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“The Breakfast Club”, 30 Years Later: A Conversation Across Generations

Editor's Note: The following is a piece by Amanda Ann Klein, an associate professor of film studies at East Carolina University and the author of "American Film Cycles: Reframing Genres, Screening Social Problems, & Defining Subcultures (University of Texas Press, 2011)." It combines a critical appreciation of John Hughes' 1985 drama "The Breakfast Club" with conversations she had with her students about the film. We are pleased to publish it here.--Matt Zoller Seitz

“The Breakfast Club”, John Hughes’ seminal classic of teenage navel-gazing, ends on a freeze frame, just after Bender (
Judd Nelson) places Claire’s (Molly Ringwald) diamond earring, a synecdoche for her life of privilege, into his earlobe and triumphantly pumps his fingerless-gloved fist in the air, as Simple Minds’ anthem of New Wave angst blares, imploring “Don’t you, forget me about me…don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” Back in 1985, those repeated words were like a plea for remembrance, and indeed, the film imprinted on my young consciousness. Like Proust’s madeleines, “Don’t You Forget About Me” will forever conjure up the image of high school-ness, despite the fact that Shermer High was nothing like the high school I attended.

Thirty years ago this freeze frame gave me goosebumps on my prepubescent arms. I was, like all children that age, desperate to understand what teenagers were like. My older brother, himself a teenager, was inscrutable—all locked bedroom doors and hunched shoulders. But “The Breakfast Club”’s teenagers were clear as day—their identities communicated through everything from the cars (or lack of cars) that drop each of them off at the door of Shermer High School to the lunches they eat (Sushi? Really, Claire?) to their reasons for getting a detention (Allison [Ally Sheedy] quips “I had nothing better to do”). I examined the starkly displayed identities—the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal—and I wondered where I fit.

Thirty years ago, there was no DVR, no Netflix, no pirated movies to watch online. The TV was the soundtrack to our boredom, as we waited patiently for something to happen. In the 1980s, me and my friends were latchkey children and TV was ambient. When friends came over, we’d watch whatever movie was on at the moment, changing the channel to MTV during the commercials, hoping for a Madonna video, then back to whatever it was we’d been watching. When Breakfast Club was on, we always knew all the lines.

Thirty years ago, Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) asked his five teenage charges “who do you think you are?” as a detention punishment. In the essay that bookends the diegesis, Brian, the Brain (Anthony Michael Hall), balks at the question: “We think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are.” The answer, though, is stunningly simple: “You are white.” I could only see this in hindsight though, through the lens of a PhD in critical media studies and lots and lots of time.  And what I saw, only many years after first falling in love with this film, was that this love was inextricably tied to my suburban upbringing, to the fact that, when I watched the film as a child, its myopic whiteness was invisible to me in that way that whiteness usually is to white people.

So when I decided to teach the film in my “Teenpics and American Youth Culture” course, thirty years later, I was sure my students—part of the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history-- would find its homogeneity a bit off-putting. You see, Millennials are constantly told they are post-racial, post-gender, and post-sexuality but, after working with this generation for years in the classroom, I know most of them are too smart to believe the fairytale the media tells them about themselves. In fact, today’s youth are far more adept than Generation X or the Boomers or anyone else who came before us, in recognizing both the presence and the absence of diversity. One side effect of being told over and over again that your generation doesn’t see race is that, well, all you see is race and identity.

It’s a hard thing, teaching students of another generation about a movie you loved as a child. Indeed, whenever I teach a film that I loved passionately in my youth—"E.T.", "Star Wars," and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"—I try to divorce my affective attachment to it from my pedagogy. It’s not that I don’t let students know when I truly love a film—I gush about "Breathless" and "Double Indemnity" and "Killer of Sheep." It’s just that I don’t trust the tastes I cultivated during my youth, back when my raw, hormonal heart dictated the music I listened to and the movies I watched. My undeveloped cinematic palate is somehow less authentic, at least to the teacher in me, than the tastes I formed post-college, when I began to study the cinema as a critical object. So I overcompensate for the love object. I try to point out its flaws ahead of time, to prepare myself for disappointment. I am sure they will find “The Breakfast Club” racist, close-minded, and unsatisfying. They will surely shit on my youth.

I have taught “The Breakfast Club” twice now to Millennials, students even too young to have watched the movie on TBS on a lazy Saturday afternoon, and what surprises me is that they love it. They love it the way I loved it when I was a teenager. They are rife with affect for this text. As one African-American female student said “I’ve seen the movie a million times. I love it. The first time I watched I understood it just as I do today… I think it was because I grew up in the suburbs and I just, like, get what they’re saying. I know they have a good life, but there are things that they’re missing.”

I should point out here that the students in my upper-level seminars are well-versed in media criticism and even critical race and gender theory. They do not blindly accept ideological messages. For example, a white male student explained in a blog post “because every character in “The Breakfast Club” is white, Hughes is able to create a portrayal of suburban Chicago free from all racial prejudice and discrimination, one of the main reasons for economic disparity in America both in the 1980s and today. Without this racial element, Hughes can quite safely get away with bridging the gap between the upper and lower classes in the film (portrayed by Claire and Bender, respectively) within 2 hours by presenting their class differences as completely superficial and easily overcome.”

Yes, my students were primed to talk about race (or its absence). The previous week we had watched "Krush Groove," a film populated with young characters of many races and ethnicities, a stark contrast with “The Breakfast Club”. I wanted them to notice the absence of color in John Hughes’ films. I read them John Hughes’ own explanation for his films’ whiteness: "I think it's wise for people to concern themselves with the things they know about. … I'd really like to do something on gangs, but to do that, I've got to spend some time with gang members. I'd feel extremely self-conscious writing about something I don't know."

Truth be told, I see Hughes’ statement as a cop out. He doesn’t need to write about gangs. He’s writing about high school students and high school students aren’t merely white. But my students today seem to take Hughes at his word. They even used this quote to defend his work to me. They were surprisingly accepting of the film’s blindness to its own exclusion, far more than I was, despite my deep-rooted childhood attachments to the film. One student, an African-American woman, who watched the film for the first time in my class, told us during a class discussion, “I know what a life of a ‘privilege’ kid feels like. But I was also a weirdo…and I played sports…I was an honor roll student…and I couldn’t really identify with the criminal but…I could really identify with almost every character.”

Thirty years ago I loved “The Breakfast Club” because I was oblivious to its whiteness; my students today love “The Breakfast Club” in spite of its whiteness. They notice its sexism, its casual homophobia, and its exclusion of all non-whiteness in the same way that any good film student notices a jump cut or high-key lighting, or a long take. It is an aspect of the text, something to be analyzed. This is their oppositional reading strategy.

Thirty years later I’m still waiting to look like Molly Ringwald, she of the perfectly cuffed sleeves and lightly teased hair. Thirty years later, when I see myself, I see a 38-year-old woman, sitting in a classroom with a group of college students who really love talking about movies. They are 20 years my junior, a gap I so often find insurmountable—like when they shift uncomfortably in their seats as they watch me attempt to download a software upgrade to the classroom computer, or when I wow them with tales of the days when television “went off the air” at midnight—but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, we all get to love a text together in an unexpected moment of post-generationality, a moment in which we are all high school students, sitting in a circle, talking about what got us into detention.

From AAK: Thank you to the amazing students in my “Teenpics and American Youth Culture” course (fall 2012, spring 2015) at East Carolina University who helped me think through these ideas. And a special thanks to Nichole Currie, Chris Allman, and Sedonia Scott, whose classroom contributions are quoted above.

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