‘a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal’



Film Talking to some people on Twitter earlier, I somehow got on to the subject of Laura Mulvey's essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and was reminded of the following essay which I wrote during my film studies course on the subject of the male gaze and other gender issues. I offer it now for your entertainment. This was written early on in the year before I'd realised that there are certain standard texts in film studies and that I might receive more than 60% if I'd chosen something other than John Hughes's The Breakfast Club.

The wikipedia has a huge long article on The Gaze, but briefly in film studies terms, it describes the moment when a fine lookin' man or woman appears and the director cuts to a reaction shot, the reaction shot suggesting the audience on the one hand the proper emotional response to this angel in human form but on the other how we react to their reaction says a lot about their character and us. Mulvey's essay (available here) concentrated on the male gaze with reference to Hitchcock's Vertigo (that sort of thing).

Select a short scene from a film and analyse how gender and sexuality are portrayed …


The Breakfast Club (1985) is amongst a sequence of films written and sometimes directed by John Hughes exploring the subject of teen angst and a crisis of identity. It is Saturday morning detention in a high school for five students, characterised by an opening voiceover as ‘a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal’. The film takes place over an eight hour period largely spent in the library as the students argue, then slowly bond over common ground, realising that they are all the same in their own ways.

The narrative culminates in a pygmalionesque moment during which Claire (the princess) takes tomboy Allison (the basket case) to one-side, ties her hair back, applies different make up and then sends her out again to be greeted by first Brian (the brain) and Andrew (the athlete). She becomes the subject of their gaze. Although the scene is inter cut with an intimate moment between Claire and Bender (the criminal) in a closet, this essay will concentrate on demonstrating how the audience’s reaction to the reveal is governed by the gaze, the implications of Allison’s transformation and how masculinity is portrayed through Andrew and Brian.

After a brief shot of Brian writing a detention essay, the frame focuses on Andrew’s reaction to the ‘new’ Allison and because the spectator sees her through his point of view during the final reveal, their surprise is heightened. The scene initially conforms completely to Laura Mulvey’s explanation of the gaze: ‘The male is the active “bearer of the look,” where the female in the passive object of the look.’ (Walker, 1981:83) ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active male and passive/female.’ (Mulvey, 1975:11)

The reveal does not initially hold on Allison’s form.   Andrew looks upwards, almost in slow motion. There is a brief shot of a nervous Allison, there is a quick cut back to Andrew, before returning to Allison tentatively walking forward. The fill light which has pervaded the film, which had once disappeared into the character’s dark clothes and hair, now illuminates her white blouse and angelic face, making her form leap out of the frame. The spectator’s point of view is split; they are in the position of both gazing upon Allison and sympathising with her nerves at how others will react to her change. They are diverted because she is not passive and has an active story of her own.

Jonathan Bernstein argues that the emergence of the feminine Allison is problematic. She becomes ‘just another simpering, pretty high school girl with the hots for a jock’ were once ‘she was a unique and unnerving character’ (Bernstein, 1997: 67), although evidence would point to the effect being temporary. In the closing moments of the film, when Andrew rewards her change of look with a kiss, she rips the team badge from his shirt indicating that her rebelliousness is still in force. Mary Anne Doane would characterise this as a state in which ‘womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed’ (Doane, 1991: 765).

In previous scenes, Allison would work hard to turn herself the centre of attention, making loud noises and telling wild stories about her sexual encounters which she would later laugh off saying ‘I'm not a nymphomaniac...I'm a compulsive liar…’ Here, she is unsure of the power her new femininity has, even asking Andrew if it is a ‘good or bad’ thing when he remarks that he can see her face. When he says it is good, she smiles broadly – she has simply found another, more visual away of keep the attention of others. As Shary indicates Allison ‘diminishes her previous rebel status and (provides) simply another false façade behind which she can hide her anxieties’ (Shary, 2002: 52).

The scene also provides interesting contrasts in the presentation of masculinity. Andrew is shown initially, with muscles taut, waiting for action. When Allison enters he leaps off the wooden handrail he’s been sitting on and steps forward in what appears to be another example of the character asserting his manliness, something which happens throughout the film, generally against the other alpha-male, Bender.

During the film he has taken some time to understand Allison and why she seems to close herself off from everyone, emotionally, perhaps because he feels himself in his jock status doing the same. ‘Andy is the jock as conflicted masculinity, determined to maintain his physical power but desiring to explore his more emotional – if not intellectual – dimensions.’ (Shary, 2002: 73) Somehow the presence of Allison, especially in this scene, allows him to be softer. He actually appears smaller in the frame and when commenting that he can see her face, he gestures around his chin in a way which is also quite feminine.

Brian, by contrast, largely accepts his less masculine status in the group. He ‘is indeed ostracized, ridiculed, physically and socially inept, and desexualised, but his yearning for a transformation from his nerd status to a more acceptable or dramatic personality is minimal.’ (Shary, 2002: 35) As the other male presenting the gaze in the scene, his eyes only fix on Allison long enough to gape and offer her his recognition before returning to the essay. He is not standing. He is shot from above, from her point of view, beneath her, placing him in a less prominent masculine position. The final shot of the scenes sees him finish is writing. He punches himself in the arm celebrating his success but it seems to be an almost ironic gesture – when Brian does try and assert his masculinity it is largely in a knowing way.

In the closing moments of the film a version of the opening voiceover is repeated, but this time, each character reads their own description and the implication has changed. ‘What we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal’ In effect they have discovered that they each share those traits both masculine and feminine and this will effect their near future to varying degrees.

Bibliography:

Bernstein, Jonathan. 1997. Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York.

Doane, Mary Anne. 1991. Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator. In. Film theory and criticism : introductory readings. 5th ed. 1999. Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Mulvey, Laura. 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Screen 16, 3:6-18

Shary, Timothy. 2002. Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema. University of Texas Press, Texas.

Walker, Janet. 1981. Psychoanalysis and Feminist Film Theory: The Problem of Sexual Difference and Identity. In. Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Edited by Diane Carson et al. 1994. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.

Filmography:

The Breakfast Club. 1985. Production: Universal Studios. Directed by John Hughes.

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