John Hughes – The Filmmaker Who Understood the (Pakistani) Teenage Experience

Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer in a promotional still from Pretty in Pink (1986). L-R: three teenagers, Andie, a smiling white girl with short, curly red hair wearing a white dress with small blue flowers, Blane, a white boy wearing a pale blue shirt and a beige jacket over it leaning casually on the wall behind them, and finally Duckie, a quirky white boy with quiffed black hair and a yellow checked suit jacket and his black shirt collar popped, giving a cheeky smile to the camera.
Paramount Pictures

In the opening shot of the 1985 film, The Breakfast Club, a David Bowie quote appears against a dark screen, ‘…And these children that you spit on / as they try to change their worlds / are immune to your consultations. / They’re quite aware / of what they’re going through…’, thereby laying down the canon for Hughes’ films – to never trivialise the teenage experience.

In Pakistan, Hughes was and still isn’t widely known except in upper and middle-class circles. I stumbled upon his films by accident during an 80s and 90s teenage rom-com binge, but I was immediately hooked. As a 16-year old growing up in Pakistan, Hughes’ films were an escape. Given that certain experiences like dating or attending high-school after-parties were off-limits due to my cultural upbringing and religion, I was allowed to live the ‘teenage life’ vicariously through his characters. However, I was primarily watching these films because Hughes just got the teenage experience, which I believed to be universal.

Hughes was the quintessential filmmaker known for re-inventing the teenage movie genre, as his films tastefully balanced the brutal reality of adolescence with magical realism. Despite being in his 30s when he officially began writing these films, Hughes never infantilised the teenagers within his stories. Instead, he fashioned them into conscientious adolescents, who were often the underdogs and the misfits, and could honestly articulate what they felt.

Though he created a range of movies during his time, the one which ultimately caught my heart was The Breakfast Club. The film, which almost read like a play, relied purely and was consequently build upon on its characters emotions, observations, and thoughts. The film was shot principally in one setting, the school library, and successfully utilised each of its 5 characters back stories, fears, hopes and dreams to manifest an emotionally powerful story about the awkwardness of adolescence. The rawness of the climactic scene is often best remembered – towards the end of detention, the five 16 year olds sit on the floor in a circle and divulge achingly personal stories; from Claire (Molly Ringwald) disclosing her experience of getting caught between her parents impending divorce to Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) breaking down over having a controlling, ambitious father. The movie silently captured the turmoil and loneliness of adolescence, providing a balm for the trauma young people endured from either feeling out of place within the social constructs of high school or from collapsing under familial pressure.

Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club (1985). Three teenagers in detention, Claire (left), a white girl with short, curly red hair wearing a pink blouse, her hands clasped together neatly on the table in front of her. Andrew (right), a white boy with mousy brown hair and a shocked expression, sits beside Claire in a slouchy blue hoodie and white t-shirt. Sitting in the row behind them is Brian (centre), a nervous looking white boy with curly blonde hair, wearing a dark green sweater.
Universal Pictures

Personally, I chose to battle the tumult of adolescence by embracing two things – academia and John Hughes films. Academia provided the stability I craved, whilst his films rationalised my questionable choices, idiosyncrasies, teenage drama, and my everlasting identity struggle. Growing up Pakistan was, and is still in many ways, a country which considered mental health to be a taboo topic. As a result, I never truly acknowledged the anguish and distress which were a result of my ongoing battle with depression and social anxiety. It took 4 years for my family to come to terms with my mental health disorders before I could attain therapy and go on the right medications. But during those turbulent four years in high school, Hughes films validated and recognised my pain. My feelings and issues were never undervalued, and his works eventually gave me the strength to share what I was feeling and to believe it was legitimate.

Like Hughes’s characters, my teenage years weren’t guided by a strong adult figure. Outside of my family, I found no inspirational leaders roaming in the hallways of my school like in Dead Poets Society. Instead, I saw my high school teachers in the dictatorial Vice-Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) of The Breakfast Club. I rejected the excessive discipline enacted by my private school and their teachers who propagated the ideologies of the ‘system’ from nepotism to favouritism.

But, unlike myself, the teens in Hughes’ films stood fearless in the face of authority figures. John Bender’s (Judd Nelson) antiauthoritarian nature when he told Richard Vernon to, ‘Eat…my…shorts’, was one I wanted to embody. I desperately wished to deliver an outrageous and equally devastating verbal blow to the teachers who doubted my writing, but alas such courage can only be exist in the teens of Hughes’ world. Along with lighting the fire of rebellion within me, these films also aided my decisions about the kind of life I wanted to lead.

Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club (1985). Claire, Brian, Andrew, Allison, an awkward punk girl with dark hair falling over her face, wearing all black, and Bender, a boy with long brown hair wearing a red plaid shirt with cutoff sleeves and baggy khaki pants, are all sitting on the floor of the school library during detention, having a sober conversation.
Universal Pictures

As a South Asian teenager, I was always reprimanded for refusing to align to societal norms. I stood out of the box too much, and my family resented that. Rejecting the idea of marriage and settling down as a Pakistani-Muslim woman was a particularly sore point for my family. Instead, I wanted to push myself to achieve great heights as a writer and actor but was constantly reminded of the societal belief that a woman’s primary role in our culture was to prepare herself for marriage and starting a family. Therefore, I grew up extremely anti-establishment and argued relentlessly with people who would pose the argument that a single woman was a disgrace to her family. Hughes’ encouraged of creativity and individuality in his characters aided me in my eventual decision to embrace my creative instincts and reject the corporate 9-5 lifestyle. As I went down the messy and unorthodox route as a creative, I realised how deeply Hughes’ cinematic pieces normalised the anti-establishment ideals which were already so prevalent within my Gen Z mindset.

When I left Pakistan to pursue my undergraduate education in England, I was suddenly and unwillingly forced into accepting my identity as a ‘minority’. I felt as if white people were imposing these identity labels of a brown/Muslim/Pakistani woman so that it was easier for them to lead their lives. However, I kept coming back to the essay which Brian pens near the end of The Breakfast Club: ‘You see as you want to see us – in the simplest, in the most convenient definitions; as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal…’. I try to believe that I am much bigger than the colour of my skin or my religion. I defy these markers of identity and continue to aspire to write and live my life, even in foreign lands, by these standards.

Though most of Hughes’ works have aged well, even 40 years later, a reappraisal of his films now shine an uncomfortable light on the classics we once deeply admired. Newer and older generations now reassess his films which are filled with moments of nonchalant treatments of sexual misconduct and racism.

It is no secret that Hughes’ films were notorious for their gratuitous sexualisation of young female characters. There is a scene in, The Breakfast Club where John Bender, hides under the desk right where Molly Ringwald’s character is sitting. He closely looks up her skirt and whilst, it is not shown, is thought to touch her inappropriately. It must be pointed out, that Hughes was making movies at a time when teen films were exploitative and insubstantial. Given that The Breakfast Club was one of his earlier works, he was expected to give the audiences a bit of what they expected from the teen rom-com genre, a concession which faded out in his successive works.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986). Andie, wearing a black dress with short puffy sleeves and a white lacy collar, is sitting behind a cluttered store counter reading, her attention has been caught by something off camera.
Paramount Pictures

Hughes films also suffered from a blatant lack of diversity. Given that the filmmaker himself grew up white and middle class, his works were only a partial representation of adolescence. Therefore, either BIPOC actors within his films were background decoration pieces or completely grotesque caricatures. This was a notion that never affected me until much later in my life, when I questioned how I could have managed to ignore the monochromatic nature of the cast.

Perhaps the most prominent instance of overt racism was in Pretty in Pink with the ludicrous stereotyping of the character, Long Duk Dong (played by Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe). Dong plays the role of an Asian foreign exchange student who comes to live with Ringwald’s grandparents as he attends an American high school. The first time he meets Ringwald’s character, Samantha, he speaks in a thick accent and staggers through a set of American catchphrases like, ‘Whaas happenin’, haat shtuff?’. Similarly, when he sits at the dinner table, he’s intrigued by the utensils, using them like chopsticks instead. What’s most offensive is how each time he appears on screen; his entry is marked with an ominous gong sound. Dong’s distasteful characterisation only adds to Hollywood’s long history of stereotyping Asian men.

Though his films still tug at my teenage heart strings, I can now only view them from the mind of a 22-year old adult. When I was younger, I was desperate for any form of human connection and understanding of what it was like being a teenager, and Hughes’ films allowed me to grasp onto some sort of semblance of that notion. However, as I grow older and certain social attitudes make me question the blatant racism and subtle microaggressions in Hughes’ world, I do feel the need to acknowledge and recognise these faults. Yes, Hughes’ should have hired a more representative cast, but even as a brown person I believe he did the best he could at the time he was in (the 80s) where teenage films were considered mainly as gags.  

Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club (1985). Allison, wearing a big grey puffer coat with a fluffy hood, is sitting in the school library in detention. She has a black pen stuck in her mouth, and is doing snarky finger guns/pointing.
Universal Pictures

Overall, Hughes managed to set the benchmark for teenage movies, and to this day, very few films have managed to supersede or even match up to his cinematic excellence, and perhaps they never will. The optimism within Hughes’ films balanced well with the melancholy of his characters’ lives, and that’s precisely how his work has managed to endure all these years. His films gave us all the happy ending we so desperately craved but perhaps had never gotten.

We all live our teenage years with an unfound rawness – we spend the years of ‘growing pains’ with our hearts on our sleeves as we experience many firsts: a first love, a first heartbreak, a first rejection. Like Hughes, I struggled to outgrow my teenage self and perhaps, like him, I didn’t want to. Allison (Ally Sheedy) the ‘Basket Case’, says in The Breakfast Club that, ‘When you grow up, your heart dies’, and that’s precisely how I felt when my teenage years were over. It felt as if life had slowed down radically after high school, becoming unexciting in a multitude of ways.

Because despite the tumult, I would always consider my teenage years as one of the most formative, tenderly lived, and meaningful years of my life. I often still escape into Hughes’ world, but I don’t do it as often as I did when I was a teen. Perhaps because his films have taught me all that I needed to know.

by Neha Maqsood

Neha Maqsood is a Pakistani journalist whose writing on race, religion, Indo-Pak relations, and global feminism has been published in Metro UK, Byline Times, Foreign Policy, Business Insider, Women Under Siege and other places. Her poetry, too, has been featured/is forthcoming in over 20 literary journals and magazines. Her debut poetry book, ‘Vulnerability’ was awarded the 2019-2020 Hellebore Poetry Scholarship Award and will be published by Hellebore Press in 2021.

1 reply »

  1. This is such a beautifully written article in which you balance the argument with a practical assessment of your ( and many of our’s) favourite films without surrendering the nostalgia and influence of Hughes’ iconic ouevre. I know that when I first watched THE BREAKFAST CLUB years ago, I felt that it was timeless and utterly realistic in how it looked at teenagers. It still holds up as a classic.

    Like

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