Film

Don't You Forget About Us: 'The Breakfast Club's Generation X is Eternally Relevant

Teenage angst about being alive but unnoticed, perfectly captured by Simple Minds' song, permeates the pre-social media era of The Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club
John Hughes

The Criterion Collection

2 Jan 2018

Other

Those whose early years were spent during the financially tragic '30s, and who then endured (and/or served in) World War II, have been called the G.I. Generation and given the honorable title of the Greatest Generation. Post-war, soldiers returned to the United States and started families that skyrocketed the birth rate and led to a new generation -- the Baby Boomers -- who enjoyed, in comparison to their mothers and fathers, a comfortable childhood within the abundant economy of the '50s and early '60s. Many white Baby Boomers experienced the luxury of dates at drive-ins and idolatry of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, while their parents were born before the term "teenager" existed.

Historically, adolescence wasn't a transition period. It was an abrupt entry into adulthood—especially for the pre-Boomer generation, many of whom grew up quickly by being forced to forsake education in favor of earning a paycheck to support their parents and siblings. Eighteen-year-old males were drafted into the military and sent to fight in Europe; many soldiers volunteered, even faking their age to join the fight. World War II was a battle that had the support of countless young people—many of whom, when they grew up, were astonished by their children's opposition to the Vietnam War.

After sacrificing greatly in their youth and then striving to give their offspring a better life, the Greatest Generation often had trouble comprehending the adolescent angst of their children that was portrayed in films like Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), and teenagers couldn't understand why their freedom and viewpoints were being stifled by elders with values that seemed outdated, prejudiced, puritanical, and oppressive. As a result, many Baby Boomers shirked the "traditional" ideals of their parents as they worked during the '60s to change long-held beliefs about race, sexuality, and gender. More women than ever joined the workforce and divorce increased dramatically, peaking in the United States during the late '70s and early '80s.

The children of these divorces belonged to Generation X—kids born after the Baby Boom who were (most likely due to the availability of the birth control pill and many women's shifting focus toward college and career rather than motherhood) part of a low birth-rate era. Like all generations, X is both a beneficiary and victim of its period.

Although Gen-Xers didn't live their childhood years or adolescence during a catastrophic financial collapse, suffer through a world war, or struggle for the basic goals of feminism, they did experience an unprecedented incidence of broken homes, the frightening emergence of the AIDS epidemic, the spread of drug abuse, and record rates of teen suicide. The play-date, helicopter-parent, child-centered attitude of the Millennial era was a thing of the future; many members of Generation X were latchkey kids with long hours of unsupervised, solitary time while their single parents worked.

As teens, Gen X didn't have social media or scores of Young Adult novels—the expansion of YA literature was something else that had not yet happened. Aside from Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton, authors weren't creating many realistic, contemporary protagonists with whom adolescents could relate.

But fortunately, the '80s offered films that seriously depicted the issues and anxieties of the current youth—including Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980), Tony Bill's My Bodyguard (1980), Marek Kanievska's Less than Zero (1987), and Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988). This trend was followed by the highly successful writer/director/producer John Hughes, who examines both adolescence and adulthood with a mix of comedy and drama in The Breakfast Club (1985), which has been re-released by Criterion with extra scenes that were cut from the original film.

The film's title is self-bestowed by five high school students who, for different offenses, are forced to spend a Saturday in detention. Their principal, Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) requires each of them to submit an essay describing who they think they are. Instead of writing individual essays, the students -- Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), John Bender (Judd Nelson), Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), and Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) -- recruit another member of the group, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), to write one essay. In it, Brian states that the content of the paper is pointless because no matter how the teens portray themselves, Mr. Vernon -- the teens' symbol of tyrannical adult authority—will see them "in the simplest terms… the most convenient definitions."

According to the students, Brian is viewed as a brain, Andrew as an athlete, Claire as a princess, Allison as a basket case, and Bender as a criminal. However, when they are initially assembled and isolated inside their school's library, this is precisely how they see each other. They behave distantly toward one another as if their cliques are an impenetrable caste system.

But after Bender verbally harasses Claire and Andrew jumps to her defense, it becomes obvious that she and Andrew -- the popular girl and the jock -- are at the top of teenage hierarchy. Andrew and Claire sit beside each other, in seats ahead of everyone else, and clearly regard each other as equals. They look down on Brian, who is considered an academically high-achieving but socially inept nerd; they disregard the eccentric and withdrawn Allison; and they loathe Bender, who feels the same way about the other students and loves to show it.

Bender is obnoxious and cruel as he insults, belittles, and attempts to bully his peers. He taunts Claire about his suspicion that she is sexually inexperienced, which reflects a change in societal standards from earlier decades of the 20th century. Prior to the sexual revolution of the '60s, physical intimacy between unmarried adolescents was frowned upon, and a teenage female would most likely be harshly judged for being "that kind of girl".

Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club (1985) (IMDB)

By the '80s, teens were still judging each other, but under a different value system. Bender also teases Brian for his admitted inexperience; Claire sticks up for Brian, assuring him that his virginity is "okay". Bender finds additional reasons to mock and abuse the other teens, and it therefore seems justified when Andrew promises to put him in line, saying that there will be "two hits… me hitting you, and you hitting the floor," then successfully follows through.

Bender, however, is not a one-dimensional miscreant. As the day in detention progresses, his vulnerability and wretched home life are revealed, creating a sympathetic character that is portrayed in a nuanced performance by Nelson. "You know, Bender," Andrew says, "you don't even count. If you disappeared forever, it wouldn't make any difference. You may as well not even exist at this school."

The idea of being alive but unnoticed permeates The Breakfast Club and its theme song, "Don't You (Forget About Me)", by Simple Minds—which was a hit after its release in 1985 and has become a standout in the soundtrack of Gen X's teen years. Bender isn't immune to the fear of being overlooked, as it becomes clear that he suspects his existence is irrelevant everywhere, and that his bad behavior stems from a pent-up, seething hostility toward his abusive father.

His misconduct is also an effort to be seen—even if it's in a negative way by authority figures like Mr. Vernon, who is so frustrated by Bender's antics that he locks him in a storage room where he angrily berates and threatens him. "Someday," Vernon tells Bender "when you're out of here… and you're wrapped up in your own pathetic life, I'm going to be there… and I'm going to kick the living shit out of you."

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Today, Vernon's tirade and imprisonment of a minor would probably be recorded on Bender's iPhone, gone viral on YouTube, and resulted in public outcry plus the prompt end of Vernon's career. But in the '80s there was no such technology, and Bender would be without evidence or a "safe space" to retreat from Vernon's heavy-handed disciplinary tactics -- which were, in fact, not so unusual in schools during that era and earlier.

"Are you threatening me?" is all Bender can say in response. "What are you gonna do about it?" Vernon asks. "You think anybody is gonna believe you? You think anybody is gonna take your word over mine? You're a lying sack of shit… and everybody knows it."

This moment evokes further compassion for Bender, but like him, Vernon isn't a villain. He is merely a middle-class man who might have also challenged and ridiculed the previous generation during his youth but is now just struggling to make a living in the adult world. "That's the last time you ever make me look bad in front of those kids," he says after Bender deliberately embarrasses him in the presence of the other students. "I make thirty-one thousand dollars a year, and I've got a home, and I'm not about to throw it all away on some punk like you."

(IMDB)

Gleason embodies Vernon to perfection and, like Nelson's portrayal of Bender, combines a tough, confident façade with a realistic vulnerability. Just as the teens are trapped inside the school, so is Vernon. The kids crave appreciation, respect, acceptance, and love, yet those things are as difficult for Vernon to find within that building, and possibly elsewhere, as they are for the teenagers. His only pleasure while supervising detention is eating lunch alone in his office, but even that is ruined when he accidentally spills coffee all over the food—a symbol, perhaps, of his own unfulfilled dreams. He is stuck in an adulthood filled with workplace drudgery, constant slights, and stifling responsibilities, while the students imagine a future for themselves that is brighter and better than his.

In doing so, Bender demeans Carl (John Kapelos), the school's janitor. "How does one become a janitor?" Bender asks him in a snarky way, to which Carl replies with a snappy comeback. A substantial portion of this exchange was deleted in the original version but is included in the re-release extras, and it adds needed depth to the scene. In the expanded footage, Carl predicts the students' individual futures while they cringe at the realization that their destinies might not be superior to the lives of the adults they disdain.

"I've been teaching for twenty-two years," Vernon tells Carl during a private conversation, "and each year, these kids get more and more arrogant." Carl scoffs, telling Vernon that "the kids haven't changed… you have," he says, and Carl's opinion is further elucidated when he asks Vernon why he became a teacher. "You took a teaching position because you thought it would be fun, right? Thought you could have summer vacations off. Then you found out it was actually work. That really bummed you out."

The scene uncovers Vernon's past, when he was probably comparable to the teenagers who now see him, in his opinion, as a "joke". Vernon claims he doesn't care what his students think of him, but he obviously does -- which makes him all the more relatable. But as with most adults, Vernon's memory of what it's like to be a teenager has faded, and a wide gap has grown between him and the latest generation.

"You think about this," he ominously tells Carl, "when you get old… when I get old… these kids are going to be running the country. Now, this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night… that when I get older, these kids are going to be taking care of me," he says, and his fears about Gen X are identical to current concerns about the Millennials. Vernon has probably also forgotten that the Greatest Generation probably felt the same way about the Baby Boomers and that although the world constantly changes, much of it never does.

This is all too clear from the interactions between Bender, Andrew, Claire, Brian, and Allison. Throughout their day in the library, they slowly open up to each other and admit the misdeeds that landed them in detention. Brian was caught with a gun in his locker (in a later comedic moment, he confesses that it was a flare gun) and implies that he considered killing himself because of a failing grade in shop class. "I can't have an F," he tells the other students. "I can't have it… and I know my parents can't have it."

The timeless theme of unrelenting parental pressure to succeed also applies to Andrew, who reveals that he resorted to physically abusing and humiliating another male student, Larry, in a twisted effort to impress his father. "I did it for my old man. I tortured this poor kid because I wanted [my father] to think I was cool… I got the feeling he was disappointed that I never cut loose on anyone," he says, shedding light on the motivation of bullies to elevate themselves by targeting easy prey.

Until this admission, Andrew is one of the more likable characters; however, his description of his attack on the other teen, who is described as "skinny" and "weak", suddenly and surprisingly turns him into an abhorrent jerk. But this character is redeemed as he recollects the aftermath of his actions and puts himself in the place of his victim. "All I could think about," he says, "was Larry's father… and Larry having to go home and explain what happened to him. The humiliation… the humiliation he must have felt. It must have been unreal. How do you apologize for something like that? There's no way."

Estevez skillfully portrays Andrew's attributes and faults, as does Hall in his depiction of Brian. Although Brian is generally a nice, good-kid type, he also has believable moments of insensitivity toward his peers, such as when Allison takes a giant step out of her shell by emptying the contents of her purse in front of him and Andrew. But the guys' response causes her to emotionally shut down and flee, and Brian subsequently disparages her to Andrew. This reaction seems familiar to Allison, which is evidently why she shields herself from human contact by attempting invisibility. In fact, she is so socially isolated that she voluntarily goes to detention because she has "nothing better to do".

"She doesn't talk," Bender tells Vernon, and Allison does spend some of her screen time in silence. Still, Sheedy brings her character to life with spot-on facial expressions and, after Allison becomes more verbose, a quirky delivery that fits her persona. Allison's issues stem from being ignored by her parents, which she admits to the other teens as they talk in their impromptu group therapy session.

During the conversation, she slyly coerces Claire to reveal whether Bender's accusations about her sexual experience are correct. "Kind of a double-edged sword, isn't it? If you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have, you're a slut," remarks Allison, which is indeed a double standard that still dangles over women today -- as does the ruthless focus on female appearance. Claire, who is slim, is nevertheless tormented about her weight by Bender. "I'm not fat," she says defensively after Bender tells her that Claire "is a fat girl's name", and he goes on to claim that she isn't overweight "at present, but I can see you really pushing maximum density."

Bender's frequent, misogynistic needling of Claire and his attacks on her self-esteem make the eventual change in their relationship feel improbable and wrong, but the inclusion of extra scenes between them develops their connection and would have enhanced the original film. This material was probably excluded to keep the movie a particular length and to focus on its comedic elements but would have been more valuable to the narrative than scenes in which the teens dance and run through the halls of the school.

Also included in the re-release is additional footage of Claire, in which she discusses the dysfunction of the relationship between her and her parents, as well as within her parents' marriage. This, too, adds much to Claire's character and Ringwald's already solid performance, as she is given more time to show who Claire really is. Her mother's drinking problem -- which Bender mysteriously alludes to in the original edition -- is explained in the extra footage, as is Claire's dramatic reaction to Bender teasing her for wearing diamond earrings bought by her father.

Another scene that didn't make the final cut (but should have) is one in which Allison breaks into a teacher's locker, and Andrew admonishes her for sorting through its contents. Earlier in the film, Allison sadly claims that "when you grow up… your heart dies" -- a statement that reveals both a youthful misperception and fear of adulthood. But in the additional scene, Allison examines the teacher's belongings and is impacted by them, happily concluding that teachers -- her vision of adults in general -- are "human".

Allison and the other adolescents in The Breakfast Club, come to realize that they—regardless of their position within the teenage sphere—are not so dissimilar from each other. The film's ultimate, unlikely romantic pairing of the jock with the basket case, and the princess with the criminal, is the idyllic goal of shattering boundaries, prejudice, and stereotypes between class structures in reality. And Generation X—less respected than the Greatest Generation, smaller in number than the Baby Boomers, and never given the attention of the Millennials—once caused as much concern as the generations that preceded and followed. Worry about the future, and how modern youth will handle it, is something that each generation has in common. "We're all pretty bizarre," Andrew wisely observes. "Some of us are just better at hiding it."

The re-release of The Breakfast Club contains several valuable bonus features, including the aforementioned extra scenes (many of which add to the film while others were rightfully dropped); a 1985 interview of the cast by Jane Pauley on The Today Show; and a documentary focusing on John Hughes, the making of the film, and interviews with some of its actors.

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