confessional” scene, she is only there because she “didn’t have anything better to do”, not to mete out any punishment. If this is true , then it stands to reason that if she really wanted to be left alone, she would have stayed at home. Allison also repeatedly indicates that the main source of her adolescent dis-ease is her uncaring and emotionally distant parents, an assertion which is given some credence from her parent’s hasty departure earlier that morning: after Allison gets out of what can be reasonably assumed to be her parent’s car, she steps forward and bends down as if to say something through the passenger-side window, but the car speeds off abruptly, almost in response to her attempt to connect, leaving Allison alone in the street. Seen in this context, it is perfectly reasonable that Allison should be willing to try on a little conformity, in order to win the affection of her peers. Furthermore, when we remember the scenes in which Allison and Andrew make an emotional connection, as we have previously discussed, then their relationship seems entirely plausible. It is perhaps no less disappointing, because it makes some very clear statements about the ability of the freak/rebel to maintain their individuality and to still be accepted by their high school peers.
Of the five characters presented in the film, and the social groups they act as tokens for, Brian (the nerd) is the one that has retained his independence and remained mostly unchanged. At the same time that Claire is kissing Bender, and Andrew is kissing Allison, Brian is alone in the library proudly kissing the essay he has penned on their behalf. While Allison’s status as the rebel/freak has been compromised by her newfound willingness to conform, Brian has somehow managed to maintain his outsider status as the nerd and still gain some amount of acceptance. Timothy Shary corroborates this interpretation:
Unlike most nerd characters in other teen films, Brian ultimately appears to accept his labeling, and his peers eventually show some sincere appreciation for the difference he represents… When the students leave school at the end of the day, Brian may be alone unlike the others, but he has thus maintained a certain independence that is not afforded to the rest. His resistance to romance and to changing himself to look or act like the others – something the rest do – indicates that he is the least conformist of the bunch. (Teen Movies 70)At face value, this resolution seems just as unexpected as Allison’s conformity, and a more cynical reading is indeed possible. After all, Brian’s “election” as the group’s spokesman can be just as easily dismissed as an instance of his peers taking advantage of his perceived status as “the nerd” and his willingness to assent in order to be accepted. It is again significant that Claire, the charming, attractive and popular girl, is the one that requests Brian to write the essay. It is also significant that Brian calls her on it – remarking, “you just don’t want to write your paper” – but then caves under the soft and gentle weight of feminine flattery. John Hughes’ own explanation strikes a balance between these two extremes:
Other than the obvious technical matter, which is that there were five people in the film so somebody had to get left alone at the end, we decided that Brian was smart enough to know that [romance] wasn't on his agenda. He was the intellectual superior of the others, and it was enough for him to be accepted by them, that they'd think enough of him to let him represent the group on paper. I think Brian was intellectually mature enough to realize that he wasn't socially mature enough to handle a relationship anyway. (Ham)Brian’s superior, yet conditional, status is all the more interesting when we consider that Hughes may have some affinity for him. After all, Brian is the narrator as much as the group’s spokesperson, and at the film’s end the director makes a cameo appearance as Brian’s father, dutifully picking him up from school.
At any rate, all of this is of secondary concern. The real question, left to plague characters and audience alike, is what will happen when everyone returns to school on Monday morning. Like so many of Hughes’ screenplays, The Breakfast Club is the account of a significant event in the lives of its characters. It relates a story, of unexpected and life-changing significance, that takes place over a relatively short period of time. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Uncle Buck, Reach the Rock… All of these films follow the same pattern, occurring over the course of one day, evening or weekend, and though they all reach some sense of resolution – as all Hollywood films must – they also leave the viewer with a sense of anticipation: what happens next? Like Cameron in Ferris Bueller or Samantha and Jake in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club depicts a series of unexpected changes that may very well return to normal between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning. Truth be told, there is an endearing optimism in the fact that Hughes allows us to quit while we’re ahead – or is it escapism? – but it is doubtful that anyone is confident that these new friendships will be strong enough to withstand the relentless demands of the teenage caste system. The happy ending that we all want to see, embodied in Bender’s upraised fist, is really only temporary. In movie land the freeze-frame continues perpetually, but in the real world time marches on. What assurance do we have that these iconic teens will resist conformity and subvert authority instead of simply yielding to the unstoppable flow of peer opinion and adult influence?
- The version of the song that opens The Breakfast Club has been fattened up for dramatic effect: reverb has been added in order to make it sound more expansive. It also includes an introductory drum fill that does not appear on the radio edit. When the song is reprised at the end of the movie it is played at a slower speed, and therefore a lower pitch than the original. Both recordings differ enough from the version commercially available that they appear to have been made especially for inclusion in the film.
- From the song “Changes” appearing on David Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory. The song also includes lines like “time may change me” and “turn and face the strange” which are equally as relevant to the subject matter in the film.
- One significant way that John Hughes was able to establish credibility with teen audiences was through the effective use of popular music in film soundtracks. Teen films that exploit their subjects also tend to exploit their audiences by using soundtracks to sell records. The music in John Hughes’ films never came off sounding like “the hot new single” that a record label expected you to like. Rather, it sounded like something cool that a friend was personally introducing you to. As Roz Kaveney observes, the soundtracks to Pretty In Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful are “…two of the most attractive and undated rock music scores of the Hughes canon, indeed of the entire teen genre, using non-mainstream bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Psychedelic Furs. For once, hip teens are shown as listening to the edgy music that hip teens of their period might actually regard as worthwhile” (40).
- For instance, they are also seen together when they leave the library to go to Bender’s locker. This is entirely reasonable because in this instance they have banded together to accomplish something. As the scene tests their ability to cooperate and to work as a team, it is only natural that they would appear on screen as a (visually) unified whole.
- There is also an element of threatened emasculation and an assertion of sexual superiority. Roz Kaveney calls Vernon “a figure of threatened adult masculinity” (16). This is a claim that is borne out during this scene when Vernon tells Bender that he will “knock [Bender’s] dick in the dirt”. Connected to earlier comments, this sexual dynamic is heightened. For instance, Bender calls Vernon a “brownie hound”, an expression that, at least by some accounts, can be taken to mean that he is a homosexual. At one point Vernon also tells Bender to sit down by saying, “Grab some wood there, bub.” Bender’s smirk suggests that he appreciates the double-entendre.
- This is a trope that is still echoed from time to time. For instance, The Faculty  which bears more than a few similarities to The Breakfast Club, features Josh Hartnett as Zeke Tyler, a teenage delinquent who is clearly smarter than any of his peers.
- And just as much in the sense of the Shakespearean – as a mirthful instigator – as in the sense of MTV’s Real World, San Francisco.
- To further complicate the issue, when Claire first kisses Bender in the supply closet, initiating their romantic relationship, Bender remarks, “You know how you said before that your parents use you to get back at each other? Wouldn’t I be outstanding in that capacity?” Along with any genuine romantic feelings they have for one another, Claire and Bender’s relationship may also serve the added function of being a source of irritation for her parents.
- Allison also “admits” to being a compulsive liar, so she is admittedly not the most reliable source of information.