The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)

No sex for the nerd (spoiler notice)

Are you a jock, a geek, a doll, a weirdo or an outcast? The Breakfast Club is a film about children growing up. About class – not just classrooms, but class warfare on the school ground and beyond. It opens with the lyrics to Bowie's 'Changes' and it stands as an 80s anthem for teenage kids around the world. But, surprisingly, underneath the veneer of accepting each other's differences, this John Hughes classic hides a warped message that all but negates its theme.

The story is elegant and simple in a way that films have forgotten how to be. Five kids start their Saturday morning wistfully driven to school, for unknown misdemeanors, where they'll spend the day in detention. Their supervisor is an aging, authoritarian teacher who believes tough love only can set these deviants right. Underpinning that is fear for the future, rather than any love for the children. As the day begins, the five butt heads: they belong to different crowds and sincerely don't empathize. But that's nothing nine hours of detention won't fix. As the day progresses, and especially rogue John Bender causes chaos, they bond over their shared misfortune and what appears to be the universal plight of high school life.

There are stretches of amusing boredom, some tension between the kids and the teacher, but the emotional climax of the film comes when the group finally sits together and shares their reasons for being here. Tragic stories abound – nearly too saccharine for its own good, but true to the movie's core. The parents seem the cause of all trouble. It's here that jocky Andrew confesses the pressure put on him by his father, John makes another quip at his abusive home life, princess Claire rattles her cage and weirdo Allison unveils her friendless life. That leaves geeky Brian, who tears up at not achieving a perfect school record, but also flings a straight dagger at Claire for being so conceited, she can't fathom that Brain might not want to be seen with her, only vice versa.

The message is acceptance of each other's faults and uniqueness. Daring to stray outside expectations put upon them by teachers, parents, school and society. The breakfast club is born. Then watch it fall apart. Skip to the end of the film to see how these themes become neglected and warped. The focus has deviated from acceptance to coupling. Suddenly, romance bubbles up between Andrew and Allison, and John and Claire. This appears to fit the theme of stepping over borders and accepting others for what they are. But there's a troubling undercurrent to it.

Andrew only accepts Allison after Claire has given her a 'make-over', as if to show that there's real beauty underneath the haggard clothes and caked makeup she used to wear. Not until she's made conventionally pretty, just like the popular Claire, does Andrew (and by extension, the movie) allow her into a relationship. It doesn't seem to matter to them that she's lost all the features of her endearing weirdness. The romance between John and Claire seems more straightforward. They have little in common, but they're both handsome people. More crucially, their getting together doesn't affect the plot too much. Throughout the film we're rooting for John to get a win, and he finally gets it.

But where does this leave poor Brian? If, as the movie suggests, a relationship is a panacea for all their problems and a symbol for acceptance, he's left in the cold. Allison was saved by virtue of a transformation into normality, but Brian is still too strange, too ugly, too weak to deserve love. If I were him, I'd feel devastated, concretely proven to be undesirable. He's left with the thankless job of wording the closing statement by the breakfast club. It sounds like a unifying cry for the group, but then why does it feel like it's all tumbling down?

That's not saying The Breakfast Club isn't deserving of its classic status. It's a delightful journey, important to a whole generation of developing humans, and interesting for many reasons. This critique isn't meant to undermine any of that, but nevertheless hopes to show its thematic contradictions and disturbing casting aside of the, historically, most beleaguered character type. A tale of acceptance becomes a tale of exclusion. Even here, even now, the dork is just too hopeless for sex.

Roderick Leeuwenhart






1 comment: