Although the #MeToo movement is presumably about real-life sexual misconduct, actress Molly Ringwald is using the New Yorker to put The Breakfast Club, the movie that made her an icon, and John Hughes, the man who made her a star, on trial for #MeToo violations — not for any kind of inappropriate personal behavior, but content that is not sufficiently woke.
Written and directed by Hughes (who died in 2009) and released in early 1985, The Breakfast Club is a cultural touchstone for anyone who came of age during the Reagan era. This includes me.
Ringwald’s primary complaint about the movie is that after her character (Claire) is sexually harassed by Judd Nelson’s character (John Bender), he “never apologizes for any of it, but, nevertheless, he gets the girl in the end.”
Bender’s boorish behavior includes a scene where he peeks up Claire’s skirt; and while we don’t see what he does, her reaction tells us that he also gropes her.
Ringwald adds, “Bender sexually harasses Claire throughout the film. When he’s not sexualizing her, he takes out his rage on her with vicious contempt, calling her ‘pathetic,’ mocking her as ‘Queenie.’”
She concludes that, “It’s [Claire’s] rejection that inspires his vitriol.”
I honestly cannot believe I have to explain The Breakfast Club to the star of The Breakfast Club, but here goes…
On a Saturday, five disparate high schoolers are forced to spend the day together in detention. There is the smug jock (Emilio Estevez’s Andy), the brainy geek (Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian), the introverted head case (Ally Sheedy’s Allison), the stuck-up prom queen (Ringwald’s Claire), and the delinquent (Nelson’s Bender).
Safely sheltered in the bubble of their respective cliques, these are five individuals who have gone to school together for years but have never even said hello in passing.
At first, as you might expect, each retreats into the safety of their own corner and in doing so epitomizes their own stereotype: Andy and Claire act superior; except for a few bizarre outbursts, Allison remains in her shell; Brian is hopelessly awkward; Bender is all belligerence.
Over the next 90 minutes, though, the group unifies to rebel against their situation, their insufferable warden (Vice Principal Richard “Dick” Vernon), and in doing so, reluctantly get to know one another.
Some music, some weed, and a few close calls later, they loosen up and discover they have much more in common than not. The most important thing they discover, however, is that they are all fronting as stereotypes as a defense mechanism.
The Whole Point Of The Movie is that beneath these off-putting archetypes there is a whole person, someone worth knowing, maybe even someone you could get close to.
For example, we learn that deep down inside, Claire is not a prissy, uptight snob. She is merely behaving in the way her friends and parents expect her to behave.
Incredibly, and even though she just watched the movie again as a 50-year-old woman, Ringwald still sees Bender only as a sexist pig, and still cannot see past the stereotype.
To begin with, Bender is only 17 for crying out loud. This is how 17-year-old boys behave. Hughes was always aiming for reality when it came to his teen films. What’s more, and this is important, Hughes does not present Bender’s behavior as cool or edgy. Rather, Bender is an asshole, a bully, a jerk — and not just to Claire, but to everyone. The audience is not on Bender’s side.
Then comes the moment where we (and Claire) discover that at the hands of his own father, Bender is the product of horrible abuse, both physical and verbal. In other words, Bender’s thuggish behavior does not come from a sense of privilege or sexual entitlement. He is not Al Franken or Harvey Weinstein.
Bender’s truculence is his shield, what he holds in front of him to avoid opening himself up to even more pain. His antagonism toward all comers is meant to keep people away, most especially Claire, because his feelings for her terrify him.
Ringwald writes, “It’s rejection that inspires his vitriol.”
No. That is exactly wrong.
It is not rejection that inspires Bender’s piggish behavior — it is fear; white, hot, blinding panic. That is the whole point of his confession, that extraordinary moment when he finally opens up.
Bender is not a spoiled child lashing out when he does not get what he wants. He is the exact opposite: a wounded, broken, and abused child on the path to prison, or worse….
And then something amazing happens, something that has been happening since the beginning: the miracle of a woman’s love….
Claire’s acceptance of Bender, especially that it comes after he lays bare his soul about the humiliating truth of his life, allows him to drop the pose, to reveal who he really is when he is with someone he trusts.
One of the many gifts women have is their ability to civilize men, to improve us. I know that some women today, those who are insecure about being women, see this as a burden but John Hughes certainly did not. It is a theme you see throughout his work.
Ringwald is also missing the fairly crucial fact that it is Claire who is the strong one, not Bender. He needs her a lot more than she needs him — which also terrifies him. Therefore, rather than have Claire stamp her feet and demand some pouty apology that might satisfy today’s immature social justice warrior mob, Hughes imbues Claire with the strength and humanity to see past Bender’s bluster, to write off his asinine behavior, to embrace who he really is now that he has lowered his shields.
This is not Claire being weak or a pushover. Quite the opposite. This is a supremely brave and confident woman leaping over what her parents expect, what her friends expect, and her own inhibitions and prejudices, to recognize that he brought her to life, she brought him to life, and to hell with what anyone else says.
When the credits roll and the lights come up, we have no idea if Claire and Bender are going to make it. But we do know that he doesn’t have a chance without her, or someone like her. We also know that if he doesn’t change, she will not stick around, because the entire arc of her character, the whole point of her character, is that Bender brought out that part of her that will ensure she is never again a doormat to the expectations of others.
Ringwald also has complaints about Sixteen Candles, and says that, “much” of Hughes’s writing was “inappropriate.”
She even appears to blame her former mentor — the man who made her a star, who wrote three timeless movies especially for her — intelligent, sympathetic, thematically driven teen movies told from the female point of view (how many of those are there?) — for the relationship problems she went on to have in her own life.
“Back then I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones,” she writes.
It may be trendy to say and share such things in this censorious and shallow era of ours, but that does not change the fact that it is morally illiterate.
Sounds to me like Ms. Ringwald could use another Saturday in detention outside her prissy bubble.