How Problematic Are You?

 “We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

– Andrew, The Breakfast Club

In John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), five stereotypical teenagers, a “prom queen,” a “geek,” a “jock,” a “criminal,” and a “basket case,” attend detention at their high school’s library on an early Saturday morning. As punishment for their previous transgressions, the delinquents are instructed to compose a 1,000-word essay explaining “who they think they are,” but no work gets done and they spend the remainder of their detention forming unlikely bonds with one another. At face value, the film can be likened to an extended bottle episode that you would watch in a television show—not much else happens beyond a band of misfits talking about their problems and standing up to an abusive authority figure for an hour and a half. Upon further examination, we find a surprising character study on the nuanced complexities of adolescence, with our five protagonists discovering that, despite their assigned stereotypes that ostensibly divide them, they are in fact united by common struggles inside and outside of school.

The Breakfast Club was so successful that it grossed more than fifty times its budget, cementing it as one of the best movies of the 1980s and standing the test of time. The film resonates with me for its smartly written, dynamic, and relatable characters, who all have rich and complicated histories that provide clarity on their personalities. For example, we learn that Allison, the basket case, struggles with forming meaningful relationships because all her life, her parents have neglected her. Brian, the geek, is easily impressionable and contemplates suicide for fear of failing an important class. Claire, the prom queen, is deeply insecure about her virginity, while her friend group prevents her from forging a stable identity. Andrew, the jock, is pushed too hard by his father for not being a good enough wrestler. Finally, Bender, the criminal, incurs constant verbal and physical abuse from his father.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to the issues that the Breakfast Club has spent the majority of its detention working through. The conclusion sees Allison and Andrew develop a relationship, Claire help Bender get in touch with his compassion, and Brian finish the essay for Mr. Vernon. However, their fate is largely open to interpretation, as no sequel is ever made that informs us of where Allison, Andrew, Claire, Bender, and Brian end up in the next 10-20 years and thus we presume that they all go their separate ways after detention ends. What is especially poignant is the understanding that even if these characters lives never intersect again, and if their issues persist through high school graduation and into adulthood, the impacts they leave on each other will last forever. This is best illustrated by the film’s hallmark song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, which sings about the necessity of transparency in human relationships.

While Hughes’s beloved coming-of-age film serves as a commentary on typical teenage angst and how frequently misunderstood it is by adults, I think many of the characters’ insecurities go well beyond and perhaps supersede the adolescent years, manifesting in a variety of cultures that are not relegated to white, middle class America. If they are left unresolved, they could yield disastrous consequences later in life. For instance, if Bender never makes amends with his abusive father, he could become an abusive father himself one day. If Claire never chooses the right friends, she might spend the rest of her life never knowing who she is. Finally, if Andrew never learns to cope with the prospect of failure, he may one day successfully attempt suicide. The aim of The Breakfast Club is therefore to encourage you, the viewer, to recognize how very little effort is involved in judging, attaching labels to, and dismissing another person based upon an eccentricity, idiosyncrasy, or superficial attribute that he or she is best known for, and that through digging deeper into what makes that person tick, you will make shocking discoveries about them and even yourself.

Think of a person in your life who, by virtue of something that you don’t like such as an annoying stutter or thick perfume, is assumed to be completely problem-free. Chances are, such a person doesn’t exist. In his video, The Science of Awkwardness (2015), Michael from Vsauce strikes this point upon discussing “protagonist disease,” a condition that erodes our interpersonal interactions by deluding us into thinking the world revolves around us 24 hours 7 days a week, or that we are the sole characters the drive our stories forward. Everyone else is just, as Michael puts it, “one-dimensional background characters” who have no virtually effect on your life. In fact, you couldn’t care less about them because they don’t understand what it’s like to be in your shoes—your goals, dreams, aspirations, internal conflicts, and all of the complexities that make you, you. Michael then uses the example of a guy who took too long to order in front of you earlier this morning to illustrate another psychological phenomenon interchangeable with that of protagonist disease, the fundamental attribution error. He states, “He’s obviously just an innately annoying person. That’s his entire purpose, but when YOU take too long, it’s because the staff was unhelpful—you were flustered, preoccupied by an earlier conversation.” But what if all along, the reason that guy took so long to order was because he was caught up in thought about his wife of 26 years, who unfortunately passed away to cancer earlier that week?

The fundamental attribution error becomes evident in the scene where the Breakfast Club gathers around for a group therapy session. In this scene, Brian claims that he considers them all to be his friends, but worries that as soon as Monday arrives, everything will go back to normal and they will no longer speak to each other. Claire is brutally honest with Brian, stating that if Andrew saw Brian in the hallway on Monday, he would briefly acknowledge Brian’s presence but then disparage him behind his back so that his friends wouldn’t think he’s a loser for hanging out with the geeks. Allison asks Claire what would happen if she approached her in the hallway, and Claire replies with saying, “Same exact thing.” Later, Brian calls Claire out on her conceit—of course she will look down upon the less privileged and less popular when she cannot even so much as determine who her real friends are, but Claire protests that it’s more complicated than that. “I hate it—I hate having to go along with everything my friends say,” complains Claire. Brian asks why, then, she continues to hang around people who clearly make her feel miserable. In tears, Claire admits, “I don’t know. You don’t understand. You’re not friends with the same kind of people that Andy and I are friends with. You know, you just don’t understand the pressure they can put on you.” An outraged Brian asks if Claire really thinks he doesn’t know what it’s like to be under pressure, and then shouts, “Well FUCK YOU! Fuck you.”

I am fascinated and quite relieved to know that everyone, not just high school students, has a unique set of challenges that they must overcome if they are expected to survive and thrive. I cannot, with respect to my friends’ and family members’ privacy, go down an entire list of their personal problems, but let’s just say that they are not exempt from them. Furthermore, I, too, have made the fundamental attribution error on a number of occasions. For instance, recently I discovered that one guy for whom I mistook excessive masculinity as his defining trait, actually used to go into the closet to cry when his customers became too abusive for him to handle.

It just goes to show that stereotypes, whether we subscribe to them or not, are only a small fraction of our personas.