Teenage Angst in the Reagan 80’s

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The 1980’s were an era of distinct change for Americans, and came to be known as the “Reagan Revolution” (Lucia, 275). The nation had been through a tumultuous period of distrust following events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal, so the former Hollywood actor’s embodiment of a simpler time encouraged a return to older values and more conservative ways of life (Lucia, 276). This became an age of self-reinvention and rising consumerism, which blanketed the political turmoil (due to the Cold War), high unemployment rates, rising inflation, and rampant xenophobia. This climate of political division between old and new values made its way into the Hollywood films of the time… especially those dealing with teenagers.

John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club has an ensemble group of teenage stars (commonly known as the Brat Pack) representing the new Reagan America, and adults representing the old, combined with the “music, fashion, and language of 1980s suburban teendom” that created a cycle of teenage angst (Bing, 8). The Breakfast Club boasts a few of the decade’s biggest stars, and situates itself as a school film featuring a variety of youth cultures and types. The five lead roles are as follows; Brian (the Nerd), John (the Delinquent), Alison (the Rebel), Claire (the Popular Girl), and Andy (the Jock) (Shary, 11). These characters talk about peer pressure, mental illness, school pressure, abusive parents, and negligence to use these discussions to appeal to the emotions of the teenagers of the 1980s. In the scene where the group gets high on marijuana, the characters give candid insight into their personal lives and offer a more focused interrogation of schools and their effects on students (Shary, 32). While this scene may seem to go against the “Just Say No” Reagan stance on the use of drugs, it also highlights the dissatisfaction of youths due to their parents corrupt morals manifesting in things such as divorce (in the case of Claire being used as a pawn in her parents split). This attitude of being critical towards adulthood stems from the relationship of the teens to their parents, who are ineffectual on one extreme and hostile on the other.

This offers a critique towards how the parents or adults are accustomed to an older, more “corrupt” lifestyle that did not foster the same emphasis on the family unit that the Reagan era imposed. The idea of paternalism (being the connection to one’s father defining who the individual is or becomes) was very important to the Reagan era, thus informing the scene discussing the difficult relationships each of the youths share with their parents (Lucia, 283). The valorization and idealization of adolescent values (such as directness, independence, self-actualization) have direct connections to the core values of the Reagan administration. The distinction between different social groups is so crucial to this narrative as it provides the perfect backdrop to institute change (in the direction of Reagan’s ideals) upon the most “troubled” characters: The Delinquent and the Rebel. Although all of the characters discuss the pressures they experience due to their label (take, for example, Andy’s pressure from his father to succeed as an athlete and get a scholarship), the only characters who undergo some kind of physical or emotional change are Alison and John.

Alison is introduced as a quiet, goth-like girl with terrible anxiety, but through the intervention of Claire (the epitome of Reagan era consumerism), she is transformed into a more palatable object of (specifically) male attention. It is also through Claire that John is changed into a softer, less troublesome character. Claire gives him her diamond earring (an obvious symbol of wealth and consumerist ideals), and John walks across the field a new man…. Thrusting his fist in the air in a freeze frame that suggests there is triumph in conformity. Popular culture in the Reagan 80’s reflected tension by creating Hollywood films about “change and stability, as well as continuity and discontinuity”, while typically taking a conservative approach to filmmaking (Lucia, 276). The teens in The Breakfast Club (and the teens it was marketed toward) symbolize Reagan’s America and are vessels of an ideology along the lines of “Let’s Make America Great Again”, who operate in harmony with objects synonymous with American society (like diamond earrings, or Coca-Cola cans). The film is similar to other films of the era, as it displays the “ideological paradoxes central to Reagan’s presidency”…. Specifically the idea that “preparing for the future meant returning to America’s allegedly simpler past” (Lucia, 157). Therefore, The Breakfast Club’s conclusion implies the triumph of a new, conservative order over the old, liberal one. By guiding the audience firmly through the teenagers’ narrative and perception of society, the film manages to exude Reagan’s political propaganda.


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Teenage Angst in the Reagan 80’s. (2022, Apr 04). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/teenage-angst-in-the-reagan-80s/

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