Were you a teenager in America in the 80s? If so, chances are pretty good that you have a soft spot in your heart for certain movies that depicted your teenagehood in those years, especially the cinema of John Hughes. Films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off struck a chord with audiences and have remained classics, justifiably so, for the past 30 years. On Twitter this morning I saw numerous people referencing the fact that today is the 30th anniversary of the day on which Hughes’s classic film The Breakfast Club takes place, March 24, 1984. The “Brat Pack” who starred in many of those films–Ringwald, Michael-Hall, Estevez, Sheedy et. al–are all middle-aged now, and Hughes himself is dead, but the movies live on.
There’s one thing that’s very interesting about these films, though–not just John Hughes’s classics, but some of the other memorable 80s teen movies by other filmmakers, like Footloose, Valley Girl, Risky Business or, perhaps to a lesser extent, Say Anything or even Back to the Future. As much as we who actually were teenagers in the 1980s love and identify with these films, the portrait of adolescence they present isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, these films are much more about another generation’s childhood–the Baby Boomers–than ours. They operate on, and draw some of their power from, the assumption that kids and teenagers are essentially the same from decade to decade. I think that assumption is false. That doesn’t mean that Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club aren’t good, entertaining, enjoyable movies and definite cultural artifacts of the 80s. They are. But I think they’re a false mirror, showing an inaccurate picture of what it was really like to grow up at that time.
Let’s take the John Hughes pictures first, because they’re the most clear-cut. John Hughes was born in 1950. He graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 1968–the most searing and traumatic year for the Baby Boom generation, filled with great ups (the moon shot, Janis Joplin, 2001 and Star Trek) and great downs (assassinations, Vietnam, the ’68 Democratic Convention). Hughes drew much of his inspiration from what his life was like in high school, 15 to 20 years prior to the era he later portrayed in his movies.
Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club are essentially about cliques. There are “popular” people, and unpopular people, and ostensibly the twains shall never meet. These two movies are about celebrating love and friendship across clique lines. Cliqueishness certainly existed in high school in the 80s, and certainly it did in the ’60s. The “timelessness” of their stories are the key factor in each movie’s success. Who doesn’t want love, or to woo the prom queen, or (like Ferris Bueller) play hooky with no consequences, whether you’re in high school in 1967 or 1984? That’s why the movies work.
Yet all three movies buy into the assumption that kids are essentially the same, and the things that change in high school over the decades are largely superficial: the bands they like, the clothes they wear, and the slang expressions they use. Back to the Future, a non-Hughes teen movie, is absolutely explicit about this assumption, getting laughs from repeated gags about how different the ’50s looked from the ’80s while still being fundamentally the same. Back to the Future could only have been made by Baby Boomers.
In reality, kids were different in the ’80s than they were in the ’60s. Societal promises of the future–of jobs, careers, families, stability, prosperity–simply didn’t ring true. The generation that went to school in the ’60s was generally innocent and optimistic. The generation of the ’80s was sullen, apathetic and largely checked-out. You never see this in the movies. All the kids in 80s teen comedies are essentially Baby Boomers dressed in 1980s fashions and spewing 1980s slang.
Don’t believe me? Look at how the movies handle drugs and sex. They’re essentially decoration to make the characters seem less innocent and more “modern.” When someone smokes pot in a John Hughes movie (or in Back to the Future, which associates pot with African-Americans) it’s either, “Oooooh, they’re a badass,” or “Oh, they’re getting free and loose.” Both are classic Baby Boomer, and particularly 1960s, views of drug use. Sex is sometimes the goal, a motivator, but is more often a gag line. It’s never played serious. Granted, these are comedies. But essentially the adolescent view of sex in 80s teen movies is not much different than it would have been if the movies were made in the 60s.
Maybe your experience was different, but I found that drugs permeated adolescence in the 80s in a very casual, taken-for-granted way. I didn’t smoke pot in high school but I knew plenty of people who did. They didn’t do it to be badasses and nobody thought they were getting free or loose. It was just something they did. People at my high school used to snort coke in the bathrooms between classes. A popular member of my class was rumored to have a $1500-a-week drug habit. He was not a “stoner” or a “burnout.” If he walked on the set of a John Hughes movie, there would be no place for him. Kids in the ’60s didn’t have $1500-per-week drug habits. They couldn’t afford them, for one thing.
Similarly, did you know a girl in high school who was pregnant? I did. Many, in fact. The lucky ones tried to stay in school and muddle through their classes as best they could. The unlucky ones dropped out. Depicting a high school pregnancy in a movie, much less a comedy, would have to wait 20 years after the 80s, until Juno came out. Yet high school pregnancy was very common in the 80s–and virtually unheard-of even in the late 1960s. Small wonder you don’t see any pregnant girls in these movies.
Even Say Anything, arguably the most realistic 1980s teen movie, is more about Baby Boomer sensibilities than real 1980s teenagers. Cameron Crowe, the director of that movie, graduated from high school in 1972. The movie struggles with real-world issues of guilt, opportunity, peer pressure and (yes) cliques, and comes the closest to getting right the sort of cheerful nihilism with which many teenagers in the 80s approached the world. But something falls short here too. It’s just not…real.
Yet many people, even those who were teenagers in the 80s, look back at movies like this and claim them as their own. I think in many ways they see the 80s the way they want to see them, not the way they really were. Similarly, the Baby Boomer directors like John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis and Cameron Crowe used their movies to try to rewrite their own Baby Boomer adolescences and shape them into something they liked better, by transporting their childhoods forward to a “calmer” time. John Bender, the Judd Nelson character in Breakfast Club, doesn’t have to worry about getting shipped off to Vietnam. Claire (Molly Ringwald) can put on lipstick by holding it between her boobs, but the idea of burning her bra would never occur to her. The movies are very safe and sanitized.
I posit that no one has ever really made an 80s teen movie that accurately depicts what it was really like to be a teenager in the 80s. Richard Linklater did it for the 70s in his awesome Dazed and Confused (1993), but the 70s were very different from the 80s. Furthermore, I’m not sure a movie like that ever will be made. John Hughes and Cameron Crowe repackaged their Baby Boomer childhoods and gave them to us, their children, wrapped in 80s-style wrapping paper. Most of us didn’t notice the difference. Thirty years on, their childhoods have successfully substituted themselves for our own.