The movie that made 80s teen angst a box-office draw actually is a morality play. There is a reason why people, like myself, still watch it and it’s more than just nostalgia. There are strong themes throughout that are real, human, and touching. That’s what great movies do: they help you find something new in them everytime.
The first time I watched it, all I saw were the celebs that graced the covers of magazines and were dubbed by the press as “The Brat Pack”. I couldn’t get enough of ’em. I modeled myself back then as Molly Ringwald’s character, Claire, because I liked the thought of myself in expensive knee-high boots and pink blouses. Being a part of the comsumer generation, more than ever I coveted her flaming red hair and those diamond earrings. But as I grew and watched the movie, I started to see that I really wasn’t Claire at all. I was more like Brian, played by Anthony Michael Hall. He was all studious and straight. While I was in high-school I could relate to the pressure he felt to be the best and get straight A’s because my life was very similar. I was attempting to excel to get out of the inner city pitfalls and to expand my future choices. After graduating in the middle of my class, the “Claires”and “Brians” of my high-school class dominated and once again I had to redefine myself. While I worked through college, I was more like the character Bender, played lovingly by Judd Nelson (who at the time I didn’t like because I didn’t get the whole ‘bad boy’ thing and thought he was ugly in comparison to Emilio Estevez). I have grown to like Bender now and I totally find him date-able. He questioned authority, his lifestyle at home, the social limitations of his class, and the narrowmindedness of society. College takes you: a lump of clay and begins to mold you, work you, and sculpt a form that will later be the basis of who you’ll become. A little bit after college I even became more like Andrew, Emilio Estevez’s character, which was driven to win in a totally different way than the other characters. His medium were sports and fitness. Both of which I became obsessed with for a solid two years as I trained my body to do things I had never believed possible. But still, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t fill that empty feeling or that horrible rude, self-absorbed person that I’d become. My looks were a constant concern and I became more obsessive than ever.
In an odd way, I morphed into the basket-case. It was a natural progression. Oh, understand that I do not see it in a negative sense, but a more pervasive, realistic sense of the term. The character, Allison is less of a caricature than the others. She is a self-proclaimed social misfit, even though she is the most inclusive. She has no friends, but is still welcoming the breakfast club into her personal life and her odd habits. She’s a show-woman: whether making her Captain Crunch sandwich or allowing Claire to dress her up; she’s the one that takes the most risks. There is a hidden maze here–a complex personality who invites you into her purse…and her life. From the sidelines, she instigates Claire to talk about her “issues”, she offers sympathy to the jock’s revelations about his guilt over taping a nerd’s buns together, and even reprimands Bender for mocking Claire about being a tease. An individually creative saver-of-objects, she exhibits all of the qualities of a complete person despite her idiosyncracies.
There is another thing that I re-discovered while watching this classic movie: the notion of whether or not we are doomed to become our parents. When Ally Sheedy as Allison says, “When you grow up, your heart dies”, my heart does, just a little. It’s because all of our lives we struggle against the forces that pull us into pre-determined directions. The conundrum of life to either stick to the plan as it’s laid out for us, or the decision to rebel against it. The latter, of course, is always harder to do because it means going against the grain to defend your own beliefs; to have your own experiences independent from your parents. Even though most parents mean well, they can never really experience what we are experiencing. Their times are not our times. While we may take into account what our parents and others want for our well-being, we still need to explore for ourselves the meaning behind our own lives. That sometimes means severing ties that are counter-productive, painful or devoid of encouragement.
For me, the most poignant statement by Ally Sheedy in the movie was the line, “They [parents] ignore me.” It took years of introspection, soul-searching, and therapy to discover that what I hated the most about my parents was that they really did ignore me. Their version of “we did what we could” carried the weight of an apology that never really could be retracted. I was judged by my accomplishments throughout my scholastic years. In a way, my successes could outwardly be the example that deemed my parents “good” parents. I never realized–until later–just how little I really mattered to them as soon as my sister came along with her mistakes, her talents, and her ability to hold their interest longer than I could.
Beauty School Drop-Out:
Being the oldest, I was never measured by the same standards as my sister. She had the luxury of “just being herself” and did without the pressure of being the first to accomplish anything. For example, it was automatically excused when she dropped out of the elite high school I worked hard to be accepted into. Having already bitten my nails into knubs just to see if my grades were acceptable enough to be allowed to attend, my sister was accepted almost immediately because of nepotism. When her grades could not compete with the other students, she dropped out to attend a lower-grade public school which my parents forgave as a sign that she was “trying to find her own identity”. In truth, she just couldn’t cut it.
Since I was five years old, I wrote. I had a bunch of marble notebooks that I filled with poems and notes and essays. My love of words had me achieving honors every year. Teachers tested me, had me participate in spelling bees, and my parents made sure I always did my homework. If I didn’t want to do my homework neatly, my Dad would sit me in front of his chair and hit me over the head with a pencil until I completed my assignments satisfactorily. Just good enough was never good enough for me because it meant, perhaps, that my parents were failing. So being “just okay” would never be an option for me. In this way, I could be the proof that my parents didn’t fail. But once I was in high-school, the new challenge was staying afloat when others were academically better than I was. I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life so that I could be the first one in my immediate family to get to college. My father made me understand, before I got there, that he could only afford to pay 2 years of my college education. In contrast, my sister dropped out of my high-school, fell in love with a pedophile, moved out of the house at eighteen, and was guaranteed 4 years of college tuition so long as she stayed in school. While she locked herself up in her room for hours, painted and moved out to play house with her boyfriend, I had to be at home picking up the pieces from the remnants she’d left behind. Eventually, all that freedom amounted to nothing. She ultimately lost her interest in being an artist and modeled her “new life” after me. Her distance was always understood, her independence revered while my availability was required, my needs overlooked.
The Silent Treatment:
In my family, it paid to be silent so long as it wasn’t me. My father, when I was just becoming a young lady had a weird period when he refused to speak to me. He didn’t even address me before he’d leave for work. He’d say ‘goodbye’ to everyone else in the household: even the dog, but not to me. There was special treatment given to my sister that I couldn’t understand. My mother always explained that my father granted my sister special attention because “he saw her first as a baby”. I still don’t believe that, but rather accepted this as a strange fact of life. I think what hurt the most was that so much time and attention was given to my sister seemingly without trying. She was adored and forgiven for things that I could never get away with. If she wanted to be left alone, she achieved just that. It was understood as the natural state of things without reservation or argument. “That’s just how she is” my family said in her defense.
“You had a hard life”:
My aunt visited the family to help my mother through her divorce from my Dad and said that she wanted to meet with me. Foolishly, I took the bait figuring that her arrival was going to somehow clear the air, set things right after so much family turmoil. We walked along a long stretch and Carlos had given me some time to speak to my aunt alone. I thought that I was being given some time to speak my adult mind. I thought that I would be able to get my point across about all of the changes in my mom’s behavior, my sister’s inability to reconcile with my father, and my own personal struggles with relationships and loneliness. What I received was bitterness in lieu of sympathy, anger in place of understanding. The only sympathetic commentary I received was, “You had a hard life.” No shit.
But all of my continual successes and failures can still be attributed to some of those old wounds that still spill out like the contents of Allison’s purse. Perhaps it’s true what the film says, “…you’re crazy [to ask us] to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” Inside of us all there is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. I’m living, breathing proof.