On April 6, actress Molly Ringwald wrote an Op-Ed in the New Yorker entitled, “What About ‘The Breakfast Club’?” In the article, Ringwald – a member of the “Brat Pack,” young actors who starred in coming-of-age films together throughout the 1980s – points to the works of John Hughes. Ringwald acknowledges that, while Hughes’ works gave teenagers screen time and validation as thoughtful individuals, some of the films’ cultural elements do not stand the test of time. More specifically, the rise of the #MeToo movement after sexual misconduct allegations were directed at film producer Harvey Weinstein called to question the behavior of boys in Hughes’ films. She also pointed to how we as a society laugh off abusive behavior and sexual misconduct aimed at girls. Moreover, Ringwald argues that while the 80’s coming-of-age films are still vital cultural landmarks to preserve, we must also consider that the social tone has shifted. So, while we can still enjoy our favorite movies, we can also recognize that some have aged badly and should be discussed, in part, regarding their troublesome content.
When recalling her time filming “The Breakfast Club,” Ringwald discusses the character of John Bender (Judd Nelson). Ringwald notes how his story arc of sexualizing and incessantly harassing her character, Claire Standish, is not uncommon in films and how that informs the way teenage boys treat girls in real life. Ringwald wrote that when “he’s not sexualizing [Claire], he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt.” Ringwald notes that, although at the time she considered Hughes’ writing normal and it was years before she began to question it, there is a dangerous idea being promoted through Bender. We are told from a young age that when the boy insults the girl, it is because he has a crush on her and there is an understanding that she should be flattered. I agree with Ringwald that, by perpetuating that notion, we only further encourage the behavior and teach young women that affection is linked with emotional and verbal assaults and that young men are rightfully outraged when rejected. To that point, Ringwald acknowledges that “[Bender] never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.” As she indicates, portraying that idea is risky because it teaches teenage boys that behaving similarly without any consideration for the feelings of young women is acceptable and will be rewarded.
While reading Ringwald’s article, I was reminded of a recent event that created a talking point for my parents and myself. Last month, the three of us attended my cousin’s high school production of Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The play, written as a novel in 1952 and first performed onstage in 1961, features a number entitled, “A Secretary Is Not A Toy.” The number is in reference to a new female secretary who is hired and immediately attracts the attention of the businessmen. The male employees are warned not to take advantage of those who work for them, resulting in the number. Beyond the fact that students aged 14 to 18 were performing the play, the social context that we find ourselves in indicates how uncomfortable such an idea is to us now. Personally, I love “How to Succeed in Business” and saw it twice on Broadway when Daniel Radcliffe starred as protagonist J. Pierrepont Finch. However, I am able to recognize that what was likely unsettling when I saw it about six years ago was even more jarring last month given our revised awareness of types of messages presented to audiences. What is more, I do not see that awareness as a bad thing because it not only allows me to enjoy the performance, but also realize that we have shifted our perspectives for the better since then and that growth is worth continuously improving.
As indicated, there is no denying that since the allegations against Weinstein, our society has become more cognizant of worrisome messages in not only current films, but also older ones. Evidently, there are always people who say that messages portrayed were products of their time. There is no denying that we are moving toward a less tolerant era of sexual harassment and misconduct. However, simply because change is occurring in 2018 and not in 1985 when “The Breakfast Club” debuted does not mean that we cannot identify the issues. Additionally, it does not mean that we should not endeavor to highlight why our favorite classic films were not harmless teen flicks that can be wholly relevant regardless of the decade. Not unlike hairstyles and fashion choices in the 1985 film, social and cultural trends go out of style and, when we are lucky, these trends make way for better ones that are more inclusive and less harmful.