Essays About The 80S

The Decade Of Realizations: American Youth During The 80s

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Of all the 1980’s films, that can be described as “Eighties Teen Movies” (Thorburn, 1998) or “High School Movies” (Messner, 1998), those written and (with the exception of “Pretty In Pink” (1986) and “Some Kind of Wonderful”(1987)) directed by John Hughes were often seen to define the genre, even leading to the tag “John Hughes rites de passage movies” as a genre definition used in 1990s popular culture (such as in “Wayne’s World 2” (1994 dir. Stephen Surjik)). This term refers to the half dozen films made between 1984 and 1987; chronologically, “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “The Breakfast Club” (1985), “Weird Science” (1985), “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” (1986), “Pretty In Pink” (1986) and “Some Kind Of Wonderful” (1987) (the latter two being directed by Howard Deutch). For the purpose of this study, “Weird Science” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” shall be excluded; “Weird Science” since, unlike the other films, it is grounded in science fiction rather than reality and “Some Kind of Wonderful” as its characters are fractionally older and have lost the “innocence” key to the previous movies: as Bernstein states “the youthful naivete was missing and the diamond earring motif [a significant gift within the film] was no substitute” (Bernstein, 1997, p.89). Bernstein suggests that the decadent 1980s were like the 1950s, “an AIDS-free adventure playground with the promise of prosperity around every corner … our last age of innocence” (Bernstein, 1997, p.1). The films were very much a product of the time in terms of their production (“suddenly adolescent spending power dictated that Hollywood direct all its energies to fleshing out the fantasies of our friend, Mr. Dumb Horny 14 Year Old” Bernstein, 1997, p.4), their repetition (with the growth of video cassette recorders, cable and satellite with time to fill, and also the likes of MTV promoting the film’s soundtracks) and their ideologies.

The capitalist ideas so prominent in the Reagan / Thatcher era are as clearly instilled in the youth of the 1980s films as their, usually middle class, screen parents. Only “Pretty In Pink” (and indirectly, “The Breakfast Club”) actually confronts class differences; in the other films, the middle class way of life is accepted as default. Almost every John Hughes film is set in affluent suburbia with the repetition of certain imagery (the big house, gardens and tree-lined quiet streets, and often a wood-paneled station wagon) with a certain population (rich, white families), which is reflected in the body of the attended, well-equipped schools.

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Such a sheltered existence has led the youthful characters of “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” and “Sixteen Candles” in particular to unquestionably adopted their parents’ ideologies. In “Sixteen Candles”, the central character, Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) hopes, realistically, for a “trans-am” car for her forgotten 16th birthday whereas Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick)’s birthday gift of a computer rather than a car is a constantly referred to concern in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off”; although it was obviously an expensive gift, he is not satisfied as it is not the expensive gift he wanted as it is not an obvious sign of wealth. Ferris Bueller’s materialism reflects the centering of the individual’s wants over the community’s needs as was common in 1980s affluent society. It is taken for granted (by them and their parents) that each of the characters in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” will go to university and that this will lead to financial success and therefore, an increase in class status through accumulated material signifiers. In a quote at the beginning, Bueller sums this up “I have to take it [a test], I want to go a good college so I can have fruitful life”. This is what his parents want to hear (which is obviously why he is saying it) but it is what he would want too; anything less would disappoint him in comparison to the life he is accustomed to. “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” offers a representation of America that it is almost purely middle class whilst “The Breakfast Club” contrasts the middle class way of life with the abusive family of working class “criminal” John Bender (Judd Nelson). Bender seems almost resentful and jealous of the family life and material comfort experienced by the rest of the “club”; this seems to suggest that Bender sees the middle class as normal and he is deprived since his family does not have money. Bender, therefore, does not appear to want to challenge the class system he suffers in, instead blaming his parents for ‘forcing’ him to be working class (his anti-school attitude also suggests he does not believe in class mobility for himself but would have expected his parents to strive for middle class in order to provide a better life for him). The division is shown to cut through every level of society from space occupied in the school during free time (“the riches” as labeled by Andie (Molly Ringwald), roam the corridors whilst the “trash” – as labeled by Steff (James Spader) – as relegated to a concrete yard), and position of the house in the town (a railway is shown running past Andrew’s house to take on the simplistic symbolism of living “on the wrong side of the tracks”) to fashion and cars driven (the “trash” have highly individualized, often home made, fashion and cars whilst the “riches” wear bland, uniform contemporary designer clothes and drive identical top of the range German cars). Similar to Bender, the central character, Andie, doe not try to confront the class system or expect it to change but she seems more supportive of class mobility and interaction (Andie: “our hating them for having money is the exact same thing as them hating us for not”) although it is worth considering that this latter viewpoint is likely to have been shaped by the central theme: Andie’s romance with middle class Blane (Andrew McCarthy).     

It could be argued that Andie’s family is poor because it has broken the firmly set ideology of the nuclear family: Andie’s mother left her and her father and since then (until a confrontation with Andie), he has given up on life and employment. The ideology of the family is highly visible in the other films featured in this study; the Baker family (“Sixteen Candles”), the Bueller family (“Ferris Bueller's Day Off”), Steff and Blane’s families (“Pretty In Pink”) and the families of Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), Andrew (Emilio Estevez) and Claire (Molly Ringwald)(in “The Breakfast Club” despite Claire’s parents getting a divorce, they are still both very present in her life) – all of these families consist of a married, heterosexual mother and father with multiple children thus perfect examples of the ideological nuclear family. Yet, it is this family unit, or at least, the parents that are suggested to be reason each character acts the way they do. In discussion of “Ferris Bueller's Day Off”, Fishman suggests that the parents care more about material goods than their children and that the substitution of material goods for proper parenting proves detrimental upon the children. This is the case with Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off”, Alison (Ally Sheedy)(and Andrew and Brian, although their parents crave athletic and academic success rather than money) in “The Breakfast Club” and to some extent, Samantha in “Sixteen Candles” and Blane in “Pretty In Pink”. Adults are presented as the problem causing certain “undesirable behavior” and “all representations of adult authority were characterized in the Hughes canon as cringing, vindictive, foul-smelling, prehistoric, bewildered and spiritually undernourished” (Bernstein, 1997, p.52). These representations of adults are to appeal to the youth audience who would also have been trying to break free from adult authority in order to gain independence as an (young) adult themselves. However, “The Breakfast Club” acknowledged the inevitability of becoming like their parents; they will eventually live out the ideologies and ideas they have been indoctrinated with as children and teenagers since “when you grow up, your heart dies”.      

The female characters throughout the films exist in subcultures of their own right yet unlike the female subcultures studied by the CCCS, rather than being built around the domestic world, these girls lives revolve around the commercial and publics spheres: shopping, popularity and image (this last factor is important for “Pretty In Pink”’s Andie despite not having the financial and social status to attain the first two elements). There is also usually a fixation on romance (“Girls become obsessed with romance … realizing that the only exciting event in their bleak lives may be marriage” Brake, 1980, p.144) within the films, and like McRobbie’s discussed with relation to teenage magazines, the films “must elevate to dizzy heights the supremacy of the heterosexual romantic partnership” (McRobbie, 1991, p.101) and in “Pretty In Pink” punk character, Iona (Annie Potts) and Alison in “The Breakfast Club” shows the power of this heterosexual romance; they give up their independent, unique images in order to conform to the male’s desires. In the films in this study, “Sixteen Candles” is perhaps the best example of a romance, which is akin to the romance found in teenage magazines of the time. Samantha has a crush on popular and successful sportsman, Jake (Michael Schoeffling). Jake is dating Caroline (Haviland Morris), a girl Samantha considers to be “perfect” but Jake wants more than a superficially beautiful girlfriend (“I want a serious girlfriend, somebody I can love that’s gonna love me back”) and so chooses to pursue Samantha, despite, the fact he has never spoke to her before. Eventually, they become a couple, the narrative is complete, and everyone is happy. The film series has further similarities to teenage magazines of the time, for example, McRobbie describes four categories of “Jackie boys” which can be applied to the films:     

“First, there is the fun-loving, grinning, flirtatious boy who is irresistible to all the girls [Ferris Bueller and sportsmen Jake (“Sixteen Candles”) and Andrew (“The Breakfast Club”)]; second the tousled, scatterbrain ‘zany’ youth who inspires maternal feelings in girls [Duckie (Jon Cryer) in “Pretty In Pink” and Ted / Geek (Anthony Michael Hall) in “Sixteen Candles”]; third, the emotional, shy, sensitive and even arty type [Blane in “Pretty In Pink”, Cameron (Alan Ruck) in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” and Brian in “The Breakfast Club”]; and fourth, the juvenile delinquent usually portrayal on his motorbike looking wild and aggressive but sexy, and whom the girl must tame [Bender in “The Breakfast Club”]” (McRobbie, 1991, p.99)     

These films and teenage magazines share a common criticism: the triviality of problems featured but as Willis suggests “for most young people today … pop music and pop culture is their only expressive outlet” (Willis, p.1), these sites are the only places where teens can discuss, and have discussed, such triviality that seems so important at the time. The films and magazines offer escapism, a look into other people’s lives but at the same time, they offer an image of reality to those teenagers who live such lives; those who have relatively stable home life, who are safe from violence and drugs, and who attended a high school like those shown (even to black teenagers in this situation, the films offer a level of reality if not actually representation). The problems featured may seem trivial when compared to later films like “Kids” (1995, dir. Larry Clark) but they feel very real and important to teenagers with nothing else to worry about, and they also lead further into the notions of innocence discussed earlier. The images of rebellion shown also seem innocent and almost harmless as they seen directly transplanted from the 1950s; for example, Charlie Sheen’s “Wild On” in the police station in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” and Bender pulls a flick-knife, rather than a gun, in “The Breakfast Club”. Feeding into this, what is considered rebellious also seems petty: playing truant, ending up in detention, and being grounded by parents. However, if these are the worst punishment, the individual is likely to experience, then, as discussed earlier, this will seem more serious.     

In the early 1980s, the image of being a rebel for these teenagers was probably more important actions and a person’s image was essential in determining their social status. Around these images were clichés or “teen tribes” (Bernstein, 1997, p.61) as Bernstein calls them, which were (and still are) almost subcultures within the school and out-of-school environments. There are clichés present in all of the films being studied from the “perfects”, “geeks” and “average people” (the central character) in “Sixteen Candles”, the previously discussed “riches” and “trash” in “Pretty In Pink” (the only division is money not lifestyle choices) and the broader cross-section of clichés in “The Breakfast Club” (as defined at both the beginning and the end “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal”); “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” is notable in this respect because although the secretary describes the groups on the school as “sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, buds, dweebies [and] wastoids”, no clichés are ever shown, the school body merely seems to consist of (mostly white) middle class, uniformly-dressed students and as Fishman notes “there are few true individuals in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off”“ (Fishman, 1998). A further example of the clichelessness in “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” is the friendship between the super-cool, popular Ferris Bueller and neurotic, hypochondriac Cameron; in reality, it is unlikely that they would remain friends due to outside peer pressure. “The Breakfast Club” in its representation and examination of clichés suggests that each cliché is self-centered not caring about the problems of other cliché, that each group tends to be prejudiced against the others (another example of this is the earlier example used from “Pretty In Pink” quote “our hating them for having money is the exact same thing as them hating us for not”) and that individual friendships will not be strong enough to overcome the pressure of the clichés (as is suggested at the end). However, the people we see in clichés bring up the suggestion ‘who don’t we see’? There is a severe lack of ethnic minorities in all the films with a couple of black extras per film and the only non-white character across the series is “Long Duk Dong”(Gedde Watanabe) in “Sixteen Candles” who is a ludicrous racial stereotype, although Bernstein tries to justify this by suggesting “Hughes deals with many other Caucasian characters … with equal malevolence” (Bernstein, 1997, p.57). “Sixteen Candles” also features a continuing joke about a girl (Joan Cusack) in a back brace, mocking her disability. Less visible are the lack of sexual minorities; the characters are compulsively heterosexual and like politics, sexuality cannot be seen like race or disability so is not evident in any extras. If characters were homosexual, it would not be problematic to the status quo of white, conservative, middle class society that the films represent and promote. There is no narrative reason why the character of Samantha in “Sixteen Candles” could not be replaced with Samuel for example, except the film would then be seen as a ‘gay film’ rather than mainstream and no longer ‘innocent’ even if the rest of the story remained the same.     

What, if anything, then did these films offer the youth of tomorrow? Despite differences in demographics, high schools still are organized in to clichés and “what we see is barely removed from what we suffered at that girl’s / or that bully’s / or that teacher’s hand – humiliation, triumph, momentary regret, tearful farewell. Any high school, that anyone of us is one of its types” (Reed, 1989, p.145). The films offer the idea that such problems can be solved in 90 minutes and also suggest “the grass is greener on the other side”; if the teenager is living in an inner city terrace house with little money or prospects, then the almost mansions in suburbia shown would be appealing. The characters provide role models and the constant repetition over the last fifteen years (on terrestrial television only “Sixteen Candles” has been on Christmas for the last three years); the films are still known and influential (Courtney Love labeled “The Breakfast Club” “the defining moment of the ‘alternative’ generation” Bernstein, 1997, p.55). Finally the “bubblegum” (Bernstein, 1997, p.53) genre offers escapism into a pastel, sweet world where potential issues and the like are swept aside in favor of fashion and romance, and further like the teenage magazines analyzed by McRobbie, they “assert a classless, raceless sameness, a kind of false unity” (McRobbie, 1991, p.83) as long as the class is the middle class and the race is white.

Bernstein, Jonathon (1997) Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies St Martin’s Press: New York
Brake, Mike (1980) The Sociology of Youth Culture and Youth Subcultures Routledge and Kegan Paul : London and Boston
Fishman, Arielle (1998)     John Hughes' Depiction of the Impacts of Class and Family on Suburban Teens <a href="">
McRobbie, Angela (1991)     Feminism and Youth Culture: From Jackie to Just Seventeen MacMillian : Basingstoke and London
Messner, Adam (1998) Youth Culture And Teen Movies- A Comparative Overview <a href="">
Reed, Joseph (1989) American Scenarios: The Uses of Film Genre Wesleyan UP : Middletown
Thorburn, James (1998) Eighties Teen Movies - Nostalgia, Thy Name Is Judd Nelson <a href="">
Willis, Paul “Symbolism and Practice: A Theory for the Social Meaning of Pop Music” CCCS : Birmingham (stencilled paper)

“Sixteen Candles” (1984)     directed and written by John Hughes, Universal Studios (US)
“The Breakfast Club” (1985)     directed and written by John Hughes, Universal Studios (US)
“Weird Science” (1985)          directed and written by John Hughes, Universal Studios (US)
“Ferris Bueller's Day Off” (1986) directed and written by John Hughes, Paramount (US)
“Pretty In Pink” (1986)           directed and written by John Hughes, Paramount (US)
“Some Kind Of Wonderful” (1987) directed and written by John Hughes, Paramount (US)
“Wayne’s World 2”(1994)     directed by Stephen Surjik and written by Mike Myers, Paramount (US)
“Kids” (1995) directed by Larry Clark and written by Harmony Korine (US)

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