Dept. of Pastoral Counseling & Marriage and Family Therapy
CNS-510 Lifespan Development
Br. K. Barry
The Breakfast Club and the Systems Within
They are sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they think they are
–from Identity, Youth and Crisis (1968) by Erik Erikson
Dear Br. Barry;
You asked each of us to watch this movie and comment on it. To make inferences based on implications. I accept the fact that I had to sacrifice five whole days to write this paper because I had to take this class. Call me crazy but I think it’s crazy. What I really want to know is, with which character do you most identify?
A breakfast skipper
The characters portrayed in this film dramatize what it is like to be human, to grow, to stagnate, and to take chances. For instance, Mr. Vernon’s midlife crisis reminds us that teens are not the only ones who struggle with identity. According to Erik Erikson, midlife crisis is referred to as “generativity vs. stagnation, the seventh stage of human development called middle adulthood. Mr. Vernon is suffering from disillusionment and is questioning his decision to become a teacher and administrator. He is essentially seeking out the very same things that the five teens in detention are seeking: a sense of purpose and belonging.
The following is an analysis based on a systemic perspective. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the elements of what defines the family system and the peer system. Additionally, pursuing connections and/or identifying the differences between the two groups exposes the motivations of the individual and his/her interactions in a group setting.
John’ Bender the Criminal
“Eat my shorts.”
He is the bad-boy; neglected, tortured, and lost; he elicits your attention because without it he knows no other way of affirming his own existence. A trained clinician would note that John is angry, resentful, and insecure. Conversely, the same clinician would note that John is resourceful, observant, and able to create cohesiveness in the group by challenging them. We see this in the beginning of the film when he sabotages the library door. No one reports him to Mr. Vernon assuring him that he can take charge. By the end of the day, John successfully roots out and exposs everyone’s foibles as well as sharing the ugliest parts of his home life, like the cigar burns on his forearm. The clinician watching this film would make an educated guess that he likes being in control of others and feeling powerful boosts his self-esteem. It is suggested that John is living in an abusive household with and alcoholic father. Because of his unstable home life, the only way John can communicate is by creating chaos and finding out about others through his/her own negative experiences. This particular group provides John with a sense of belonging, a dynamic he cannot find at home. The peer system is a surrogate for the things he is missing in the family system.
Whether he is aware of it or not, John symbolizes the desire to rebel against authority in order to affirm his place in society. He has already found that by being an outsider, he does not need to conform. Erikson asserts that when someone like John is “driven to the extreme of their condition [they] find greater sense of identity in being withdrawn or in being delinquent than in anything society has to offer them (1968, p. 254).” This is apparent in John’s disdain for authority and others, like Andy and Claire, who have made the choice to assimilate into the larger peer group. John holds back but it is not clear if he does so because he is afraid or if he has found another secure group outside the school’s influence.
Allison Reynolds the Basket-Case
“When we grow up our soul dies.”
Allison is the least differentiated person in the group. She is the basket-case, symbolizing the least developmentally evolved personality. She is the least attached to the peer system, her identity evolving through out the entire film. Because the family system appears to be disconnected, Allison’s own sense of balance is affected. For example, her confrontational way of speaking at awkward moments and/or refusal to speak leads this clinician to extrapolate that Allison is not skilled in the social graces. She admits to lying, stealing, and sexual promiscuity to seek attention from the others yet is reluctant to speak honestly about herself when asked. Seeking negative attention is Allison’s preferred way of communicating with others. She most likely learned this maladaptive skill from her family system. When pushed, she admits to being ignored by her family and that her home life is “unsatisfying”. A good clinician would hypothesize that Allison is being emotionally neglected and quite possibly physically neglected as well. For example, her hair looks unwashed and her clothes appear to be borrowed. She has strange eating habits, as if pop-tarts and cornflakes are all she is offered or accustomed. She is missing the little bits and pieces of parental instructions and/or demonstrations, like her mother making sure she has a nutritious lunch and clean clothes. Things most children in middle-class America take for granted. These clues point to parental neglect.
Allison’s place within her peer group is precarious, evident by the way she often hesitates joining in and holding back. Her fear of rejection is stronger than her need to belong, to test where she fits. A good clinician would conclude that her hesitation in joining her peers is a result of feeling lost within her family system.
Claire Standish the Princess
“I hate it! I hate having to go along with everything my friends say!”
John calls her a “richie”. Andy is her friend, Brian lusts after her,and Allison , well, her opinion of Claire changes by the end of the film. It’s hard to feel sorry for her; she is priviledged, attractive, and intelligent. She lives in a world that all of the other kids can only imagine. She is the popular girl, a role model for the other girls in the school to emulate. She says she hates it yet she seems to be quite comfortable in her role until John uncovers what’s going on in her family system: divorce, alcoholism, infidelity, and perhaps a bit of high-brow rebellion. After all, she did cut school to go shopping.
Since Claire is the top of this particular peer system it is noteworthy to pay attention to how guarded she is throughout most of the film. She fiercely defends her place in the group by magnifying the faults of others while defending her character. It works quite well in keeping everyone else in his or her place, except for John. A clinician would surmise that this is how Claire’s family system operates, or rather, how she operates within the family system. She likely has to guard herself against the conflict between her parents. She mentions that she disobeys her mother only when her father compels her to and that if she had to choose who to live with, she would choose her older brother instead. Claire, like all the others, cannot escape the parallelisms that exist between the family and peer system. The more she struggles against the yoke of preconceived expectations, the tighter she is entwined.
Andrew Clark the Athlete
“He is like this mindless machine that I can’t even relate to anymore.”
Andy is describing his inability to connect with his father. Andy sees himself as less than human. He feels as if he’s being used for his athletic prowess and that his emotional needs are being ignored. Andy wants to do the right thing but is easily influenced by his father’s worldview. A clinician would conclude that Andy is also an angry young man but for different reasons than those of John Bender. Simply put, he is being exploited by his father’s overpowering need to excel, to win at all costs, even at his own son’s expense. A clinician would try to find a way to help Andy use his athletic gift to free him from his father’s control. It is implied that Mr. Clark is domineering and this could be why he and his son are struggling for control. It is natural for Andy to test his father and it is often the parent who resists the shift in the relationship, causing the adolescent to resist, resulting in a stalemate.
Andy’s place in the peer system is the most stable due to his family’s position (working-class) and his innate desire to excel and good social skills.
Brian Johnson the Brain
“I don’t like what I see.”
A truly intelligent, intuitive person, Brian Johnson is the group’s observational conduit. He is the door mat, pitied by John, ignored by Andy Claire, and Allison. He is overly solicitous to adults and other kids who outrank him. By all appearances, he is a geeky ass-kisser, an overachiever, a genius who failed shop. Unlike the others, instead of lashing out, Brian holds in his emotions. When pushed he cries rather than becoming angry. A good clinician would take note of this and ask Brian if he ever gets angry, and what happens when he does. It is possible that Brian internalizes his anger and frustration because in his family system, tears and fits of anger are not how an intelligent person behaves. A responsible, mature young adult does not entertain suicidal thoughts. Like Allison, Brian struggles with his identity; he doesn’t like what he sees and yet he has not attempted to change or express how he feels until John challenges him.
In the social jungle of human existence
there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.
–from Identity, Youth and Crisis (1968) by Erik Erikson
Who among this group has the most potential to become successful? The answer is all of them. Each teen has a chance to either succeed of fail depending on what the future unveils. For example, Andy may very well blow out his knee and this may upset his father’s plans and add more distance between them. Claire’s father could remarry, or Allison could run away and become a crack addict. For that matter, John could graduate, get discovered by a film producer and star in a movie about teen angst. Brian could become a firearms instructor/left-wing anarchist. My point is that there is no such thing as a sound future. They all have great potential and a good chance to find a positive direction and purpose. Discovering who they are and who they want to be is what adolescence is all about.
Breakfast Club, The (1985) A&M Films Channel Productions. Universal City Studios, Ca.
Erikson, Erik. (1968) Identity, Youth and Crisis. Norton, New York.
Santrock, John W. (2004) Life Span Development. Mcgraw Hill New York.