The Ethnography of Communication in Hughes' The Breakfast Club

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High school has long been a pivotal point for the development of youth growing up in American culture. As children transition into adulthood over the course of those four years, they begin to make decisions for themselves and gain the faculty to define who they will be as individuals going forward. This period of self-definition involves the formation of distinct social groups, subcultures within the larger high school community, that allow students to form ties with certain people with whom they have perceived similarities while alienating others. The very great divides that are created, based on how members of these groups see and conduct themselves, translate into barriers to mutual understanding and communication between members of these groups – even the very use of the English language among these groups can vary greatly. Dialogue in The Breakfast Club depicts these very real divides that exist among high school social groups and how these differences impact communication between students, based on their group affiliation. Through the discourse between its five characters, the film also shows how certain communicative devices can be used to break down barriers and generate mutual understanding between members of disparate communities.

The Breakfast Club takes place over the course of a single Saturday and centers on five students who have been placed in detention for the day. They each have different backgrounds, different reasons for being there, and very different roles in the high school’s social ecosystem. They are monitored by a faculty member, Mr. Vernon, who is portrayed as an angry adult who distinctly dislikes the students he interacts with. Vernon is a sort of common enemy for the five students who appear to have little else in common, but also leaves them alone for much of the day. During this time, the students argue and make jabs at each other (with one, John Bender, clearly the most outgoing and antagonistic) and run through the halls in attempt to obtain and smoke marijuana that one of them has in this locker, all the while eluding Vernon. They progressively get to know each other and open up to one another over the course of the day. The communicative event that is focused upon here is a scene that occurs near the film’s conclusion and sees the group overcoming some final barriers to achieving mutual understanding and a sort of friendship among each other.

Each of the five characters included in the communicative event studied embody a separate common high school stereotype – or in other words, each is a member of a distinct high school social group or crowd – “social-type labels attached to students who act the same way or do the same things” (Strouse 1999:37). These groups are commonly discussed in literature and studies pertaining to the social environment of high school students. To provide context for discussion of their communication, it is necessary to briefly describe each character and the social sphere they inhabit. Two of the five, Andrew Clark and Claire Standish, inhabit what is considered to be the highest tier of high school social activity, as members of the popular crowd that comprises students like “preppies, trendies, and jocks” who “participate in the most valued school activities” and are the “most visible and popular groups” (Kinney 1999:21). Andrew represents the ‘jock’ stereotype, and his life’s emphasis on athletic performance plays greatly into the plot and conversation throughout The Breakfast Club. Claire appears to be a preppy student-leader archetype and a very popular member of the school’s community. Students in these two roles, and generally in this high-status popular crowd, tend to come from middle- and upper middle-class families (ibid.:24). This is reflected in the dress and mannerisms of these two characters in relation to the others. Andrew and Claire’s relatively higher status is reflected in their obvious discomfort at being forced to spend a day in detention in such close proximity to these lower-status individuals and the initial disdain they display towards the other students. Both being members of the same popular crowd, Andrew and Claire are better acquainted with each other than are the others and initially band together against Bender’s teasing.

The three other characters are notably on a lower social tier, but also fill very different roles within the high school ecosystem. Brian Johnson very clearly represents a ‘nerd,’ a group defined as “students who focus on their academic pursuits and [are] perceived as lacking social skills” (Kinney 1999:24). They are a “stigmatized social category who are stereotypically cast as intellectual overachievers and social underachievers” (Bucholtz 2001:88). The applicability of this title is evident in his focus on grades that comes up regularly throughout the film, the difference in interests between himself and the others, and his comparative respect for Mr. Vernon’s authority and overall social reservedness in the film’s beginning sequences. The stigmatization of nerds in the high school social structure portrayed in the film is consistently made evident in the dialogue between the characters and it is clear that Andrew and Claire represent a higher social stratum. John Bender and Allison Reynolds are similar to each other in their general disengagement from normal school activities: not participating heavily in academics, sports, or general popularity and involvement. However, they approach this in different ways. Allison is entirely silent and disengaged from the other students as the film begins, speaking only in squeals and appearing somewhat psychopathic. Her lack of friends is repeatedly referenced and she can be included in a group of “nobodies... who are marginal to all [other] orientations” (Pugh 1999:52). John Bender is much more outgoing and clearly has social ties, but does not apply himself in the more societally acceptable manner adopted by Andrew, Claire, and Brian. He is part of a “delinquent subculture [which] rebel[s] against everything for which the school stands” (ibid.:52). More specifically, he can be categorized according to the “headbanger” stereotype mentioned by Kinney - Bender directly exhibits many characteristics of this group throughout the film, including “frequently listening to heavy metal music, [growing] their hair long, [wearing] black leather jackets, [... and] coming to school under the influence of illegal drugs” (1999:25). Most people in this group are from lower class and working-class families (ibid.:25), as is Bender.

The characters’ differential use of language and varying speech patterns evidence and even exacerbate the cultural divides between them. Several studies, conducted mostly by Labov, have shown the variation in linguistic features such as pronunciation and word choice among members of different socioeconomic classes (Bonvillain 2013: 209). This concept can also be applied to smaller social networks, which will show significant impact on linguistic use as well, even in the face of overarching societal trends (ibid.: 209). On smaller scale, this holds true in the high school community depicted in The Breakfast Club. Several of the characters clearly demonstrate linguistic features that differ from the others based on their own backgrounds and the social networks they are part of. Perhaps most notable in this respect is John Bender. In his speech, there are frequent deletions of final consonants, especially the lack of postvocalic /-r/ pronunciation:

“JB: [And as far as bein’ concerned] about what’s gonna happen when you and I walk down the hallways at school, you can FORGET IT! Cause it’s NEVER GONNA HAPPEN! Just bury ya head in the sand, and wait for ya ****in’ prom!” (Hughes 1985)

Here, “biɪŋ” becomes “biɪn,” and “jɔr” becomes “jɑ,” These pronunciations are clearly in contrast to the more standard English largely spoken by the other characters. The your/ya change is representative of the nonstandard postvocalic /-r/ pronunciation studied by William Labov in 1966 (Bonvillain 2013: 209). Labov’s study correlated this type of pronunciation with lower socioeconomic status (ibid.:209). As already established, Bender, and other students who share his affiliation with the “headbanger” high school social crowd, are more likely from lower-class families than members of the more popular crowd. It is reasonable to conclude then, that Bender’s upbringing in a comparatively lower class influences his linguistic usage as well as his personality as a whole. Varenne corroborates this observation, concluding through observations of an American high school that “adolescents arranged themselves following the way their parents were arranged in the way their parents were arranged in the organization of the community” (1974:9). In fact, class differences come into play directly in the discourse held among the students and are clearly a barrier to mutual understanding, validating the conclusions drawn from their linguistic contrast.

“JB: I bet those are a Christmas gift. Right? You know what I got for Christmas this year, it was a banner-****in’-year at the ol’ Bender family. I got a carton of cigarettes! The old man grabbed be an he said ‘HEY! SMOKE UP, JOHNNY.’” (Hughes 1985)

Bender directly confronts Claire for her sheltered and comfortable upbringing and shares details regarding one of the main issues in his own life – his parents. Elements characteristic of Bender’s rough speech are again demonstrated, and his profuse use of profanity further points to his unrefinedness and lower status.

Brian’s speech patterns are also distinctive of his social group. First, he shows distinctly reduced self-confidence as compared to students like Andrew and Claire who are members of the popular crowd. This is to be expected, as Strouse notes a correlation between self-esteem levels and social crowd, especially noting a decrease when comparing jocks and nerds (1999:37). Brian’s lower self-confidence is reflected in his relative reservedness as well as in his stuttering speech that is filled with paralanguage such as “um” and “y’know.” This type of speech pattern can be categorized as evidence of “low communicative competence” (Blood 2004:69), falling in line with the reduced social skills that Kinney has pointed out are characteristic of nerds. Blood describes students with communicative competence issues as less “popular” and less likely to be named “leaders” (2004:71).

“BJ: Um-y’know but the light didn’t go on. I got an F on it. I’ve never gotten an F in my life. When I signed up for the course y’know, I mean, y’know I thought I was playin’ it real smart.” (Hughes 1985)

This nerd social group is also noted for its use of “superstandard English” with a “lack of current slang and greater use of lexical formality and prescriptively standard grammar” (Bucholtz 2001:88). This is basically a form of spoken English that is more rigorously correct and avoids slang and sentence constructions that would be considered more casual or ‘cooler.’ Brian’s speech appears to evidence this, by and large. He refrains from using profanity until a highly emotional portion of the scene and generally applies less slang and an elevated vocabulary as compared to the other speakers. These various differences in speech help to illustrate and explain the intrinsic differences between the personalities of each character and show that these differences are rooted in the various high school subcultures of which they are a part. And further, more broad socioeconomic differences based on their families’ position in society have an impact upon the personas each student ends up adopting for themselves in high school.

When taking an action that can potentially be seen as an affront to another person, individuals may take measures to minimize its effect. The extent to which this is done depends largely on their relative social positions: interactional qualities such as tact, modesty, generosity, and sympathy may be expected of people of different social categories to varying degrees (Bonvillain 2013:116). Differences along these lines may be expected among the students in the communication analyzed based on their established class disparities. However, the growing ties between the five in this group allow for much more frank speech than would typically be expected. Brown and Levinson defined the concept of “face” in their studies regarding politeness - face-wants include an individual’s desire to be approved of or to be unimpeded in their own actions, and a face-threatening act is an action committed by another individual that infringes upon on these face-wants (ibid.:116). Assuredly, each character participating in the conversation has a unique set of face-wants and the frank conversation that occurs could easily be considered an affront to these.

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“BJ: Um... I was just thinkin’ ... I know it’s kind of a weird time. But uh-I uh-was just wonderin’ um-uh. What is gonna happen to us on Monday? When we’re all together again. I mean I consider you guys my friends ... I’m not wrong am I?

AC: No.” (Hughes 1985)

Brian is here requesting a sort of affirmation of friendship from his detention-mates and prefaces it with a negative politeness strategy that attempts to mitigate his imposture on the others thorough a demonstration of his restraint (Bonvillain 2013:116). Due to his lower social status, this sort of mitigation would be expected. However, Andrew’s response is unexpected. The honest response, based on prior knowledge about their social structure as well as Claire’s following comment is that Andrew believes they cannot be friends going forward:

“CS: Oh be honest Andy. If Brian came walking up to you in the hall on Monday, what would you do? I mean picture this, you’re there with all the sports ... [...] I know exactly what you’d do. You’d say hi to him and when he left you’d cut him up so all your friends wouldn’t think that you really liked him.” (Hughes 1985)

However, rather than providing a response that threatens Brian’s positive face, or desire to be approved of (Bonvillain 2013:116), he simply does chooses to not do the face-threatening action at all. This demonstrates a reversal of the roles established by the two’s relative social standing and shows that the group is approaching a state in which they view one another as equals. In another demonstration of the equal footing the group has arrived at, Brian criticized Claire, baldly and explicitly threatening her positive face:

“CS: ... Your friends wouldn’t mind because they look up to us.

BJ: (Basically crying) You’re so conceited Claire. You’re so concei-. You’re so like full of yourself. Why are you like that?” (Hughes 1985)

This is a comment that a “nerd” would not have the standing to baldly make to a member of the higher-status popular crowd were it not for the frankness of speech and relationships built throughout the film.

The characters clearly build a level of closeness and mutual respect for each other over the course of the film that was nonexistent when they first met. One of the main means through which this is accomplished is the sharing of personal narratives. Personal narratives “recount events that are meaningful to the speaker’s life and that are ‘emotionally and socially evaluated and so transformed from raw experience’” (Bonvillain 2013:90). Through such narratives, the five characters, in spite of their disparate backgrounds, are able to relate to the daily concerns and struggles of each other’s lives and realize they are not so different after all. Over the film’s duration, each character shares at least one describing how they wound up in Saturday detention and/or other struggles they face in their respective lives. Central to the analyzed scene is Brian’s description of a personal failure in shop class that has the potential to ruin his perfect grade point average and also precipitates actions he takes to wind up in detention. Narratives have the capacity to “enhance relationships between tellers and audience” and can reveal “events, emotions, attitudes, and themes important to the narrator and [...] the audience” (ibid.: 90). Based on the established extreme emphasis placed on grades and scholastic achievement by Brian and students similar to him, it is clear that such an event would be of marked significance to him, however the four others, with much less investment in their academics, cannot truly relate to the event itself. What they can relate to, however, are the genuine emotions that Brian is able to convey through his telling of the story. This type of narrative telling can uniquely “invite intimacy, empathy, and understanding” (ibid.:90) and allows the characters to bridge their gaps in understanding through the realization that every single one of them has their own set of struggles, worries, and insecurities – they are all people, and not so different after all. For a successful narrative telling, audience members must be engaged and signal their attentiveness to encourage the narrator (ibid.:98). The characters increasingly demonstrate concern for each others’ stories throughout the film and can express their attentiveness through vocalizations such as “hmm,” “yeah,” and “really,” or by asking questions to prompt further elaboration (ibid.:98), as Andrew does to help bring forth the completion of Brian’s story:

“BJ: [...] I’m here. Because Mr. Ryan found a gun in m’locker.

AC: Why’d you have a gun in your locker?

BJ: I tried ... (Wipes tears) Couldn’t pull the ****in’ -- trunk a-a-and the light’s supposed to go on. Didn’t go on, I mean...

AC: What’s the gun for, Brian?” (Hughes 1985)

This further demonstrates the mutual concern the characters have for one another and their desire to understand each other’s struggles – even for the “jock” and “nerd” who have entirely different primary concerns in their high school lives.

Analysis of The Breakfast Club provides substantial insights into the cultural backdrop of a high school social setting and the various well-documented social divides and stratification that are prevalent in high schools. Communication against this backdrop serves dual functions of accentuating various divides between the characters and also for allowing them to surmount these barriers to understand and empathize with each other on a very human level. Speech patterns are often distinct to certain groups and can impair communication or at least make differences more apparent, and the level to which speakers consider politeness and face is also based on their relative social standing. Narrative is an important device used throughout The Breakfast Club to build the friendship that the students end the film having achieved.

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