John Higgs: Generation Z & The Breakfast Club
WRITTEN BY JOHN HIGGS – MAY 2019
I didn’t really understand how different twenty-first-century teenagers are from people raised in the twentieth century until, by happenstance, I found myself in a room watching the 1985 John Hughes teen movie, The Breakfast Club, with a bunch of them.
The Breakfast Club is the story of five American high-schoolers spending a Saturday in detention. Each of the five is a different stereotype – a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal, as the film describes them. They begin the film with nothing in common, but they bond in mutual opposition to the authority figure, Assistant Principal Vernon.
I was born in 1971. This puts me right in the middle of Generation X and makes me the exact target market for this film. I thought that younger generations would embrace it in the same way my peers and I did, assuming that they weren’t too disturbed by the 1980s styling and music. The Millennial generation, who were born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, seem to have done this. It is rare to see a mention of this film that does not include the words ‘beloved’ and ‘classic’. But for post-Millennial teenagers, the story is very different.
In April 2018 the Breakfast Club actor Molly Ringwald produced a beautifully written article for the New Yorker in which she discussed how uncomfortable she had been watching the film with her young daughter. Her focus was on a scene in which the rebellious teen anti-hero character John Bender, played by Judd Nelson, hides from a teacher underneath a table. Bender is shown looking up the skirt of Ringwald’s teenage character Claire, and it is implied that he then touches her inappropriately. This is presented as a comic moment.
Writing in the aftermath of the anti-harassment #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Ringwald’s article attempted to understand why this scene was considered acceptable at the time.
“It’s hard for me to understand how John [Hughes] was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot,’ Ringwald wrote. She admitted that ‘If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. 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.”
From my experience of watching The Breakfast Club with post-Millennials, the issue is considerably bigger than this one dodgy scene. I’d go as far as to say that the film no longer makes sense at all to modern teenagers.
Part of the problem is how this generation reacts to the character of Assistant Principal Vernon, played by Paul Gleason. Vernon is aggressive, controlling and condescending. To my generation, he was the antagonist or villain of the story, and it was his cruel exercising of his authority that united the film’s heroes. To the current generation, however, Vernon is simply doing his job. They see him not just as a flawed individual, but also part of a necessary system. His character’s motivation is simply to improve behaviour at the school. He gains nothing personally from the situation and has even given up his weekend to go into work for this greater good. He’s not a likeable character, admittedly, but morally he is not the bad guy. At best, he is light relief.
The willingness of post-Millennials to sympathise with an authority figure and shun the rebel is part of the reason why older journalists have been quick to label them as ‘boring’. Their perceived lack of rebelliousness is backed up by numerous studies. Compared to previous generations, today’s teenagers are less likely to drink alcohol, go to parties, crash cars, have sex, get arrested or become pregnant. Some journalists have used this as an excuse to call them ‘Generation Yawn’, ‘Generation Sensible’ or ‘Generation Zzzzz’.
To this generation, the villain of the film is the very character that my generation viewed as the main male hero, the bad-boy teenager Bender. To the eyes of Generation X, Bender was a character who refused to bend to authority. Sure, he was troubled and difficult, but he remained true to himself. He was a self-focused individual who had integrity on his own terms. This was something that we Gen Xers admired.
To the eyes of the post-Millennial generation, Bender is just a bully. He deliberately makes others miserable and takes delight in doing so, and no amount of bad-boy charm or troubled backstory can disguise the fact that the character is an unredeemable arsehole. As Ringwald wrote,
“As I can see now, Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film. When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her “pathetic,” mocking her as “Queenie.” It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol. [ . . .] He never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Having all this pointed out to me by a modern teenager was quite an eye-opener, because I was unable to argue that they were wrong. Bender is intentionally cruel, and that makes him a horrible person. This leaves us wrestling with the same question as Ringwald – how is it that those of us raised in the 1980s failed to see something that is blindingly obvious to twenty-first-century kids?
Modern teenagers are also not impressed that the alternative loner character, played by Ally Sheedy, is only considered to be desirable after she has been given a more conventionally feminine makeover. In fairness to Generation X, this always seemed wrong, even in the 1980s. What really confuses a modern audience, however, is the film’s ending, and in particular the treatment of the nerd character, Brian.
At the end of the film, the four cool teenagers pair off while Brian is left behind to finish the detention essay. This is obviously unfair, but what makes it worse is that Brian confessed to making a suicide attempt in the previous week. To modern eyes, he is a character who clearly needs help and support. Instead, he is placed in detention by the school, told he is a disappointment by his mum, and ditched by the more attractive kids. Today’s teenagers find the film’s treatment of him to be completely bewildering. Surely Brian’s situation should be the dramatic heart of the film?
To my generation, Brian didn’t matter. His attempt at suicide, which was botched through use of a flare gun, was played for laughs. It rarely figures in our memories of the film. We are more likely to remember the final shot, in which Bender triumphantly punches the air as he walks away across a football field, than Brian’s emotional confession. That post-Millennials pay much greater attention to Brian, and also hold a negative opinion of Bender, suggests that they are considerably more empathetic than their parents or grandparents.
The idea that there’s been a generalised increase in empathetic emotional intelligence over the past few decades provides some context for contemporary reactions to historic sexual predators, and long-term lower-level sexual abuse, in Hollywood and other industries. We now understand that ‘the times have changed’ and ‘it was different back then’ are not acceptable defences for historic abuse. Yet those are the same arguments that my generation instinctively reach for when we attempt to explain why we overlooked Bender’s bullying and abuse, and ignored Brian’s suicide attempt, when we enjoyed The Breakfast Club. To modern, empathetic teenage eyes, late-twentieth-century people should have known better. And yet we didn’t.
[This is an excerpt from John Higgs’ new book ‘The Future Starts Here: Adventures In The Twenty-First Century‘ – released today, 16th May 2019]