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08/06/2018 18:46 SAST | Updated 08/06/2018 18:46 SAST

33 Years On, The Breakfast Club’s Depiction Of The ‘Bad Boy’ And Teen Romance Doesn’t Quite Sit Right

Can we just be done with this bad boy bulls**t already and make sure that we throw our praise at films that tell better, healthier romantic stories?

The Breakfast Club

This week, the iconic film turns thirty three.

Earlier this year, I watched The Breakfast Club for the first time, and a lot of it just didn’t sit quite right with me. While its stellar use of Simple Minds’ finest and teenage camaraderie in the face of all-consuming high school stereotypes did warm my heart, there are some rather large issues at play when it comes to how this movie dictates what romance, and the perfect partner, is and what relationships should be like.

As it turns 33 this week, the intended message of the movie – that all of us struggle, no matter our backgrounds, privileges or social standing, particularly during adolescence – is undeniably as true today as it was back then. But the problematic ideas of romance that run all the way through The Breakfast Club’s Saturday detention shine through after years of changing female leads in movies, in front of and behind the camera.

For one, Judd Nelson’s John Bender sexually harasses and emotionally abuses popular ‘princess’ Claire in the movie, and is yet somehow given a sugar-sweet treat of a kiss and one of her diamond earrings to wear at the conclusion of the story. Molly Ringwald revisited her thoughts on The Breakfast Club, and playing Claire,in an article in The New Yorker earlier this year, most strikingly talking about watching it with her ten year old daughter. This got me thinking about how a younger generation, even my own, would (and should) react to such an iconic 80s movie hit.  

As Ringwald said herself, Bender “never apologises for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.” This is a huge problem. In a modern world (that has a blossoming #MeToo movement), it is just dangerous to NOT call bullshit on the prevailing narrative that a man can redeem his sexually inappropriate and threatening behaviour by, what? Showing the slightest smidgen of sensitivity? What this does, really, is normalise downright disrespectful behaviour as a prerequisite for movie romance.

While the film’s plot does admittedly challenge the mindless masculinity of Nelson’s character and his father’s expectation of such behaviour, it weirdly overlooks the same behaviour of Bender right there in that library. Why is he given a romantic development that suggests at some form of redemption at the end of the movie? It is, above all, one of many examples of “bad boy” glorification in teen rom coms, as well as other movie genres. These days, we only have to watch reruns of Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl to remind ourselves that the screwed up ideas surrounding bad boys and romance are still alive and well.

‘Basket case’ Allison’s makeover is another element of the movie that had me asking a myriad of questions. Apparently, wiping off her heavy eye make up and the addition of a headband in her newly brushed hair seemed to suddenly make her worthy of male attention. We’ve all seen those apparently miraculous makeovers in movies where the removal of someone’s glasses and a haircut suddenly deem them to be beautiful (looking at you, She’s All That). Once again, a truly ridiculous narrative of self-actualisation and attraction.

What is more remarkable, and what should garner more attention, is Allison’s change in temperament throughout the movie, her improved ability to emotionally open herself up to her own mental and emotional flaws and share them with strangers. Hell, we could all do with focussing more on our emotional openness than our looks.

I’m not saying that The Breakfast Club isn’t a fabulous film. At a time when teenage stories weren’t being told on the big screen, director John Hughes brought them to the fore with The Breakfast Club, and coming-of-age teen stories such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles soon following in its wake. However, as Ringwald says, “the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing” attitudes of female subjugation.

So, can we just be done with this bad boy bullshit already and make sure that we throw our praise and cinema ticket funds at films that tell better, healthier romantic stories?