- YEAR: 1985
- DIRECTOR: John Hughes
- KEY ACTORS: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 7.9
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 89%
SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Despite what I’m about to write, Breakfast Club is rewatchable – I’ve seen it many times and would watch it again!
✔️ And it does pass the Bechdel Test. With the film essentially taking place in one room with women playing two of the main characters, I’d have worried if it failed!
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast though. The 80s stereotypes are too strong and not my thing…
❌ And it did not inspire any sexual fantasies. School was a strange time for me and not one full of sex, and this is too reminiscent of that uncertainty.
❌ I nearly gave this a mark for sex positivity as I do appreciate its sensitive handling of teenage discussion on virginity and how woman can’t win when it comes to sex, but there’s too much casual misogyny and too much actual sexual assault so it really can’t be sex positive.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix, Sky Cinema (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: non-consensual sex, sexual harassment, child abuse, suicidal ideation]
Since its release in the mid 1980s, The Breakfast Club has become a cult classic of sorts. A masterpiece of 1980s teenage cinema, a classic example of John Hughes’s genius, and the story of a generation. And I hate to say it but I’ve never quite understood its appeal. I get that it’s important but it really doesn’t mean anything to me personally. I suspect that, as I was over twenty when I first saw it, I was just too old to experience it for the first time. I may also be simply the wrong generation – I was born exactly one year after the events of the movie took place. Whatever it might be, The Breakfast Club isn’t a special movie for me and there’s a lot about it that I don’t like. I’ll watch and enjoy it but, sorry to those of you who are big big fans, I don’t really get it…
The Breakfast Club is about five students who are in school on Saturday for detention – on 24th March 1984 to be exact. They’re supposed to sit in silence in the library for 8 hours largely unsupervised while writing a 1000 word essay on ‘who they are.’ As a form of punishment, it seems ineffective and bizarre but it does create a good premise for a film! Throughout the day, the five wildly different students, a brain (Hall), an athlete (Estevez), a basket case (Sheedy), a princess (Ringwald) and a criminal (Nelson), discover that they’re not that different after all and finish their detention as better people.
Except John Bender, of course. I have no idea if he is a better person after this detention. He’s essentially rewarded for his bad behaviour so has no reason to change – he was rude to everyone, bullied Clare and sexually assaulted her…and yet he gets the girl and the triumphant final shot of the movie. Has he learnt anything? He certainly hasn’t acknowledged or apologised for his actions.
He’s my main problem with this movie – I honestly don’t understand why he is the hero. Yes, it’s an ensemble cast but the plot definitely revolves around Bender and his antics, and I think he’s awful. Judd Nelson was about 25 when The Breakfast Club was made and he definitely looks like a fully grown man! Admittedly Estevez and Sheedy were 22 so not exactly teenagers, unlike Ringwald and Hall who were genuinely 16, but Nelson looks like an adult acting as a kid – just like that infamous ‘How do you do, fellow kids’ Steve Buschemi gif. So when he then acts like a dick, taunting and harassing everyone, I can’t get past the uneven power dynamic. He is clearly older, stronger, in control, and picking on the weak. I hate it.
I do know that we’re supposed to feel sorry for Bender and it does sound like he has a pretty awful life. His parents are abusive, his teachers have given up on him and I can understand why he’s so angry, but I don’t like that The Breakfast Club seems to excuse him for his behaviour. We’re told how tough he has it so that we forgive him and understand why Clare falls for him. After all, this isn’t nearly the first film to position the damaged bad boy as the hot one but Bender doesn’t seem to have any of the redeeming features that some of these men in other movies have and he doesn’t really even a redemption arc. I just don’t understand why Clare kisses him – he bullied her, assaulted her, and continued to be a dick to her after his own emotional speech, and she accepted it. He’s such a twat!
Which is why I was fascinated to read Molly Ringwald’s opinion on Bender, John Hughes and the problems and joys of 1980s teen movies in her essay on The Breakfast Club that was published in the New Yorker in 2018 as a response to #MeToo. Because the 1980s movies tended to be kind of rapey and, despite his legendary status, John Hughes was a huge part of perpetuating that. His film immediately before The Breakfast Club was Sixteen Candles and includes a boy having non-consensual sex with an intoxicated woman as a favour from another man, and this isn’t seen as a problem. That other man is Jake, the heartthrob! If you’ve not read Ringwald’s essay, I would strongly recommend it because she articulates much of the struggle I feel about looking back on beloved movies and realising that they are hugely problematic. (I don’t know if I can find a better illustration than the fact that my favourite Bond films are Goldfinger and From Russia with Love…).
‘How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose?’ Ringwald asks and, just like so many of us who have struggled with this dilemma, she doesn’t really come to a conclusion – except to say that the conversations around these problematic films have to change as the world changes.
But, despite how much his movies mean to so many people and despite what he did for her career, she is rightfully critical of Hughes and the attitudes his writing perpetuated: ‘If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes…Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones.’ *cough* Bender *cough*
Clare isn’t the only one to suffer from the misogyny in this film. Even Hadley Freeman noticed: ‘it is so weird about the two female teen characters: one gets together with her bully and the other (Ally Sheedy) has to have a makeover to be deemed socially acceptable.’ Ally Sheedy’s character, Alison, is described as a basket case and hides behind a heavy fringe and shapeless black clothes. I can’t remember whether her emo-type character was such a cliche in 1985 or if she was in fact the origin of the cliche, but it bothers me that her story is resolved by giving her a pink shirt and a make-over, and then she gets the guy. Cool, cool, cool.
And I get that girls like to do make-overs. And I get that Clare would definitely think of this as a good deed, rescuing this poor broken girl from her bad eyeliner, but I don’t like that Andrew only noticed her when she was conventionally beautiful. She looked great before! I have always been envious of people who can truly master eyeliner and I don’t like what Clare does with her make-up. It’s too 80s, whereas Alison’s goth look is timeless! But even ignoring my personal preference, the whole movie is about what these people are like underneath, how they are valuable and worthy despite their external appearances, but Andrew couldn’t say that he preferred how she looked before?
But despite all of this annoyance and misogyny, there are redeeming features to The Breakfast Club. And I don’t know whether it’s a reason to praise The Breakfast Club specifically or to criticise the entire genre to say that this movie was pretty much the best and least exploitative of teen movies from the early 1980s. Admittedly, the bar was very low! Crude comedies like Revenge of the Nerds or Porky’s fought for space against teen horror flicks where everyone who had sex was brutally murdered, and none of them showed what it was really like to be a teenager. And particularly to be a teenager doing ordinary stuff, like detention. As Roger Ebert described in his review in 1985, The Breakfast Club at least makes ‘an honest attempt to create teenagers who might seem plausible to other teenagers. Most Hollywood teenage movies give us underage nymphos or nostalgia-drenched memories of the 1950s.’
Because the members of The Breakfast Club are struggling with very relatable problems that are likely to affect us all at some point in our lives, whether or not they happened at school. That’s why the film has lasted so long and remains so popular. We can see ourselves in these athletes, brains, basket cases, princesses and criminals. I do want to acknowledge quite how white and straight the cast are, but sadly that is how movies were in the 1980s and The Breakfast Club does still manage to show ‘the anger and fear of isolation that adolescents feel’ in a way that was relatable to a wider variety of people than those on screen and, as Ringwald described, ‘seeing that others might feel the same way is a balm for the trauma that teen-agers experience.’
None of them are happy, even Clare who is supposed to be part of the popular cliche. Hers is the story that garners the least sympathy from me – popular girl struggles with responsibility of being the most cool and most desirable – but pretending to be someone we’re not in order to keep our friends and be accepted is a feeling that I know and is something that I can sympathise with. And I know Brian’s devastation at failing academically when this success feels like the only thing he has. (I don’t have time to go into the horrific fact that he brought a gun to school and it’s treated as a joke because he only brought a flare gun, except to say Wow.)
Andrew’s plight is an interesting glimpse at the pressures of toxic masculinity too, which I wasn’t expecting. Weighed down by the pressures to succeed and desperate not to look weak in front of his father, he bullies a weaker boy: ‘the bizarre thing is that I did it for my old man. I tortured this poor kid because I wanted him to think that I was cool. He’s always going off about how when he was in school and all the wild things he used to do. And I got the feeling that he was disappointed that I never cut loose on anyone, right?’ Andrew’s dad is teaching him that being a man means winning and being violent and being a bully, and I think it’s really important to see Andrew’s guilt and regret, without undermining him as a strong person. After all, he gets to use his wrestling skills for chivalrous purposes, grappling Bender to the floor when he was getting too physical with Clare. (Because all women need rescuing by a strong hunky guy…)
Finally, I definitely recognised Alison and Clare’s difficulty in finding the right balance between being sexual and innocent, both eventually admitting that they are virgins but both resisting being called out on it – Alison through an elaborate lie and Clare by refusing to answer. And Alison really nails the difficulty that people socialised as women face when talking about sex and their sexual desires or history: ‘It’s kind of a double edged sword isn’t it?…Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have you’re a slut. It’s a trap. You want to but you can’t, and when you do you wish you didn’t, right?’ I distinctly remember evading the question when I was sixteen and some guy asked me if I’d ever had sex because I had a vague sense that he was mocking me and I just didn’t know what answer was the right one.
So I have to agree with Molly Ringwald that John Hughes was important to teenagers in the 1980s and perhaps beyond, and he was important to teenage girls particularly: ‘no one in Hollywood was writing about the minutiae of high school, and certainly not from a female point of view.’ But she’s also right that Hughes had ‘a glaring blind spot.’ He wrote sympathetically about women but only within the confines of the misogynistic and frankly exploitative world that he lived in.
And thankfully, perhaps unbelievably, our world is a bit better now and so The Breakfast Club looks kind of dated. Still special but just not for me…
NEXT TIME… Grease 2!