This article is part of our Villains Week series.
The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 classic teen flick about five teenagers sitting through a Saturday detention, needs almost no introduction. Apologies if the Simple Minds song is already stuck in your head. The film is so culturally and critically iconic because of its universal subject matter (identity, insecurity, and hating your parents). It taps right into the brainstem of the teenage hive-mind and unflinchingly portrays adolescent angst without patronizing. But in order to identify with the story’s discordant heroes (a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal) the film must align us with these characters in some sort of mutual hatred. Enter our villain, Vice-Principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason).
Many films in the 1980s rely on a school-based authority figure as an antagonist, one who acts as a stick-in-the-mud for whatever totally rad stunt the main characters are trying to pull off. Their bogus attitude and yuppie appearance created a cinematic shorthand for villainy, but beyond that, these characters tend to be underwritten or are literally insane. Examples here include the callous principal, Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), in Back to the Future (1985), and the unhinged Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) in Hughes’ own Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
These figures have relationships with their students that feel contrived for tropey plot points, as opposed to actual human dynamics. Rarely do we get academic antagonists who offer much substance to the story. In The Breakfast Club, however, Vernon’s character does some serious thematic heavy-lifting.
The film is set on the cusp of cultural change, just as Generation X is starting to come of age and question boomer traditionalism. Gen X was called the “MTV Generation” because of the emergence of the music television cable network and the new types of music and lifestyles, like punk and grunge, that the channel promoted. They were also the first generation post-school-integration, and their rise coincided with the sexual revolution, meaning Gen X was at the forefront of huge societal shifts. Vernon, therefore, acts as a figurehead for conservative boomer expectations, trying to lock Gen X in a box, or in this case, a library.
Many of Vernon’s scenes in the film revolve around his exchanges with one of the students, the “criminal” John Bender (famously played by Judd Nelson). Bender is a troublemaker and a burnout who is perpetually angry and sharply sarcastic. Their scenes together are power struggles, face-offs between two parties who don’t understand each other and don’t want to try. Vernon thinks Bender is hopeless and arrogant and exists only to be a pain in his ass. Bender hates Vernon, not simply because he’s the principal but because Vernon has already written him off. Their relationship is intensely antagonistic but still realistic because of the way it’s grounded in these ubiquitous cultural dynamics.
Boomers looked at Gen X as an inconvenience and a threat, and wrote them off, “in the simplest terms, with the most convenient definitions,” as the “brain” Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) writes in his letter at the end of the movie. The categories the teen characters begin to shed are societally imposed and were created by people like Vernon. Rebelling against teachers is one thing, but the protagonists are resisting a whole generation and triggering a societal evolution in the process. The widespread attitudes of boomer culture are also shown by the brief moments we get with the characters’ parents. Those who show up, anyway.
Another huge aspect of Vernon’s character is an aversion to emotion. He upholds an entrenched ideal of masculinity that expects boys to stifle vulnerability, which is shown in a scene in which he goads Bender about whether the student is going to cry. Bender has an abusive father and a tormented mother and is ostracized from all of his peers, yet Vernon thinks Bender’s big problem is that he’s too concerned with trying to impress people. The ideology that boomers expect Gen X to internalize is inflicting a lot of damage, as Bender is closed off and unable to express himself in any productive way.
These attempts to fit people into boomer-designated boxes create problems between the teen characters as well. The degree to which the characters do or do not fulfill their place in the social ladder causes most of the conflict in the film, whether it’s about school or family or sex. In doing an impression of Brian’s home life, Bender inflicts onto him the same boomer expectations he rebels against constantly. Brian is coded as a dweeb, who lives under insane pressure from his parents over his grades, making Bender’s impression sting even more.
The pressure to uphold societally imposed expectations keeps them from connecting in a real way, until they begin to cover each other’s backs when dealing with Vernon. As soon as Claire (Molly Ringwald) speaks up for Bender or Bender sacrifices his own hide to let the others get back to the library safely, an actual bond begins to form. This is a key function of any villain — to give the protagonists something to coalesce against.
Perhaps more than anything else, Vernon is motivated by fear. He expresses this to Carl the janitor (John Kapelos) when he worries that this generation will be taking care of him in his old age. Carl replies, “I wouldn’t count on it.” Vernon is coming to terms with the fact that a generation he spent terrorizing will forget about him, and he has no one to blame but himself.
There’s a moment in the film when Vernon finds Bender shooting hoops in the gym. When Vernon demands he hand him the ball, Bender fakes a throw before dropping and rolling the ball slowly toward Vernon. In response, Vernon kicks the ball back at Bender. The boomers thought Gen X was out to get their way of life because they didn’t understand that these kids were rethinking how life could be lived. So, the boomers lashed out and kicked the ball back at them.
The extra thematic weight Vernon brings is the reason The Breakfast Club is such a spectacular film. Though the generational divide represented is between the boomers and Gen X, the societal chafing between teens and adults transcends the specific context. It doesn’t feel cliché because that dynamic will always be relevant. And we’ll never forget about it because it asks us not to.