Why John Hughes Still Matters
"Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place." —John Bender
Posted Mar 20, 2015
After he wrote the films Meatballs and Vacation and well before he directed Home Alone, there were several gems in the 1980s that helped shape a decade and further define a culture that represented the angst of the consummate teen experience: belonging and identity. A deeper narrative is that the late writer, producer, and director, John Hughes created simple messages with these films that continue to resonate as nostalgic accounts of “that time,” “that place,” “that music,” “those clothes,” and “those people.” He avoided the media for decades as they attempted to understand his work; John Hughes didn’t need to explain it—people just knew.
I’m a Gen-Xer who hit my preteen/teen years in the 80s. A post-Beatles, pre-American Pie era marked, as every generation is, by people, places, and events that shaped it: Ronald Reagan, space shuttles, Madonna and Michael Jackson; Casey’s Top 40, Atari, parachute pants, big hair, and mixed tapes. Although life was far from perfect in our respective homes and schools, Hughes’s films had a way to show us the silver lining.
Whether you found them on Netflix, in the $5 bin at Wal-mart, or simply by flipping through the cable channels on any evening, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Uncle Buck, Weird Science, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are sure to have graced your television screen at some point.
While the Cold War, Berlin Wall, and the Challenger explosion now seem far away in time, they were all—like so many other things—cultural touchstones that remain in our memory. Today, as we navigate stressful adulthood and parenthood (and the bumps and bruises associated with decisions of our time), looking back to John Hughes's seminal works reminds us that we all shared a similar human experience—one of misunderstanding and dismissal. They had all the trappings of teen society yet these were classic films born out of a generation without a prescribed identity. Our “mark” was substantiated by institutional toxicity, including school bullying, absent and/or abusive parents, peer pressure, drugs, and sex and pregnancy. It was dysfunction of relative proportions in many psycho-social domains. Ironically, we were all feeling, experiencing, and doing the same thing, but nobody talked about it.
What was brilliant and magical about Hughes's filmmaking is that he captured our hearts, minds, and society in a holistic fashion. More than just ugly vestiges of middle or high school cliques and home life, he illustrated sensitivity, compassion, hope, change, redemption, and love. It helped us pave our way through adolescence by identification with, if not our family and friends, on-screen, true-to-life role models (enter Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson). And as far as I know, if there still exist alienated teens lurking around high school lockers, these films and characters will continue to resonate with generations to come.
Nostalgia is Forever
Nostalgia, a term originally coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, has Greek roots: nostos (return) and algos (suffering). In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus exclaims, “Full well I acknowledge Prudent Penelope cannot compare with your stature or beauty, for she is only a mortal, and you are immortal and ageless. Nevertheless it is she whom I daily desire and pine for. Therefore I long for my home and to see the day of returning.”
The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Researchers agree that nostalgia produces functions that, I believe, run parallel to our relationship with Hughes’s films. They afforded us a constant and became an exercise in the search for identity and meaning—a weapon for confrontation, a mechanism for reconnection. We still remember and use it today.
The nostalgic nature of Hughes’s films, in particular the several he directed in the 1980s, reminds us of how he lessened the pangs of our teenage struggles. Greg Oropeza expressed this best when he wrote, “In the shadow of financial uncertainty, or the possibility of losing a loved one or a stable life, nostalgia carries with it emotions that might not occur otherwise.” He explained that with the disintegration of the family unit, coupled with an advancing technological society, many of us experience a deep sense of longing that is best captured and resolved in fantasy.
Hughes’s Films Solidified and Augmented Identity
We can derive a strong (or stronger) sense of selfhood by putting together pieces of our past lives. A redeeming value here is the use of nostalgia to escape mediocrity by resorting to a splendid past. We are more able to tolerate the pain, suffering, and trauma of our profession by remembering what was “once good” and using the films to bolster our own identities while wading through the carnage that slows down human progress. This gave the Gen Xers substance with social and personal standing.
Hughes’s Films Regenerated and Sustained a Sense of Meaning
An empirical mark of Generation X is cynicism, over-protectiveness, problems with emotional control, and hyper-vigilance. Spawned from insecurities, the psychological trauma of abuse, loss, over-education, over-qualification, or lack of upward mobility wreak havoc.
With loneliness and alienation always knocking at the door, life is reminiscent of our younger years (haven’t we shaken this yet?). As a therapeutic exercise, Hughes’s work reminds us of traditions, rituals, and values that we were once a part of, and can revisit, in an effort to refill our spiritual cup. The films restore direction and deliver a belief that one is purposeful in a seemingly ugly and chaotic world. Understanding how we fit into an emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical jigsaw puzzle helps us to cope with fear and anger while shaping a hopeful future.
Hughes’s Films Invigorated Social Connectedness
Establishing (or re-establishing) a symbiotic and symbolic connection with others is brought about through figures, images, and people of the past in becoming part of one’s present. The adolescent experiences seen through the eyes of Samantha Baker, Jake Ryan, or John Bender are not only experiences we all have had, but they served to connect many who operated in isolation. Hughes’ films filled a gap between “what is” and “what should be” in a manner that seemed acceptable.
For a generation considered as having grown up adrift and without an identity, I think John Hughes showed us otherwise. He captured our essence leaving us with a nostalgia that is both purposeful and bittersweet. There was never a sequel to Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Uncle Buck. The character arcs were complete. While we didn’t know what was going to happen to these people, specifically, we were left satisfied, knowing that things were going to be all right. Things would become all right for us too. Thanks John.
Copyright © by Brian A. Kinnaird
Brian A. Kinnaird, Ph.D. is a former law enforcement officer and current criminal justice professor. He is active as an author, trainer, & speaker and can be contacted at email@example.com.