In the 1980s, no director respected and honored American teenagers more than John Hughes. He believed that teenagers took life seriously and therefore he treated their stories seriously.
It was perhaps this serious attitude towards teenagers that caused Hughes to bristle at one of his actors’ most famous nicknames, “The Brat Pack.” In a 1986 interview in Seventeen magazine, Hughes star Molly Ringwald interviewed his usual manager and asked if the group’s “obnoxious image” was deserved or a punch on teenage actors who were just starting to earn bigger roles. Hughes agreed that the term was an unfair label.
“There’s definitely a little adult urge. Young actors are hit harder because of their age. Because ‘Rat Pack’ – of which Brat Pack is clearly a parody – wasn’t negative. ‘Brat Pack’ the east. It suggests unruly, arrogant young people, and that description is not true for those people. And the label has been slapped on people who have never even spoken to the reporter who made it up.
When New York Magazine writer David Blum coined the moniker “Brat Pack” in its 1985 cover story about stars Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson, he imbued the term with macho intent. His description of “a roving group of famous young stars on the lookout for parties, women and a good time” might have been an apt characterization of these actors’ bacchanalian evenings in Hollywood, but she missed the mark on the characters of Hughes, who were more often sensitive portrayals of average American teenagers dealing with the mundane things of their suburban life. And if there ever was a leader of the Brat Pack, it was not a young man, but Hughes’ female muse, Ringwald. Hughes made a trilogy of Ringwald vehicles, including “The Breakfast Club”, “Pretty in Pink”, and “Sixteen Candles”, with the latter’s script. directly inspired by a portrait of the actress that his agent sent him.
Hughes credited her ability to write heartfelt stories about young girls to her regular exposure to teenagers. When he was a father of two, his friends and colleagues already had teenagers who could weigh in on his storylines. He also used his sister, nine years his junior, and friends as inspiration for his writing. In a 1985 interview with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel before the premiere of “The Breakfast Club”, Hughes exposed his reverence for the American teenager and his distaste for Hollywood’s portrayal of them.
“A lot of filmmakers portray teenagers as immoral and ignorant with pretty basic activities… They seem to think teenagers aren’t very smart. But I didn’t find that to be the case. I listen to kids I respect them, I don’t disregard anything they have to say just because they’re only 16. Some of them are as bright as any adult I’ve met; all they lack is a personal perspective.”
In the same interview, Hughes detailed his fascination with the adolescent psyche and how their ideas, clothes, and tastes are constantly changing from the ossified state of adulthood. He also noted that filmmakers were wrong about teenage attitudes towards sex and should not make the mistake of applying mature sexual themes to stories about teens. His own actors, Ringwald and fellow “Breakfast Club” star Anthony Michael Hall, often asked him to remove more explicit scenes from his films. As Ringwald said Atlantic, Universal had pushed Hughes to include a scene showing a skinny gym teacher in “The Breakfast Club”. After several rewrites, he brought in a stack of different drafts and asked his young cast members to piece together a script they liked best.
An ambitious image
The final version of “The Breakfast Club” almost looks like a play. It largely takes place in one room and focuses on five well-rounded characters whose stories unfold under the pressures of detention, hormones, and marijuana. In the wake of ’70s slashers that punctuated steamy teen sex scenes with their gory demise, the film marked a turning point in cinema by featuring a dark teen comedy-drama. Except for a few exciting escapades by Judd Nelson’s character, the film eschews sex in favor of teenage angst. As actress Ally Sheedy said Roger Ebert in 1984, “The Breakfast Club” succeeded thanks to what Hughes left out.
“Look what this movie doesn’t have… No high school dancing. No chase scene. No naked shower scene. No beer. No rumble. It’s about kids learning about themselves- same. an actor’s dream. And it’s an ambitious image. With a lot of teen movies, it feels like the filmmakers are reminiscing about their own youth. This movie is pretty much right now.
As Ringwald notes in the new yorker, Hughes paved the way for teenage stories at a time when young adult novels weren’t exploding in bookstores and in film adaptations. Although written by a man in his thirties, the characters in his films resembled teenagers of the time rather than adult movie stars impersonating them. He sympathized with teenage girls, and his films captured their anguish and grief in a way that hadn’t been seriously captured on screen.
But even though Hughes claimed to write screenplays that tended toward chastity rather than provocation, his teenage boyish attitudes toward girls and sex have aged badly, to say the least. Ringwald and co-star Haviland Morris, who plays Jake Ryan’s popular blonde girlfriend, reunited decades later to discuss a scene in which Jake says he might rape his ’17-year-old passed out girlfriend. ways if he wanted to”. Ringwald expressed discomfort with the rape joke, while Morris argued that the scene was not so black and white.
“On the other hand, she was basically traded in for a pair of underwear,” Morris admitted. “Ah, John Hughes.”
For a director who respected teenagers, Hughes had blind spots when it came to treating his female characters like Haviland’s. In a post-#MeToo era where teens engage in candid conversations about consent, its high school students’ antics can sometimes sound tone-deaf. Despite the iconic roles he wrote for Ringwald and Sheedy, Hughes could at times subscribe to “The Brat Pack” archetype, which embodied masculine arrogance and recklessness.