The Good, the Bad, and the Problematic: Beth Vrabel on Using The Breakfast Club as Inspiration

The Good, the Bad, and the Problematic: Beth Vrabel on Using The Breakfast Club as Inspiration

Beth Vrabel grew up inspired by John Hughes’ classic movie, The Breakfast Club. It wasn’t until she rewatched it years later with her daughter that she realized how problematic the film’s context and characters could be. Here, Vrabel shares the experience and how it helped to inspire her middle grade novel The Reckless Club, about a group of kids who come together to learn that they have more in common than they think.

Growing up, my sisters and I always were heading in different directions and, it seemed, living in different worlds. The one exception? Somehow we’d all find ourselves around the glow of Molly Ringwald’s perpetually outraged expression if any of John Hughes’ iconic films were playing on the living room TV.

My oldest sister has been pure perfection from the moment she was born. Think Molly Ringwald as Claire from The Breakfast Club, minus the snobbery. My middle sister is more like Molly Ringwald as Andie in Pretty in Pink—full of style, sarcasm, and perspective. Me? I am the Sixteen Candles Samantha Molly Ringwald—ever dreaming of improving my station in life. (That station, by the way, was—and still is—the annoying little sister.)

Our favorite of the Hughes films: The Breakfast Club. I was only six when the movie made its 1985 debut, but it was on constant replay at our house in the late eighties and early nineties.

As the credits rolled and Judd Nelson’s fist punched the air, I wondered if maybe my sisters and I weren’t so different after all. When Simple Mind’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” played from a mixtape as we got ready for school in the morning, our struggle for space in front of the one bathroom’s mirror was less WWE with Aqua Net and more of a fun opening montage featuring crispy swoop bangs.

The characters, the music, the vibe of those movies made everything in life seem fun, irreverent, and possible—even the idea that three very different sisters could someday be friends (spoiler alert: It happened).

So, a few years ago, when my then-12-year-old daughter was reeling from the general anxiety of middle school, I thought I had the perfect solution: The Breakfast Club.

We bought copious amounts of junk food and settled in to watch this amazing film that would show her what I had been telling her—that what happens when you’re in school is real and important, but it is also temporary.

Music started, the characters assembled, and I sat back, waiting for the magic to happen. A few minutes later, I realized something.

This movie was ridiculously inappropriate for someone my daughter’s age.

Once, I had a popcorn kernel stuck in my gum for two weeks. Watching The Breakfast Club with my 12-year-old was only slightly less uncomfortable.

The overt sexual harassment and assault, the casual use of homophobic slurs, the complete lack of diversity—how had I not picked up on those during countless viewings of the film in the eighties and nineties?

I paused the movie after the scene with Bender hiding under Claire’s desk. “If anyone ever—”

“I know.” My daughter, who has been in martial arts since she was five, made jabbing motions with her ridgehand. “Eyes, throat, privates.”

When we got to the part where the group makes its way to Bender’s locker, where a noose hangs and a homophobic slur is scrawled, I paused the movie again. This time, she was the first to speak. “That’s awful!”

Of course, there’s also sex, drug use, and really cringeworthy dancing.

I recently heard an interview on “This American Life” where Ringwald discussed watching The Breakfast Club with her then-ten-year-old daughter. She, too, found parts of it deeply uncomfortable.

Yet other parts of the movie continue to resonate. The fact that five vastly different teenagers have more in common than what separates them; that it’s much easier to label and categorize than it is to connect, but the connection is what matters; that parents are going to mess up; that what happens to you is real and has consequences, even if it’s in the halls of a school.

And that is what I held onto when I wrote The Reckless Club. It’s a story about five kids who desperately need to be seen, who work to ditch their labels, and who refuse to give anyone a pass for being anything less than authentic. I’m even happier that The Reckless Club is a story I can share with my daughter.

Beth Vrabel is the award-winning author of Caleb and Kit, A Blind Guide to Stinkville, A Blind Guide to Normal, and the Pack of Dorks series. She can’t clap to the beat or be trusted around Nutella, but indulges in both often, much to the dismay of her family. She lives in Texas, in the Dallas area.

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