You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct?So begins The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 movie that locked a bunch of high school archetypes up for a Saturday in their own school and told them to think about their actions. It’s a John Hughes movie, so it has its moments of high comedy, and one or two too many dance moments, but it’s Hughes at his most brutal, his most incisive, and it still has a message for us, some thirty years on.
That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning.
We were brainwashed.
Cutting to the chase, the message of the Breakfast Club is the stuff of memes today – you never know what’s really going on in someone’s life, so before you judge, walk a week in their world. Stereotypes and archetypes and lazy judgments are easy, but beneath it all, there’s someone as real as you are.
When the five members of ‘The Breakfast Club’ – a detention group at Shermer High School – meet up on Saturday, March 24th, 1984, they already know each other, either by reputation or the vague shape of their presence in the blur of the multi-layered labyrinth that is high school life. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is the popular would-be prom queen, Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) the wrestling jock, Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), the academic nerd, Alison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) the artistic basket case, and John Bender (Judd Nelson), the bad boy with a brain, the criminal, the disruptive influence.
They have nothing in common, except the school and the punishment. They live in different worlds, different planes of the high school universe. Popular, nerdy, rebellious, obedient, wild. Nothing in common except the school, the punishment, and the reserved right to each disrespect or disregard the world and the experience of the other.
What happens on that single Saturday is both nothing remarkable, and something extraordinary. Over the course of the day, through fights, bluffs called, questions pushed through boundaries and defences, uncomfortable secrets revealed and a front united against the forces of authority (in the person of Richard Vernon, the teacher who’s keeping them detained), what happens is honesty. Vulnerable, wonderful, unlikely honesty, that sees this group put down their defences and personas, their ‘what-would-my-friends-think’ and their parents’ expectations. Through conflict, through shifting allegiances and through a more than occasional “Fuck you!” this group learns to be honest, with themselves and with each other, about the people they really are, the pressures they’re under. They learn to see each other as people, not archetypes. Friends, not Them. They learn what they have in common, not just what separates them.
The cast were all members of what has become known as The Brat Pack, a talented bunch of youngsters who worked superbly well in ensemble pieces, especially together. And each of the Brat Pack went on to other things, and most are still working in one capacity or another in the business today – but none of them especially made the big time that was forecast for them. Molly Ringwald turned down the Julia Roberts Role in Pretty Woman and the Demi Moore role in Ghost for instance; Ally Sheedy turned down the Kelly McGillis role in Top Gun and was considered for the role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, and so on. As history stands, most of those exceptional young actors are probably unfairly best remembered and known for their work in the mid-Eighties in a relative handful of roles, of which The Breakfast Club is in some cases the most notable.
Being a Hughes movie aimed at a Hughes audience of course, the cast are all notably straight white cis kids, so before we decide The Breakfast Club is a searing indictment of universal truth about people, let’s keep it real. There’s a certain safeness in Hughes’ world – when Sheedy’s character Alison admits that things are ‘really bad with her parents,’ the really bad that they are extends no further than being ignored. Nelson’s Bender character relates a history of physical abuse with his father, but that’s in some ways the point – Hughes is claiming his criminality is all down to the authority issues his relationship with his father has left him with. In most other cases, the problems of the Breakfast Club come down to pressure to perform, to be what they’re expected to be, rather than who they really are.
Nevertheless, what The Breakfast Club does provide is a kind of skeleton key to our own behavior, our own need to believe what we believe about ourselves and others, and how, most of the time, it’s a bullshit front to help us plough a particular furrow. Whenever your life feels too certain, too secure, whenever you’re tempted to generalize about people, to say ‘They’ think a certain way, or even ‘We don’t do that,’ slip in The Breakfast Club, go back to 1985, and remind yourself of its lessons – we’re all people, we’re all individuals, with our own problems, our own challenges, our own strengths and needs. Black, white, Mexican, Polish, trailer trash, prom queen, jock, nerd, junkie, psycho, gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, Socialist, atheist, feminist: you name the group, there’s a stereotype that goes with it, and what The Breakfast Club shows us, still, is that stereotypes and archetypes are just cages. They’re just ways of thinking about ourselves and other people that take us further away from the reality of people than we ever need to get.
As The Breakfast Club turns 30, there’s a temptation to say ‘This was a great movie because it was out when I was young’ – the acme of nostalgia. But The Breakfast Club is a great movie for more than that, in the same way that, for instance, the Harry Potter series will continue to be great childrens’ books long after the first generations of children at whom they were aimed have read them, or Doctor Who has continued to be great TV long after the first generation of 8 year-olds at whom it was aimed have grown up, and had children and even grandchildren of their own. They’re great because they carry the seed of an eternal truth in them, that can be transposed across time. Potter’s message – do the right thing, not the easy thing – will be as valid fifty years from now as it was when it was written. The message of Who continues to evolve, and whether you think it’s ‘never cruel or cowardly’ or ‘some things must be fought’ or ‘I’m running to see it all, before it fades,’ it has elements that you can take and shape into the way you live your life.
The eternal truth of The Breakfast Club is that we’re all just people, trying to do what we think is best, but under pressure from all directions to be something more or something different. By talking honestly together, we can become who we really are, and we can understand each other. It could be remade today, with a harder edge, a more diverse group, and that eternal truth would still be the heart of its message. That’s worth celebrating, so put The Breakfast Club on today, and remember all the things you are.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk