April 7, 2013

The Breakfast Club, and growth from cathartic interactions

Just saw this movie again for the first time since high school. Now that it's been nearly 30 years since it was filmed, what jumps out at you while viewing it isn't the quotable dialogue, but how much social relations have changed among young people in the meantime.

It would be impossible to imagine remaking this movie with Millennials in the 21st century because they're so avoidant, whether of the fearful/mousy type or the dismissive/I love haters type. Generation X was actually willing to open up and just be themselves, not constantly monitoring their self-image and only letting others meet their PR representative. And they're not throwing themselves in front of someone else to divulge their darkest secrets -- secrets just come out spontaneously, in the natural course of normal people wanting to figure each other out.

Young people were also more comfortable with taking risks in the social world, since the characters come from all walks of teenage life. Social circles are so tiny these days that even college students, who are free from direct parental supervision, hardly know who people from another group are, let alone mix it up with them every once in awhile, like at a party. Now it's only small house parties, where the attendees can be guaranteed that no unknowns will enter into the social formula.

Adolescents are always worried about whether they enjoy the approval of their peers, and movies like The Breakfast Club make it palpable how cathartic it is to socialize with others outside of your own narrow little group.

If you are a total cocooner, you only have your own self-biased views to consult regarding your own worth. Deep down everyone is aware of the impossibility to evaluate yourself honestly, so this quickly leads to self-doubt and then OCD thoughts and behavior to try to cope with the anxiety. Keep checking the likes on your Facebook posts, keep looking up from your "work" at the library to check if anyone else will return your eye contact, keep checking the mirror to see if your pecs are ripped enough, or if your hair is straightened enough, for you to be seen out in public.

One step above that is if you have a social circle but they're all close to being your identical clones. Again, deep down everyone knows that in this case their approving feedback doesn't amount to much more than your own.

You don't have to constantly mingle with people from quite different backgrounds from your own, but when you do, their approval feels a lot more honest and meaningful. The more independent data points you can collect, the more robust the results are. It's such a relief to the teenage mind -- like, "Phew, glad to know it's not just me and my echo chamber who think I'm all right."

The only clear exception to the current trend of avoidance and anxiety is when young people gauge how good-looking or ugly they are. You don't need to socialize, open your mouth, or even stand near someone else. Just parade yourself around and tally up what percent of all eyeballs turn your way. Attractiveness is the only dimension where adolescents know how they measure up these days. It's depressing to the ugly because they have nothing else, that they're aware of, that could make up for their looks. And it's stunting for the attractive because that's all they have to solidly base their identity on, and by becoming full of themselves, they ruin their good looks with a repulsive personality.

And of course, in order to make any real contact across such wide social distances, you have to give them a sign of good faith -- you have to open up yourself, and let them open up too, without weirding them out. You make that leap of faith and realize that other people (typically) are not going to take advantage of your openness and try to humiliate you then and perhaps later on as well.

These sorts of cathartic social interactions strengthen your character the way that a good burst of intense, challenging activity strengthens the body. It's remarkable how grown-up the teenagers of the 1980s were, whether in real life or in fiction, though not so surprising when you take into account how much they were willing to put themselves through -- not out of masochism or recklessness (well, not always), but out of a normal willingness to take a risk in order to enjoy a reward.

The result is no less pleasing for the audience. Firing up a teen classic from the '80s is such a breath of fresh air because at last you can watch teenagers that you don't feel like choking the life out of. And despite the occasional heavy or sentimental moments, even more lightheartedness and cheerfulness shows through, like the scene where all five of the high schoolers in detention are dancing carefree around the library to loud new wave music.

As the '90s wore on, that free-wheeling resilience began to wane, visible already in the 1994 cult classic TV show My So-Called Life, the closest imitation of a Breakfast Club-like social milieu for the Alternative age. The show had its upbeat and laugh-out-loud moments, but was more mopey and grungy than a John Hughes movie.

More importantly, the social range has been severely restricted, with nobody from the various popular / preppie / jock groups represented among the main characters. The protagonist's best friend is the new Ally Sheedy character, her nerdy and depressed neighbor is the new Anthony Michael Hall character, and her crush is the new Judd Nelson character. But she herself, while pretty, is socially awkward and unknown, unlike the popular Molly Ringwald character. And Emilio Estevez's jock character has been totally replaced by a Puerto Rican faggot who's always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Like, "Look at us, we're all such weird outcasts…" In The Breakfast Club, the message was not that everyone was a weird outcast in their own way, but that there was more than meets the eye to people from all walks of life, popular and dorky alike. In this age of diversity worship, it's striking how narrow the range of characters are in fiction (and among real-life youthful conformists). It's all variations on the weirdo theme, and if anyone from the rest of the spectrum is included, the audience won't allow the writers to make them sympathetic.

So if you haven't seen the classics in awhile because you think you've already enjoyed them enough, pop them in again and enjoy them as a welcome relief to the current state of young people, where your options are limited to mousy and haughty.


  1. Young people were also more comfortable with taking risks in the social world, since the characters come from all walks of teenage life.

    I can see the Breakfast Club indicating a different expressed set of values, but wasn't the point of the film that this is something which is very unusual in real life (in terms of the kids affiliating with one another rather than their subcults, etc.) E.g. wiki says of the film that "despite these developing friendships the students are afraid that once the detention is over, they will return to their very different cliques and never speak to each other again".

    I haven't actually seen the film (they never rerun it on TV here and to be honest its not the kind of thing that you would really go out and rent as an adult. Seems like teenage angst and melodrama.).

  2. It's got its angsty and melodramatic moments, but it's still funny, cheerful, and touching.

    Well, what I mean is that if a group of Millennials were thrown into that unusual situation, they would've just kept to themselves the entire time, rather than try to give out-group members the benefit of the doubt and open up a little.

    And while the detention setting may have been unusual, they could've run into each other at a party, the mall, or just around school. That probably wouldn't lead to soul-baring kind of stuff, but would still keep them in rough contact with other social groups.

    Today one social group doesn't run into and interact with another.

  3. I thought the trend was the opposite. In the old days there were different groups. Mods and Rockers. Punks, hippies etc.

    But over the last decade or so, culture became so commodified that most teenagers do not belong to these separate groups anymore. They are closer to the same. Only the old hierarchies of jock, nerd, pretty/ugly exist.


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