A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Those were the options given to us Gen X kids when we watched The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 film starring, respectively, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson, about five high school students serving a day of Saturday detention. And they were assigned to write an essay: who are you?
For me, it was obvious; I was the brain. Or, in less generous terms; the nerd, the geek. And there could be no clearer signifier of my connection to Hall’s character, Brian, than the calculator watch on both of our wrists.
It was not a good time to be an ungainly, unpopular high school freshman who liked to learn. Revenge of the Nerds had just come out the previous year, seemingly giving us dorks our triumphant moment in the sun, but really just dragging us into the light to be ridiculed. To see in Hall, my self (I even had the same high waters), was to be both enthralled and horrified.
Each character had his or her signifiers. Estevez had his varsity jacket. Ringwald had her lipstick and sushi. Sheedy had her hair in her face and shoulder bag of stolen goods. Nelson had his fingerless gloves and pierced left ear. (Plus boots, flannel… Come to think of it, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being proto-grunge.)
Hall had the watch. He doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just there representing a kid who wants to do well in school, likes something practical and doesn’t know anything about fashion cues.
Up to eighth grade, I loved my calculator watch. I had gone to a small school where fashion and accessory signifiers were like colors in a black-and-white film. They just didn’t show up. My watch could do math! You could write the numbers 01134, flip it over, and it would read, “hello.” So cool!
The thing is, I didn’t understand my watch wasn’t so cool until I saw it on Hall’s wrist. Hughes’ brilliant film — a stroke of genius, really, to turn a one-day detention session into a parable for a generation — made us see ourselves. Never mind the irony that The Breakfast Club‘s ultimate message — that the five kids were more than those labels and in fact had more commonalities than one would think — had the opposite effect on many of us. It was a movie of reckoning.
Good times for a change, though. Within a year, I had lost the watch because it didn’t go with the New Wave kid I was becoming. I had an asymmetrical haircut, doing my best to look like an effete Manchester rocker. I was developing a new identity and Hughes’ Pretty in Pink was in theaters providing the soundtrack.