The Representation of Youth Tribes and Subcultures in the Cinema of John Hughes

In this research essay I expect to find that the use of youth tribes and subcultures can clearly be identified in mid-80s comedy-dramas; particularly in those written, produced and directed by John Hughes. The primary texts I will be analysing are The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science. I have selected these texts as they are few of many that represent young people in an oppositional approach compared to the dominant ideologies of society at that time.

I will be using Paul Hodkinson’s Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes and Stuart Hall’s Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices as secondary sources to inform this essay. I will also be looking at how teenagers have been represented in other media texts such as Grease and the American Pie sequel. The term “representation” can be defined as to how the language of media and its conventions are used to represent certain people and objects to the text’s targeted audience. Stuart Hall states in his book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices that his definition of representation is:

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“To put it briefly, representation is the production of meaning through language”. Hall, (p. 16). Since the film industry blossomed it has been dominated by many ideologies as to what is ‘acceptable’ and what can be perceived as taboo; these theories also suggest how people should be represented. For example, theorist Vladimir Propp proposed that there are eight main characters to a film, stating that the woman is the passive “damsel-in-distress”. In Propp’s book Morphology of the Folktale it is stated that the children who are interested in the fairy-tale genre, they apply their personalities with the character they feel most connected with:

“Presumably, the kinds of choices made by a child might be related to his personality. For example, does a little boy select a female donor figure to aid him against a male villain? Does a little girl select a male donor figure to assist her against her wicked stepmother? ” Propp, (p. 10). However due to the numerous revelations, character ideologies have been adapted and have proven that the damsel can be subverted into the protagonist of a story and, more often than not, the antagonist; in particular, the ‘evil stepmother’.

The genre of comedy-dramas came of age in the late 70s with romances and teenage dramas; however the genre was suddenly exemplified in the 80s by director John Hughes along with the infamous ‘brat pack’ of the era. In comedy-dramas the narrative normally includes tropes such as ‘the guy gets the girl’ with the help and guidance from his trusted sidekick who has to climb over the difficult obstacles of life and society. An iconic example of this trope can be seen in the late 70s classic musical Grease; where the boys in a gang are wearing leather jackets, they smoke, carry weapons and drive fast cars.

As it quotes in Paul Hodkinson’s Youth Cultures: Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes this was incredibly common for the transition from teenage years to adulthood: “Most obviously perhaps there has been the development of a series of legal classifications associated with different stages of youth, notably the age at which young people can vote, have sex, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and drive motorcars”. (p. 4). In comparison to the ‘girl gang’ of the film, where Olivia Newton-John’s character Sandy is wearing pastels throughout the movie, which connotes her virginal lifestyle.

This is where John Hughes appends a proclaimed statement that all teenagers are in some way the same and are based in stereotypes which make them similar, which is why I have chosen to analyse the films The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science due to the fact that the main characters are all teenagers and the trilogy of films show the representation of youth tribes in a clear, semantic perspective that states that however a teenager may present themselves, they are all in some particular way the same.

In the first chapter of the book Stereotypes and Stereotyping by C. Neil MacRae et al they state that stereotypes only exist in someone’s point of view: “This type of thought process reflects the most traditional conceptualization of stereotypes within social psychology, in which stereotypes are considered to be the “pictures in the head” of individuals looking out into their social words. But stereotypes also exist from the point of view of the person who is being stereotyped”. (p. 3)

The Breakfast Club (1985) is a unique film, in the genre of teen comedies, because it focuses on the stereotype and probes deeper into the issue of ‘why they are the way they are’. This is a contrary to the teen comedy genre because most of such movies will defend stereotypes of many forms, including sexuality and race. This can be seen in films such as American Pie and Not Another Teen Movie; the latter of which was effective in battling stereotypes by reinforcing them and therefore turning them into paradoxes. However, The Breakfast Club battles contemporary stereotypes differently.

Each character has a personal problem that, seemingly, led to the way they act in public. Bender, being a rebel, retells how he is abused by his father. Such abuse can create a level of apathy about life, but Clark (a victim of a different kind of abuse) goes on to assume it is all “for show”. One can quickly see that the film not only addresses stereotypes, but it challenges them by showing that each student has an assumption about the other. By the end, everyone acknowledges that their colleagues are more rounded and individual than they initially thought, but agree that they are different.

Johnson writes to the principal that they learned they all contained some form of each stereotype and finished the essay with this following quote: “You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But, what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess and a criminal. Does that answer your question? ” (The Breakfast Club, 1985). In 1990, Hughes directed a film that changed the traditional family’s Christmas’ dramatically.

Home Alone, starring Macauly Culkin, was the beginning of one the most noticeable and well-known series in filmmaking and sticking to comedy-dramas, Hughes includes two robbers who act as the antagonists. However, he also included a subversion of intelligence between the 8 year old Kevin McAllister and the two inseparable robbers. Hughes portrays the child to be an intelligent, smart boy who sets his house with childish pranks as obstacles for the robbers to come across. However the adult burglars are represented as complete idiots and fall for each trap.

The sharp direction within this subversion of the characters has become a trope in the comedy-drama genre. John Hughes is a well-acknowledged film director, producer and writer who has created some of the most humorous and warm-hearted movies for a family -based cinematic entertaining experience; and it was his movie-making abilities that gained him the label ‘the king of teen comedy’. Every young character in each infamous John Hughes film have been represented as clever and witty and they can easily get away with more than any normal teenagers should; especially Matthew Broderick’s character of Ferris Bueller.

This subversion of intelligence from Home Alone could be seen four years earlier in one of Hughes’ greatest creations: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). This film has been constructively criticised for its pure creativity and originality throughout the entire plot of the piece. Ferris Bueller at the beginning of the film seems to just be a normal young man, who has the skill of faking an illness to skip school; however, he has an extraordinary amount of luck and whatever he plans for the day, it goes swiftly without questioning.

Hughes has written the three main characters of Ferris Bueller, Cameron Frye and Sloane Peterson with individual, unique personalities. According to Pieter J. Fourie’s: Media Studies, Volume 1: Media History, Media and Society, Levi-Strauss’ theory of binary opposition can shape a person’s identity: “Binary oppositions suggest that the meaning of something depends on its opposite: ‘good’ is dependent on ‘bad’. Levi-Strauss’ point of departure was that a collective practice of laws, rules and values direct the individual’s thinking and behaviour.

Furthermore, society’s collective existence shapes the individual and determines his or her individuality. ” (p. 249). Bueller is shown as a young man who knows everybody and wants to make the most of his life, whereas his pessimistic best friend, Frye, contrasts in personality as he seems to be living on his death bed due to his non-existent relationship with both parents. Peterson, however, is a beautiful young woman who has the reassurance of a motherly figure which can help provide Frye with the hope and faith that he needs.

The subversion of intelligence is introduced into the film with the first sight of the Dean of Students, Edward Rooney. His determination to catch out Ferris on his ninth ‘sick day’ of the semester boils over his initial integrity and dignity, from getting spat in the face with Slush Puppie to being chased around the neighbourhood by the Bueller family’s pet Rottweiler. Rooney is represented as a teacher who has completely lost any glimpse of pride; leaving the three students roaming the streets of downtown Chicago with charm and comical wit.

Art Silverblatt claims in his book Genre Studies in Mass Media: A Handbook that Ferris becomes a role model for everyone, even the adults: “Ferris’ nemesis, the school disciplinarian, Mr. Rooney, is obsessed with “getting Bueller”. His obsession emerges from envy. Strangely, Ferris serves as Rooney’s role model, as he clearly possesses the imagination and power that Rooney lacks”. (pp. 104-105). Weird Science (1985) was written and directed by John Hughes and stars one of the main members of the 80s ‘brat pack’ Anthony Michael Hall who plays Gary Wallace, and Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Wyatt Donnelly.

Another trademark characteristic that can be seen in numerous Hughes films is that the majority of them are set in the fictitious Chicago suburb of Shermer, Illinois. The first time the audience spots the two Science geeks in the film is when they’re gawking at the girls gym class at school. They may be skinny, but Hughes didn’t write them to have glasses or severe acne, as he didn’t feel the need to classify the ‘geeks’ from the ‘jocks’ as they can

easily be spotted without their stereotypical features; for example the geeks normally have their trousers hoisted up paste their waste, showing their ankles, whereas the jocks would have letterman jackets, be well built and structured but also be shown as a little bit dumb. However, what Hughes does, is write the characters in a way that any actor of the film could play that character, I believe that the semantic purpose of the film is to inform the audience that stereotypes only exist if the audience perceive them to be that stereotype; this means that everyone can be seen as the same without any judgement of their clothing or hairstyle.

The end of the film supports my suggestion, as the two geeks get both of the jocks’ girlfriends due to the help of their Barbie-doll 23 year old, computerised woman Lisa, played by Kelly LeBrock. In conclusion, the representation of youth tribes used within the cinema of John Hughes is trying to inform the audience that there are stereotypes, but they are only perceived via a person’s point of view.

This perception of stereotypes creates space for characters to be represented within an archetype; which portrays them to be seen as the same, in a small, yet evidently noticeable way. The mid-80s opened up the possibilities for teen dramas and John Hughes created iconic role models using teenage adolescence for the young public viewers. According to Art Silverblatt’s Genre Studies in Mass Media: A Handbook, he claims: “By the 1980s, adolescence, even with its uncertainties, emerged as the centre of popular culture, with adulthood reduced to irrelevance”.

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The Representation of Youth Tribes and Subcultures in the Cinema of John Hughes. (2016, Jul 17). Retrieved from