In the 1985 cult-classic The Breakfast Club, popular Claire, athlete Andrew, “geek” Brian, outcast Allison, and rebel Bender are in detention. Vice-principal Mr. Vernon expects them not to speak, move from their chairs, or sleep until the end of the day. The students must write a thousand-word essay on “who they think they are”, which frames the film. During this time, all five open up, discovering that they are all similar beneath the stereotypes they embody. At the end of the film, they decide that when they return to school, their friendships must fade away. In the final scenes, the essay’s conclusion states: it doesn’t matter who they think they are because the world forms its own opinion of them. In analyzing The Breakfast Club, I will first focus on the role of moral entrepreneurship in the film. Then, I will explain the importance of labeling to the storyline. I will analyze how stereotypes affecting sexuality affect the student’s reactions to each other, and detail how the conflict theory affects the students. Throughout the film, the five students serve as a device to explore stigma and how it creates divisions while showing that these divisions can be overcome.
Vernon: Literally the Worst Vice-Principal Ever.
In the film, Mr. Vernon assigns the essay for the detention session. Vernon is a classic example of a person in a position of power avoiding getting to know those under his authority, seeing them only as stereotypes. Bender, the “rebel” of the film, incites Vernon’s wrath to a level unseen by the other students. Bender comes from a broken home, where he faces abuse. As a result, he acts out by smarting off at the adults in his life and smoking. Child abuse can cause stunted social development, physical injuries, and psychological damage. The abuse shapes Bender’s character. His inappropriate comments and actions could be stemming from his abuse at the hands of his father. His aggression with others is a clear indicator of physical abuse. His drug (and tobacco) use is also a common coping method used by abused children. Instead of acknowledging Bender’s abuse and helping him, his school administration seeks to subdue and punish him. In Vernon’s view, Bender is a deviant that needs control and does not fit within Vernon’s moral rules. He is much harsher with Bender than he is with the other students, particularly “popular” Andrew and Claire. This shows particularly when Vernon locks Bender in a closet. The students had been walking the halls when they are almost caught by Vernon. When they come to a dead-end, Bender takes the fall for leaving the detention room, rather than Vernon catching everyone. Vernon drags Bender to the library, where he humiliates him (a power play in and of itself) before once again dragging him to a closet. The vice-principal tries to provoke Bender, so Vernon can hit him without threat to his job. When Bender refuses, Vernon locks him in a closet for what he thinks will be the rest of his detention sentence. Bender’s underage vice use, aggression, crudeness, and insolence are values that society doesn’t like, giving “acceptable” people someone to rally against.
A Teenage Girl’s Sexuality- Why is Everyone Concerned?
“Princess” Claire’s sexuality is a constant point of ridicule for the other students. Speculating about Claire’s presumed promiscuity, after she indicates she’s uncomfortable, is a common cheap shot. Making fun of Claire for being promiscuous is okay, but as soon as she admits she is a virgin the other students begin to refrain from making jokes. In making fun of Claire, Bender and Allison (who also taunts her) are participating in the part of patriarchy that overlaps with sexism. By mocking sexual prowess and celebrating virginity, all the students further the concept of virginity symbolizing purity and the role of woman as “pure”. In one of the first scenes, Bender taunts Claire, by asking if she is a virgin while fantasizing about her having sex in a car on a date. Later, he makes fun of Brian’s virgin status as well. We see Brian’s view of Claire as the popular, worldly girl, who would look down on him for his virginity. This brings in the concept of a man’s role as having many partners and experience, as compared to a woman. Bender refutes Claire’s preference for monogamy, furthering the traditional model. Everyone then insults Claire, leading her to break down and admit her virginity. This ends up with a bonding moment with Allison, who also admits she is a virgin. The comradery then seen between the two girls continues to the end of the movie. While Bender taunts Claire the most, it is interesting the dichotomy, and even rivalry, seen between the only females in the film. Their conflict is deep, Allison rebelling against Claire’s social role by being the opposite of it.
Conflict and Labels at Play
The conflict theory is at play especially at the beginning of the film. Each student from a different group at different levels of the social hierarchy feels in conflict with each other. The dominant group, consisting of Andrew and Claire, are the definitions of 1985 high school norms. They use their position to oppress those “underneath” them, shown by Andrew’s presence in detention at all. He, along with his friends, terrorized a “nerd” to the point of assault by taping his buttocks together. Claire recoils from Bender and Allison in the beginning, the outcasts considered beneath her level. She notes that because her group puts so much pressure on her she will be unable to continue the friendships created over the course of the day. Claire does not want to fall down to a different level of the social hierarchy. Class consciousness shows though Bender and Allison refuse to take part in activities that may bring them into the higher levels of their high school society. The labels associated with the students make their social status obvious, with the “criminal” being the most obvious as lower in the social sphere.
The strength of their friendships ambiguous at the end of the film, The Breakfast Club sees five students come together to find they are more similar than they are different. They all have varying concerns with their home lives, and feel extreme pressure from their parents, friends, and even school administrators to conform to a certain stereotypical label they embody. Their faculty only sees them as these labels, and their society reinforces the labels. Sexuality is a weapon to create feelings of shame, superiority, and comradery, and conflict permeates their lives. The film ends by noting that each student has pieces of the others’ labels within their personalities, and will carry this knowledge in their future interactions with others within their school community.
For further reading:
Cannon, Julie Ann Harms. “Feminism and Deviance.” In Deviance Today, 37–46. 1st ed. New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2013.
Conyers, Addrain. “Conflict Theory: The Ongoing Battle.” In Deviance Today, 31–35. 1st ed. New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2013.
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.
Konty, Mark. “Labeling.” In Deviance Today, 23–30. 1st ed. New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2013.
Mustaine, Elizabeth Ehrhardt. “Child Abuse.” In Deviance Today, 63–73. 1st ed. New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2013.
Permut, Tessa. “Rulesmaking.”
Sternheimer, Karen. Pop Culture Panics: How Moral Crusaders Construct Meanings of Deviance and Delinquency. New York and London: Routledge, Taylor, and Francis Group, 2015.
The Breakfast Club. Directed by John Hughes. Performed by Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson. United States: Universal Pictures, 1985. DVD.