I was born in 1982. Technically, this makes me a Child of the ’80s. As such, there are certain things I am supposed to reflexively feel a connection to. Like Nintendo. And Thundercats. And, of course, The Breakfast Club.
Now, I know that last one sounds absurd. I was 3 years old when that movie came out. I had no concept of high school at that age, let alone the social stratification of youth. I didn’t even really know that people are different from each other. Everyone seemed pretty much the same to me; some were shorter, others were taller, but if you were in my line of sight, you were basically my friend. So how could I connect with something I couldn’t comprehend?
Simple answer: I didn’t.
It wasn’t until recently that I actually saw The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ much adored film about five disparate teenagers who, over the course of eight hours stuck in Saturday detention, discover a common ground between them they never knew existed. And even after having been churned through the public school system and experiencing clique culture and serving one or two Saturday detentions myself, I still don’t understand it. Clarification: I don’t understand why it’s so beloved.
Let’s ignore the obviously ridiculous moments — the weed smoking scene in which Emilio Estevez inexplicably transforms into a gymnast and shatters a glass door with his voice; the pointless dance sequence set to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone”; the long, melodramatic, schizophrenic conversation that serves as the story’s climax — and focus on the film’s central theme: Beneath the superficial categorizations that divide us, young people are really all the same. The implication is that we don’t truly become individuals until entering adulthood — at which point, “your heart dies,” as Ally Sheedy so memorably reminds us. Basically, The Breakfast Club is paean to conformity.
Which, of course, means John Hughes is a fascist.
OK, maybe “fascist” is too strong a word. But what Hughes is celebrating here is not our differences — you know, the stuff that makes people interesting — but the way in which we are alike, suggesting that, deep down, we are just carbon copies of one another, and if we can only submit to that fact, our lives will improve. Look at what happens: After everyone realizes they essentially share the same fucked-up home life, each character begins dropping their personal identities. Sheedy’s Allison, the group’s biggest outcast, allows Molly Ringwald’s Claire to give her a more socially acceptable makeover, and she suddenly falls for Estevez’s Andy, the blandest of the bunch. Bender, the misfit, compromises his anti-authoritarian, anti-bourgeois stance and hooks up with Claire, the spoiled rich girl. It’s no wonder they only produce one essay at the end, describing “who they think they are”: They are now the same boring person. And they’re supposed to be happy about it.
This analysis might appear antithetical to what Hughes intended. “After all,” you say, “isn’t insecure jock Andy’s existential crisis that he is incapable of thinking for himself? Isn’t the whole movie about breaking the unwritten rules of teenage society and seeing people for who they really are?”
Don’t be so naïve. Hughes uses sentimentality to mask his true intentions. Take Principal Vernon, “the villain.” He is the most singular character in the movie, and he is miserable. In one of the film’s least remembered scenes, he laments that after 25 years in education, he feels the kids have turned on him. “Come on, Vern,” says Carl, the janitor. “The kids haven’t changed, you have.” And this is presented as a negative virtue.
To John Hughes, change is bad. This is why all his “classic” films are about adolescence: He sees teenagers as smiling automatons and adults as depressed individualists. And this is why there will never be a Breakfast Club 2: Once his characters grow up and develop minds of their own, Hughes abandons them.
“You wanna see something funny?” Vernon tells the group at one point. “You go visit John Bender in five years. You’ll see how goddamned funny he is.” Right — maybe he’ll have left suburban Illinois, gotten a job, traveled the world, forgotten all about this one random day in detention and actually formed his own opinions about the world. And who wants to see that?