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…
–David Bowie, “Changes”
The 30th anniversary (and theatrical re-release) of The Breakfast Club seemed like the perfect time to indulge in (yet another) re-watch, with my Breakfast Club buddy (and lovely niece) Halle for company. Written and directed by John Hughes, starring Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Paul Gleason, The Breakfast Club is one of the many things we bonded over, in between comic books, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, and good thai food, despite the fact that it came out in 1985, a good decade before she was born!
There’s no need to be coy; Halle is 19, I’m 44. I wasn’t old enough to see it in the theater (that pesky and widely despised ‘R’ rating!) when it first came out, and I was too much of a Brian to try sneaking into the theater. Thankfully, the magic of VHS brought The Breakfast Club to my very own living room; I’m guessing I finally saw it during my sophomore or junior year of high school. Over many years of re-watching, I’ve changed my opinion about some parts, noticed things that are missing (like any diversity whatsoever), and come to appreciate some of the scenes I didn’t before. It’s not an easy movie–it’s too ambiguous and hits too close to home–and I don’t think it’s perfect. But it’s funny and honest and real in a way that’s pretty rare, even now, 30 years later.
Halle here– I was a kid when I first saw it so it didn’t mean much. I thought it was really funny but I didn’t get a lot of it until I was 9 or 10, and even then it didn’t really hit me the same way. That probably changed when I was 13 or 14 and old enough to more fully appreciate what was going on. And then I loved it. It’s one of the only films about teens that isn’t full of clichés, that isn’t totally unrealistic. All of the stereotypes (athlete, princess, outcast etc.) are obvious, but not over-exaggerated. This movie has charmed two generations, at least, so we wanted to talk about some of the reasons we think it holds up.
Julie & Halle’s Top Five Things That Make The Breakfast Club Special:
Words, words, words
Halle: My favorite aspect of the movie is probably the dialogue. It’s hilarious and clever, but realistic and not over the top. The movie is basically just talking, but all of the dialogue is interesting and important and it never gets boring, which is amazing. The dialogue is especially good compared to most teen-centric films, which do not accurately portray what teenagers are really like, what high school is like, and how teens actually speak. You can basically tell right away what stereotypes each character represents by how they’re dressed and by their body language, but it’s their first few lines of dialogue that really tell you who they are.
Julie: Plus, the quotes! This is one of the most quotable movies ever. “Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?” “If he gets up, we’ll all get up…it’ll be anarchy!” “Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.” “Could you describe the ruckus?” Hilarious and highly useful. But then there’s also “Sometimes I feel invisible.” “If you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap.”
Parents and other problematic adults
Julie: The movie opens with the arrival of everyone at school, short scenes that sketch out the relationship (or lack thereof) between each kid and their parents, and within minutes we get a pretty good idea of how important that dynamic is for everyone involved. One of the major themes of The Breakfast Club is the absolutely enormous importance of parental expectation and interaction, and how parents shape the behavior and beliefs of their kids. “They ignore me,” says Allison, as her faceless parent drives away. Win. Be the best. Nothing is more important than that, says Andrew’s father. Can’t get an F in shop, Brian explains, it’s literally unthinkable.
Halle: Right. And all of the adults, parents included, are basically “the enemy,” with the possible exception of Carl the janitor because at least he treats them like actual people. Carl might be the janitor, and the kids mock him, but they clearly have more respect for him than they do for Principal Vernon, and he has more power than Vernon as well. Vernon treats them all like dirt, demanding respect he hasn’t earned, while putting them down at every opportunity.
Julie: Exactly. “That’s the last time you ever make me look bad in front of those kids,” says the guy who just told Bender to stop trying to impress people. So while the kids may not like each other, they like the adults around them even less, and when they have to take sides, they always side with each other. I think the scene between Carl and Vernon is particularly telling: Vernon is basically, “kids these days!” and Carl shuts him down. “These kids haven’t changed, you have! If you were 16 what would you think of you?” Not only is the movie honest about the impact of adults on the teens, it’s also honest about how important their respect is to Vernon.
Sexual politics, social hierarchies, the pressure of expectations, and other difficult topics
Julie: So many difficult topics! Once the kids start talking they touch on so many different issues, things that are problematic and sticky, uncomfortable, embarrassing, difficult. The pressure to have, and consequences of having, sex (especially for girls.) The pressure to get good grades, join a club, belong, be the best, compete. The pressure to fit in and have friends and be popular. The kids have no illusions about the unfairness of expectations (see Allison’s explanation of the sexual double standard) and the benefits of the social hierarchy, for those who qualify. For example, Andrew fully understands that he’s treated differently because he’s an athlete. One of the most heartbreaking moments is the very honest discussion about whether they’ll be friends on Monday, and Claire saying they won’t, and moreover that it would be different for Brian and Allison because their friends look up to people like Claire and Andrew. It’s true, and it sucks.
Not only do they talk about these things overtly, but the movie provides additional examples of the principles and pressures in action. Claire and Andrew sitting together while the others sit alone. Brian punching himself in the arm after finishing the essay, because no one else is going to. Claire deferring to every male except Brian because she’s unwilling or unable to stick up for herself (and Andrew’s need to jump in and defend her at every turn.)
Halle: Even though they open up to each other and talk about having sex and whether they will be friends, and even though they all obviously want to be understood, they’re still so very self-conscious, they care so much about their reputations, about how everyone sees them. They talk about difficult subjects and are willing to be honest and even admit their mistakes, like Andrew, but they all get so defensive when someone else tries to criticize them, like Brian & Bender fighting over the elephant lamp. It’s all about wanting to be really seen and understood, but being terrified of it at the same time.
The unanswered question(s)
We both love us some ambiguity. Life is ambiguous, a lot. And that’s why we love the ambiguity in The Breakfast Club. What was the punchline of Bender’s joke? What exactly was Vernon looking for in the confidential files? Why did everyone follow Bender to his locker, at the risk of being caught and punished? And of course, the mother of all unanswered questions: what happened on Monday?
There’s no easy answers in this movie. The kids bond, but it doesn’t really change anything. Probably. You don’t really believe they’re going to be friends on Monday; at best they probably go forward with increased self awareness and maybe a little more empathy. But are they going to behave radically different Monday morning? Probably not. Maybe? No. Maybe.
Halle: Which brings us to the best thing in the movie, the relationship between the kids. This isn’t a typical feel-good Hollywood teen movie. The relationships start out prickly, at best, and even though the kids open up to each other over the course of the movie, they never stop trying to prove themselves to each other, they never drop their defenses entirely. They are each desperate to be seen as more than the stereotype they fit into. They talk about things that are totally relevant today: school and clubs, sex and dating, parents and their “unsatisfying” home lives. Even the relatively insignificant conversations further the development of their relationships: Andrew asking Claire if she’s going to the party, Bender talking about the stuff in Claire’s purse, Claire explaining sushi to Bender, etc. There’s so much going on between the kids, spoken and unspoken, with every interaction. Which is why it’s so hard when Claire tells the truth about their relationships. Even though they all became closer that day, it’s not going to make any difference on Monday. The others take offense at her honesty, and they aren’t necessarily wrong to be angry, but they all know it’s true.
Julie: Exactly. They’ve been hurling insults at each other all day, but at the same time they’re finding out they have a lot in common, and they’re bonding together against unfair expectations and dominating adults. They’re sarcastic and mocking, even mean, but they also understand each other, once they stop to think about it. They’re all so desperate to be seen, to be understood, and the entire movie is basically an exploration of what it takes for them each to let people in, to be honest, not only about their lives, but about their desire for empathy and respect. Vernon tells the kids at the very beginning that he wants them to explain who they think they are. What’s great about The Breakfast Club is that it says, to all of us, it’s alright if you don’t know the answer to that question. Keep talking, keep listening and maybe we can figure it out together.
“Dear Mr Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”
Watch the movie at home or at a theater near you this weekend only, then check out some read-and-watch-alikes:
Books (*and movie!)
- This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers
- *The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- *The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
- Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
- *The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend by Kody Keplinger
- Mean Girls
- Easy A
- Pitch Perfect
- 10 Things I Hate About You
- Freaks and Geeks
- Veronica Mars
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Marcus Sedgwick’s The Ghosts of Heaven (again, because wow!) and Halle Maestas, currently readingDeadpool Kills the Marvel Universe