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Cracked posted an article recently (and you know how much I love to use that phrase as a basis for a blog post, over and above any efforts at research or serious journalism), about movies in need of an epilogue. Top of the list is The Breakfast Club, the whole point of whose story is undermined without knowing what happens the next day.

To needlessly recap, The Breakfast Club is an ’80s film about a bunch of angsty teens who get stuck in detention together. They each very obviously fit into a different high school demographic – there’s a nerd, a jock, and so on – and would never be friends or find anything in common while living their usual cliquey lives. But being trapped in a room together all day with nothing to do prompts them to, like, talk about their feelings and stuff (with conversation being helped along by smoking some pot), and they actually find things around which to empathise with each other. They start growing close, and forming some meaningful relationships.

The point is, without knowing what happens to them once they’re back to their regular school routine, there’s no way to know what moral we’re supposed to draw from any of this. One clear possibility is the idea that they’ve formed some lifelong friendships, and those cheesy stereotypes will be broken down the moment the bell rings for class the next day. The popular athlete will carry on being friends with the skinny dork, even if this means the other popular athletes call him a loser, because friendship means something, man, and is totally more important than just being cool.

I’m with Dan O’Brien that this completely fucks over all the honesty that’s been central to the film up to that point:

The right ending would have the kids all going back to their own cliques, because that’s how you survive high school.

I think that unlikely bonding experiences such as occur in The Breakfast Club are possible in the real world, and I also think that a much more likely outcome is that the status quo will be more or less restored once everyone resumes their usual place in the mangled teenage hierarchy. Where I disagree with Dan is in his labelling this outcome as the “tragically ever after” ending. Even avoiding schmaltzy bullshit, there’s still a lot of hope in a film which ends that way.

What really would be tragic is if the tribal, in-group/out-group, them-and-us thinking which prevents us from appreciating or understanding each other could never be conquered. It would be tragic if the human tendency to stay within our safe, familiar spaces full of like-minded, similar folk, and to be suspicious of outsiders and mock those who fall into our mental category of “other”, was destined unfailingly to overwhelm our efforts toward empathy and universal compassion.

And it might seem like an ending where the Breakfast Club kids go back to their cliques is about exactly that tragedy, but that’s not what’s going on at all.

Like Dan says, that’s just how you survive high school. In that competitive, emotional, hormonally charged context, the incentives are really strong for adolescents still finding their way in the world to avoid risking the castigation of their peers with whom they’ve found some tenuous acceptance. An American high school (perhaps even more so in the ’80s than today) is one of the hardest places imaginable to start trying to break down these barriers between groups. You’d barely have more luck persuading people to reach out and make a connection beyond the socially imposed limits on what’s acceptable in South Africa under apartheid.

And yet the whole movie is about those barriers giving way entirely to a few hours’ conversation.

Even when a divisive, unfair, destructive caste structure is held in place by the power of high school cliques – one of the most indomitable social forces known to mankind – it’s still just a façade. It crumbles to the touch. Shift the conditions a little, and love and compassion can be unearthed almost instantly.

The obstacles preventing people from connecting with each other are entirely artificial, and have nothing to do with the humanity underneath. The restrictive social structures are all that hold us back, and once those are done away with, our capacity to get along and support each other shines through.

Of course, in this case, it doesn’t last. High school is still what it is, and its very nature discourages certain types of human connection. But social structures are a malleable part of our world, and can always be replaced if enough of us decide that we deserve better. Our ability to make unlikely friends is what’s left in us, when all the surrounding bullshit is stripped away.

The Breakfast Club with a realistic ending isn’t a tragic story; it’s one of hope. It just reminds us how much work is still to be done.

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