The Breakfast Club: Psychoanalytic Criticisms

An individual’s perception of a movie is heavily influenced by outside sources, which lends the individual preconceived notions of what to expect. This limits the overall meaning of the film and may portray the picture in a way that is not immediately conspicuous. When applying a critical approach or “lens” to the work, a different meaning is created, which allows the audience to view it in a different way. This not only broadens the meaning of the film but allows the audience to create a meaning for themselves, making each movie unique to the individual viewer. By adding a psychoanalytic lens to a film, each of the character’s actions and decisions directly matches a certain component of the Freudian mind due to their repressed emotions and contrasting backgrounds, allowing the viewer to find an unconventional meaning to the film when looking at the characters as respective segments of a collective conscience. When applying psychoanalytic criticisms to The Breakfast Club, a reflection of the Freudian mind is evident through the integration of the id, ego, and superego into the respective characters of John Bender, Brian Johnson, and Andy Clark, creating a new meaning for the film.

To begin with, the id is the lowest level of the Freudian mind, consisting of animal-like features. The id is where human desire lies and it will do anything to reach the end goal, regardless of the consequences. In the film, John Bender, or “The Criminal,” represents the id of the shared conscience. At the beginning of the film, the aura that surrounds Bender is a result of the combination of his body language and the perception that Mr. Vernon has of him, immediately giving viewers a nefarious undertone. Bender’s comments add to this perception, often invoking annoyed responses from his fellow peers and his principal. Bender often incorporates personal or embarrassing elements into his snide comments to arouse emotions from his classmates, which is the main reason why he is so disliked. As soon as Mr. Vernon leaves the room, Bender announces, “Why don’t you close the door and we’ll get the prom queen impregnated” (The Breakfast Club, 10:54).

Starting the film with this tone brings forward Bender’s animalistic behavior. This comment has a strong sexual message, displaying the obvious attraction to Claire Standish. The id is based on the pleasure principle, which requires every impulse to be satisfied as soon as possible. In regard to the pleasure principle, Zachary Tavlin states, “Freud posits that obedience to the pleasure principle becomes untenable in a reality-space where pleasures themselves (or those things that satisfy our desires, which for Freud must be material and not merely hallucinatory or phantasmatic) are scarce” (Tavlin 64). In connection with Talvin, Bender’s pleasures were not scarce enough, allowing the id to continue to take control. The impulses of Claire and his own repressed feelings are so strong and prevalent that it allows Bender’s action as the id to continue. The id also exists in the unconscious part of the mind, meaning the individual can’t control the impulses. This aligns with Bender’s actions, as he constantly says what he wants throughout the entire film with no regard for the people around him. Later, Bender engages in an argument with Mr. Vernon and every time Bender responds, an additional Saturday of detention is awarded by Mr. Vernon. The argument begins with Bender saying, “Eat my shorts” (The Breakfast Club, 19:14).

Bender continually fires back, not letting Mr. Vernon speak and when asked if he was done talking, responds by saying, “Not even close, bud” (The Breakfast Club, 19:57). Bender’s aggravated personality is linked to the repressed feelings of his family life. Bender often makes fun of others for having an easier family life than he does and is in a constant power struggle with Mr. Vernon, whose actions towards Bender are cruel and excessive. Both Bender’s father and Mr. Vernon are the most prominent men in his life and are extremely abusive. Neither one acts as a good role model, creating anger and hatred in Bender towards his male role models. These repressed feeling exert themselves most prominently through the id, which has no regard for consequences; this is shown in Bender’s repeated behavior. With Bender’s aggravated behavior and comments including sexual undertones, the correlation between Bender and the id is very strong.

The ego, also known as the “gatekeeper,” is the next level of the Freudian conscience. The ego negotiates with the id in order to get what it wants by using realistic strategy. The ego does this by existing in the real world, which allows it to utilize realistic strategy, but its downfall is that it has no concept of right or wrong. The character that represents the ego is Brian Johnson, also known as “The Brain.” Johnson often enters the conversation to redirect it, but he does so with little effectiveness. At the beginning of the film, Johnson repeatedly tries to follow Mr. Vernon’s rules and to enforce them by saying, “Excuse me, fellas, I think we should just write our papers” (The Breakfast Club, 11:17).

As the film goes on, he repeatedly tries to control Bender but with no success, because deep down, Johnson also doesn’t want to listen to Mr.Vernon. This is the aspect of the ego that best fits Johnson’s character. The ego contains the reality principle, meaning the ego also craves pleasure but constructs a realistic plan in order to acquire pleasure. Johnson consistently is concerned with what is happening and how it is happening but continues to succumb to other characters because the risk is less than the reward, satisfying the ego. Later, Bender decides to sneak out of the library to obtain marijuana from his locker to smoke in the library, bringing the rest of the group with him. Johnson states, “What’s the point of going to Bender’s locker…this is so stupid” (The Breakfast Club, 44:30). While Johnson actively says that what they’re doing is wrong, he still goes along with it, showcasing his inability to do what is right. This part of the ego prevails in Johnson’s behavior throughout the rest of the film.

Once returning to the library, Johnson smokes with the rest of his peers, exemplifying his inability to do what is right or wrong. In the past, he would have never taken part in an activity like smoking but does so anyway. Johnson does show positive signs as the ego by attempting to guide the group later in the film, posing the question, “Are we still going to be friends on Monday?” (The Breakfast Club, 1:20:33). Many of the other characters are honest and say that they would not pay attention to the others if they saw them in school. Johnson counters the other characters saying, “I wouldn’t do that…I wouldn’t and will not” (The Breakfast Club, 1:22:58). During this scenario, the ego is being heavily influenced by the superego.

Brian feels as if, collectively as a group, they have become close and wants to continue to be friends in school. Coming from a different background where his home life is easy, he has always been accepted by his parents because of his success in school. This, paired with his low status in the school’s hierarchy, makes the others view Brian as someone they would generally choose to stay away from. On the other hand, Brian’s stable home life and disregard for social status do not allow him to see this situation as the others do. This is where the blindness of the ego and its inability to sense right and wrong, in the eyes of his peers, can be seen in a positive way. Brian doesn’t care about these superficial aspects of his own life, which fosters his immediate acceptance of others and yearning for acceptance from others. In literal terms, Brian physically acts as a gatekeeper who is willing to accept others regardless of their immediate impression, furthering Brian’s role as the ego of the Freudian mind.

Finally, the superego is the last layer of the Freudian mind with its main purpose to keep us in check. Also known as “The Judge,” the superego is our active conscience that contains our moral compass. This moral compass comes from our parents who teach us lessons when we are young, forming our moral compass. As we get older, the superego shifts and molds based on experiences we’ve had and how they make us feel. As new urges from our id are brought to the superego, the superego completely suppresses these sudden urges. Furthermore, the superego influences the ego to act morally instead of realistically, asserting its authority over the lower levels of the Freudian mind. On top of this, J. David Velleman adds, “Freud prefers to think of moral authority as vested, not in a particular vocabulary of self-criticism, but rather in a particular self-critical faculty. This inner faculty is the superego…” (Velleman 533).

In the film, Andy Clark best represents the superego because of his actions. Also known as “The Athlete”, Andy immediately creates a sense of dominance around his character. Simple being the most physically strong and male, Andy repeatedly threatens the rest of his peers in an attempt to initially keep them in line saying “If I lose my temper, you’re totaled man” (The Breakfast Club, 10:58). This is when Andy first begins to align with the characteristics of the superego because he is already acting as the leader who regulates the actions of others during this day-long detention. Andy specifically oversees the actions of others by using physical threats to keep them from doing or saying something, which directly stems from his family background and repressed feelings. Andy’s father is more concerned with him not losing his full-ride scholarship and winning than he is with his son’s morals and character, which strongly affects Andy. Therefore, Andy suppresses these emotional urges by keeping others in line, also suppressing their actions. While continuing to observe his other peers actions, later in the film Andy explains to everyone the real reason why he’s in detention. Andy confesses to taping Larry’s legs together, a fellow wrestling teammate, and then proceeded to remove the tape which also removed a lot of hair from his legs.

After explaining this to the rest of his peers, Andy cries out, “How do you apologize for something like that?” (The Breakfast Club, 1:13:01). The superego contains our moral compass and, as a result, is also responsible for the punishments and sense of guilt that is felt when this moral compass is broken. Andy breaks down when reconciling what happened that day and, evidently, has been thinking about the situation for a long time. He then goes on to say, “All I could think about was Larry and his father and Larry having to go home and explain what happened to him and the humiliation he felt” (The Breakfast Club, 1:13:10). This directly aligns with the ideal self phenomenon, which is the element of the superego which contains one’s perception of how others should be treated. Andy’s guilt is a result of the ideal self because he views his actions as unjust, which does not fit his moral compass. This comes from his father who is constantly pushing Andy to focus on wrestling and, more importantly, winning. His father sets a high standard for Andy, making Andy’s ideal self’s standard very high, resulting in many aspects of his being seen as failures. The superego, including the ideal self, is heavily influenced by the values of parents and childhood experiences, which explains why Andy feels and acts this way. Without the constant pressure from Andy’s father, Andy’s moral compass and actions would be extremely different.

Applying a psychoanalytical lens to a film allows the audience to create a new, unique meaning for the work. When applying this lens to The Breakfast Club, the characters of John Bender, Brian Johnson, and Andy Clark take on the roles of the id, ego, and superego. By taking on these respective roles, the audience now views each character as a part of a collective conscience, constantly in a power struggle between one another trying to satisfy their portion of the Freudian mind. Creating this meaning for the film adds another layer to the overall meaning in which the audience has access to the reasoning behind a character’s actions and justifies these actions to fit their role in a collective conscience. Without the use of these psychoanalytic criticisms, this new meaning for the film would have been left uncovered, leaving the audience with the clich?©, coming-of-age theme. ?

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