The Breakfast Club: Systems Theory

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions. As a brain, athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? (Hughes, 1985)” The opening scene, the very first line, students of Shermer High School are categorized and stereotyped. A high school is a system, the objects being the students and administrators, and their characteristics as the attributes. In the famous film, The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), we find consecutive illustrations on how we as humans, in this case teenagers, operate as a “system.” The system can be applied to the concept of communication; systems theory. This theory describes the need for humans to create systems within their environment to explain, predict, and make connections amongst each other (Lang, 2014). In the classic film, The Breakfast Club, the concepts of systems theory are exemplified and analyzed through the eyes and actions of the students of Shermer High School.

The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) is popular film from the 1980s based off on the concept of teenage stereotyping and concentrated on the stigma of mental illness and bullying. The characters in the film are broken down into categories based on their looks, interests, attitudes and opinions of others. The seemingly incompatible teenagers come together one Saturday morning to spend a day in detention. In the beginning of the movie, detention was the only thing they shared in common. However, by the end of the movie the students realize they have more in common than they thought, and they actually transcend these stereotypes. The most significant similarity they share is the fact none of them want to turn out like their parents: neither degrading or abusive, manipulative or careless.

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The characters in the film are presented as caricatures; a “brain,” an “athlete,” a “princess,” a “basket case,” and a “criminal.” John Bender, the so-called “criminal” of the film, got himself in detention for his aggressive, disrespectful attitude. He suffers domestic abuse from his father and shows the others a cigar burn he has on his arm signifying the toxic relationship they share. Although he hides his vulnerability by putting on a tough disguise, relentlessly stirring arguments with the other students and instigating the supervisor without fear. Andrew Clarke is a wrestler on a full ride to college. His father tells him he can’t be a loser because he “doesn’t tolerate those in the family (Hughes, 1985).”

Andrew reveals later in the film he strongly dislikes wrestling, and he wishes his knee would blow out so he wouldn’t have to compete in anymore matches. At the end of the film Andrew tells the group his father was the one who prompted him to assault the boy in the locker room, which as a result put him in detention. Allison Reynolds is known as the “basket case.” A basket case is defined “as a person or thing regarded as useless or unable to cope (, LLC, 2019).” Allison goes to detention simply because she had nothing better to do. She admits in the film that her home life is unsatisfying, as her parents ignore her putting her in a state of loneliness. Claire Standish is one of the popular girls at Shermer High School aka the “princess.” She is arrogant about her image, believing everyone is obsessed with her, when in reality the others don’t actually look at her in the way she thinks.

In the opening scene, Claire’s father reveals that she was put in detention because she skipped class to go shopping, which then after her father tells her that he’ll “make it up to her” (Hughes, 1985). Claire’s divorced parents use her to get back at one another, her father being rich and passive with her actions, while her mother is a drunk and chiding. Lastly, the “brain” is Brian Johnson, a typical high school nerd. Brian is a straight A student who he is involved in many academic clubs such as math club and physics club. He is so pressured to do well in school by his parents that when he receives a failing grade in a class, he brings a gun to school then ends up getting a detention when it accidentally goes off in his locker. In the end, after bickering and tearing each other, the students find each of them are not what the stereotypes and rumors cut them out to be. The system is a phony, and they “were brainwashed” (Hughes,1985).

The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), demonstrates the concept of systems theory through a high school environment. A pioneer in the field, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, defines general systems theory as “the formulation and derivation of those principles which are valid for ‘systems’ in general” (Watzlawick, 1967, p. 119). According to Amy Lang, professor in the department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, in regard to communication, the theory conceptualizes communication as a dynamic system where two or more individuals interact over time to define their relationship with one another based off of previous core human beliefs and experiences.

The type of person, the time spent interacting, the location of the communicants, and the contents of the interaction all make up this dynamic system (Lang, 2014, p. 60). A system is made up of objects that are ultimately specified by their attributes. In a human-focused communication system, the objects are individuals and their ways of communicating are their attributes which define them. There are several parts of a system, one being openness. Openness is the degree to which a system interacts with its environment, whether it be exchanging information, energies or materials (Watzlawick, 1967, p. 122). There is no such thing as a “closed system,” because every living thing interacts with its environment to some level. Another characteristic is wholeness, or the need to look at how the system’s component(s) work with its other component(s).

Two elements of this part include nonsummativity and interdependency. Nonsummativity states that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Interdependency is where a system is described as “an inseparable whole,” stating that a change in one part will cause a change in all of them and in the total system (Watzlawick, 1967, p. 125). A response to stimuli is considered feedback, where the reaction can be either positive or negative that either encourages or discourages a behavior (Watzlawick, 1967, p. 122-125) . Multifinality and equifinality are two types of developmental paths. The constructs describe the nature of development through one’s own experiences. The paths by shaping future behavior and explain past pathways. (Amly & Cicchetti, 2018, p. 2). All of these characteristics can be applied to the high school system in, The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985).

In the very beginning of the movie, the line “a brain, athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” immediately the system of a high school (Hughes, 1985). The high school is an open system, each student attempts to move towards the closed systems by categorizing and convincing themselves none of them could be friends because of how different their attributes are. The attributes each character exhibits are their communication behaviors which further categorizes them in how the narrator in the beginning stereotypes them to be. The “brain” speaks intellectually and expresses his knowledge on subjects without realizing it. The “princess” is egotistical in her behavior. After smoking John’s marijuana, she expresses how popular she is and how everyone in school “loves” her. Andrew, the athlete in the scenario, holds his stance as being a tough, champion-winning wrestler. He defends Claire in bickering arguments with Bender and even tells him “if you disappeared forever it wouldn’t make any difference. You may as well not even exist at this school” (Hughes, 1985).

He is fearless with his words, and attacks Bender with multiple threats. Allison is quiet and communicates non-verbally for the entire beginning of the movie, thus receiving the title “basket case.” Then John Bender, the criminal, is both physically and verbally aggressive. The first thing he does when he enters detention is force Brian to move seats, sits down in the same chair, then prop his feet up. He is careless about what the others think of him and the fact he is in detention. The categories go even further to when they separate each other by which clubs and activities each are involved in. This separates them into organizations such as physics club, student council, and the wrestling team. All of these communication behaviors are what is expected from them and their stereotypes, even if it isn’t how they actually are, it follows the rules of the system.

The students make up Shermer High School, if they did not exist, the high school would not either. This exemplifies wholeness. Going further into the film as a component of wholeness, we see an example of nonsummativity. In this scene Bender takes a screw out of the door that gives the administrator, Mr. Vernon, visual access to the students. When the door closes, the teacher immediately attacks Bender. While Bender is denying it, the rest of the students jump in and defend him. In the end, Mr. Vernon leaves Bender alone and allows the door to be shut. The scene demonstrates nonsummativity because Bender would have not convinced Mr. Vernon he didn’t do it, but because the others stuck up for him Mr. Vernon left him alone.

Also, interdependency, a component of wholeness, is represented. Towards the end of the film, Brian asks the others what will happen after that day in detention; will the students all speak to each other? Or will they return to their segregated cliques and act like the day never happened? John Bender then points out to him that if he were to walk up to one of them at school the next day he wouldn’t be welcomed. This leads to an argument amongst the group where they continue a pattern of name-calling and criticizing. Brian ends up crying in the end, admitting that he was in detention because he had a gun in his locker, admitting his plan to commit suicide. He thought of forming new friendships with the others began to shed a light in his life, where it was previously clouded by high-expectations and pressure from his parents. However, when his hopes were destroyed by the degrading answers and comments of the others, he was sad.

Feedback is yet another part of a systems theory that is demonstrated in the film, The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985). Negative feedback encourages the end of a behavior. In the beginning of the movie, when all the students are entering the detention room one-by-one, Bender begins to bicker at Andrew and Claire. He calls Claire names like “Cherry” and teases the two asking if they’re in a relationship. Andrew begins to threaten Bender, so Claire advises Andrew to ignore what he’s saying because the only reason he’s doing it is to get a “rise out of you” (Hughes, 1985). The silence Claire and Andrew give Bender after his comments is negative feedback because it is encouraging the end of his distasteful behavior. Flipping the perspective, the threats and name-calling Bender receives from Andrew and Claire is positive feedback on his end. Bender wants this type of reaction, which is why he continuously instigates it. Another example of positive feedback is the scene where Mr. Vernon gives Bender multiple detentions. While the two are in one of their many arguments, Mr. Vernon begins to dish out Bender more Saturday detentions every time he answers with a bad attitude. Bender is encouraging this behavior by disrespecting him and giving him inappropriate attitude, when the correct behavior was to not speak back at all.

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Lastly, the film efficiently exemplifies equifinality. The most significant entity the students all realize they share in the end is the fact none of them want to end up like their parents. This is the “same ends” element in equifinality. Brian doesn’t want to be like his parents because they apply too much pressure on him for getting good grades. Andrew hates how his dad lives through him; he forces him to wrestle and do bad things to assert dominance over the others in school. Allison doesn’t receive any attention from her parents, leaving her feeling unloved and invisible. Claire despises how her parents use her to get back at each other in their divorce, and Bender is domestically abused and neglected. All by different means, but in the end, all come to the same conclusion.

We as humans strive for systems to organize our lives by using them to predict the future and explain the past. The popular 80s film, The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) efficiently demonstrates the elements of system in a high school setting. The parts analyzed includes: feedback, openness, wholeness, interdependency, nonsummativity, and equifinality. In Shermer High School, the system is made up of students who separate themselves into closed categories based off their communication behaviors and characteristics. These include the stereotypical categories of a “brain”, a “princess,” a “basket case,” an “athlete,” and a “criminal.” The communication-centered systems theory analyzed in the film exemplifies how communication influences the cognitive, perceptual, and motivational systems of individuals (Lang, 2014, p. 60). Although the film is decades old, the high school hierarchy and callous stereotyping is still as evident in today’s society. As the characters spend more time together, they realize that they transcend these stereotypes and recognize that they have much more in common as than they once thought, further dismantling the system they once formed.

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The Breakfast Club: Systems Theory. (2021, Mar 27). Retrieved from