I understand the Breakfast Club

I watched John Hughes’ 80s masterpiece The Breakfast Club before. I really liked it and I thought it may even have some artistic merit. I watched it again, and I think I more closely follow its main aesthetic contribution. I am convinced that it is much more than a teen movie and that it is not about childhood, though it appears to be.

It may seem convenient to think about the movie as about social pressure and the pains of growing up, but the key thing to keep in mind is that the movie begins with an existential question. The kids who are in detention are asked, as their overriding goal for the day to write about who they are. It is this question that prompts the introspection and the eventual short answer that is read over the final sequences of the movie by Brian “the brain,” of the group.

In answering this question, I believe that the main contributor is Bender. To me, this is only natural. These students, placed in Illinois somewhere, are asked to think about who they are, and Bender immediately begins the process by pushing. He’s Socratic. He asks questions. He asks Molly Ringwald, who plays Claire, “the princess” whether she’s a virgin. This line of questioning exposes his main philosophical commitment, which is to undermine all the institutions that everyone else takes to be good and normal. His job is to question and undermine all “respectable” society, and within the confines of the movie, I think he succeeds. He is a Nietzschean hero. He questions everything, and accepts nothing. This is fitting with Nietzsche’s conviction that to grant something legitimacy is to grant it a type of tyranny — to give it free reign to become corrupted and controlling. He is a radical individualist. This fits with his role as “the criminal.” He begins the movie as sitting on the wrong side of every societal fence.

His job is to cleverly twist everyone’s goals and commitments. “Why doesn’t he participate in extracurricular activities?” he muses. Because those people are assholes. As we find out later, this answer is elaborated. We find out that the clubs that Brian is in — the physics and math club — are part of a constellation of social pressures that gets him to contemplate suicide, and we find out that the student-councily-things that Claire does is how she comes to be a slave of peer pressure. During an exchange with Claire, he is threatened by Emilio Estevez, playing Andrew, but he protests that he is trying to help Claire. To me this is the beginning of his Nietzschean therapy, whereby he slowly shows the other students that they should not be afraid of the principal, “Dick” or “Richard Vernon.”

He initiates this strategy by refusing to back down when the principal heaps discipline on him. “Do you want another?” the principal threatens, to which Bender replies “sure.” Shortly thereafter, Bender convinces everyone to follow him to the hallway where they break the rules of their detention. Brian briefly asks whether they’re disobedience makes any sense. “We’re going to get caught,” he laments, but then the camera moves to Bender who asks Claire “it feels good to be bad doesn’t it?” The fact that Bender is the hero movie is then cemented as he casually sacrifices himself to the ire of Dick so that the others can escape back to the library unseen by the principal. Bender is then subjected to sadistic and illegal threats from the principal who tries to bait Bender to fight him. The connection between the principal and “respectable” society is cemented as he reminds Bender that he makes a $30,000 and owns a house and that the world will forgot Bender but that he will still be around. That he “means something.” This echoes Andrew’s earlier insult to Bender that he could “disappear and no one would notice.”

Bender then sneaks back into the library and the healing begins, courtesy of a kind of psychoanalysis, introspection, and the critical analysis of the forces arrayed each and every one of them. For instance, Andrew comes to understand that he is controlled by his father, whose desire to have a successful son. “I’m a race horse,” and the implication is: who is made to run. Brian is pressured for grades. Allison is, in her own words, “ignored” by her parents. Bender is physically abused, and Claire is used by her parents as a weapon of emotional manipulation.

These stories may again tempt one to think that this kids stuff. Ringwald asks “Are we going to turn out like our parents,” which focuses the problem as one of parental pressure. This is what drives Brian to contemplate suicide after all, and Bender’s dad clearly beats him.

But to construe the breakfast club as a young person’s movie misses the point. All of these issues are serious adult issues. Domestic abuse, marital strife, they’re all problems for anyone, its just that the people experiencing them happen to be kids. Presumptively, Bender’s mom suffers just as much as Bender as she is depicted by him as being beaten by his father.

In any case, the point in my mind is wider. The Breakfast Club could be said to be just about kids in the way that a mistaken interpretation of Warm Bodies could be said to be about zombies. In the latter film, the metaphor is clearly that we can all be zombies and that we could all use renewed contact with other people. The point in the breakfast club is the same too. From an early age, we find ourselves enmeshed in networks of bullshittery. This is Bender’s target: the networks of social power, pressure, institutional abuse, parental abuse, wealth (when he fires a broadside at Claire for having diamond earrings), sexual repression (a huge theme that I’ve basically ignored in this essay). Everything is fair game and the cure is radical individualism. Bender is outraged that Claire would talk about his friends and shows his commitment to being friends with anyone he damn well chooses. And perhaps a further lesson is that to break down the unseen walls of status, popularity, and political power, one must be a little bit of a criminal. Completely unallied with the forces that fix us into boxes.

At the end, everyone transforms, partially due to Bender’s leadership and intervention, partially due to their own honesty. Notice however that the final catharsis is dancing, which is again very Nietzschean (“And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once”). When Bender fist pumps at the sky at the iconic end of the movie to the tune of “Don’t Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, he is celebrating a triumph over the creeping forces of “civilization” when that word is taken in its worst way. And insofar as Bender has triumphed, I believe the movie has too.


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