Disclaimer: If you haven’t seen the movie the above quote is from, I wouldn’t suggest reading this unless you’re okay with spoilers.
So I watched The Breakfast Club for the second time in my life the other night with a couple of friends, both of whom until that point were Breakfast Club virgins. To be honest, I was a little bit hesitant to show them. It’s one of those movies that I’m weirdly protective of because my love for it is so strong and I’m afraid that other people won’t reciprocate that love (see also: Perks of Being a Wallflower and basically any underrated Disney movie). My worries were unwarranted, however, because both of them loved it. Even though said friends tend to have a different taste in movies than I do, it’s one of those films that just seems to strike a chord with everyone who sees it.
But to be honest, this post isn’t for me to rave about how brilliant and relevant and heart-warming/wrenching The Breakfast Club is as a whole, although I certainly could do that with no problem. No, this post is for me to talk about one thing and one thing only. And by thing, I mean person.
I don’t know what it is about his character that makes me adore him so much. I’ve come to this realization that, when it comes to men (fictional ones at least), I tend to fall for the bad boys. The dark, misunderstood, emotionally complex guys who come off as complete assholes with no redeeming qualities whatsoever… until they reveal something about themselves that changes everything. A vulnerability or weakness of some kind; a hard, hidden truth about their past or even present that explains why they are the way they are. Not justifies, but explains.
And that, my friends, is John Bender in a nutshell.
John Bender is, at first glance, nothing more than an arrogant delinquent with a sharp wit, a dirty mind (and mouth), and a penchant for stirring up trouble. He verbally pokes and prods at the other kids in detention, knowing exactly what to say to get a rise out of them. He backtalks Mr. Vernon relentlessly, earning himself an extra two months’ worth of detentions. He swears like a sailor, bullies Claire to the point of tears, vandalizes school property, threatens other students (even whipping a knife out of his jean vest to prove his badassness), and demeans and belittles everyone around him. As my good friend Natalie would say, he’s the ultimate jerkasaurus. He’s the character that you love to hate because he hasn’t given you a reason to do anything else.
And then he lifts up his sleeve and shows you the burn mark from his dad’s cigarette. And suddenly, everything changes.
You understand why he feels the need to intimidate everyone around him, to maintain his “criminal” image even when others claim to see right through it. You understand why he has zero sympathy for girls like Claire, who complains about her home life while she’s in detention for skipping school to go shopping with her dad. You understand why he keeps egging Vernon on, knowing that he’s digging a deeper pit of detentions for himself and also knowing that this means less time spent at home with his abusive father. You understand why Andy and Vernon’s words about him being worthless and invisible actually seem to affect him. You understand why he walks around spitting on the world and everyone in it, acting like he cares about nothing and no one.
And you understand why, when it’s just Bender and Vernon in the closet and there’s nobody else around for him to put on a show for, he drops the act. When Vernon offers him an opportunity to punch him in the face, something Bender’s probably been dying to do all day, he holds back. He sits there motionless, eyes wide like a confused and frightened child, as Vernon verbally abuses and intimidates him. And when Vernon finally fakes his own punch, Bender flinches.
Because in that moment, John Bender was probably seeing his father in front of him. A man who insults, mocks, and beats him on a daily basis. The reason that his heart is so calloused, his temper so quick, his demeanor so cold. He saw his dad in detention, the one place he thought he was safe, and he was afraid.
And that’s why I love John Bender. Because, out of all the other characters in The Breakfast Club and the crap they’re going through, his story is the one that breaks my heart the most. I love John Bender because he’s honest – brutally so, yes, but honest – and he’s real. He makes me think about the John Benders that were probably in my own high school, the kids that I judged and looked down on and rolled my eyes at because they cursed an absurd amount or backtalked the teacher or boasted about failing their tests. Those are the kids that were probably hurting the most, that needed grace and patience and compassion the most, and those are the kids that our society tends to give up on first.
John Bender is fictional. But his character isn’t. Alas, his real life counterparts probably won’t be Judd Nelson-esque, 80’s movie heartthrobs with rugged jawlines and sparkling brown eyes. They might be hard to crack and even harder to love than Bender himself. But they’re out there, and they need that love.
They need it bad.