You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
The opening narration of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club (1985) situates each of the five members of the principal cast of characters as a stereotype, each label externally imposed by the characters’ surroundings, and in turn, internalized by the characters as a false safety net. By the end of the film, they shed their labels and their preconceived notions about each other. They realize that they have shared experiences and traumas, and that above all else, they are people first.
The word einfühlung, first used by the German philosopher Robert Vischer, translates to “in-feeling,” a kind of esthetic sympathy, and is the linguistic precursor to the concept of empathy (Vischer). It is empathy that the members of The Breakfast Club learn as they gain a deeper understanding of their peers, and as they are able to look past socially ascribed labels.
Stereotypes have been a plague in coming-of-age stories, or any other kind of adolescent/teen-focused media, for as long as they’ve been made (particularly within the ultra-traditional Hollywood system). Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986) are all examples of films that were released during the mid-80s alongside The Breakfast Club (all of which were John Hughes projects) that feature problematic, tropey representations of teenagers – the nerd, the jock, the prep, the goth, the stoner, the drop-out. Characters are boiled down to a singular trait, a signifier, and every action, choice, and line of dialogue revolves around said trait.
By flattening characters into singular qualities, a kind of diegetic uncanny valley is developed, so that the film can take place in a world that mirrors reality, but in which character traits and actions are heightened to extremes. Freud argues this to be the case as “[The writer] can increase his effect and multiply it far beyond what could happen in reality, by bringing about events which never or very rarely happen in fact… He deceives us into thinking that he is giving us the sober truth, and then after all oversteps the bounds of possibility. We react to his inventions as we should have reacted to real experiences” (Freud, 18). A divide forms between audiences’ lived experience and the formulated hyperreality of the film which “confuses the real with the model,” lessening the audiences’ ability to empathize with cheapened characters (Baudrillard, 53).
Euphoria (2019-present) begins by presenting its characters as stereotypes – Rue: the drug addict, Jules: the manic pixie love interest, Nate: the jock, Cassie: the beauty queen, and Maddie: the mean girl. If the show failed to reveal more about its cast, its ability to transmit relatability through the screen would be ineffective.
However, throughout the show, Rue provides a subjective narration that contains information she has no way of knowing. Like an omniscient soliloquy, Rue provides the audience with the backgrounds of characters that would otherwise appear flat or inconsequential, outside of their immediate influence on the action of the show. By revealing the complexities of each character, stereotypes and labeled identities are pushed to the periphery. Human subjectivity is in a constant state of flux, and it is far too often that pieces of media time-date themselves with a pop cultural rigidity of characters. Foucault philosophizes that timelines are built on “scales that are sometimes very brief, distinct from one another, irreducible to a single law, scales that bear a type of history peculiar to each time” (Foucault, 8). So, the more time-specific a piece of media is, in terms of how social norms and human behavior are portrayed, the more alienating it becomes to audiences that exist outside of its creation.
Rue becomes more than her addiction, Cassie is more than her neurotics, Nate is more than the quintessential quarterback. Each character is humanized to the audience. The second season of the show introduces the possibility that diegetic empathy will be realized for the ensemble. Lexi’s play, Our Life, serves this function, using a metanarrative to exploit the troubles and traumas of the cast – establishing common ground for interpersonal relationships to be built. By making the characters reckon with the underbellies in each of their lives, Our Life provides grounds for a diegetic chance at developing agency; the show does not objectify its cast by resigning them to roles predestined by labels.
Rue comments on the conditionals of empathy during the opening of the episode “A Thousand Little Trees of Blood” (2.6). Rue speaks over images of her recovering from her withdrawal. She is presented as disgustingly raw – spasming, crying, and throwing up. It is during this period, that she reflects on the audience’s perception of her. She is thankful that the show removes itself from the Hughesian tradition of the teenage stereotype and has saved her from rash judgment by developing empathetic viewership.
Reducing someone’s life to a moment… an ugly moment… It’s actually what everyone does. It’s what you would do to me if you didn’t know me.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Precession of the Simulacra” in Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, Philip Beitchman New York, Seniotext, 1983. 1-79.
Foucault, Michel. 1969. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London and New York: Routledge, 1969.
Freud, Sigmund. The uncanny. Penguin, 2003.
Vischer, Robert. On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics. In Empathy, Form, and Space. Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893. Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou (eds., trans.). Santa Monica, California: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities. 1994. pp. 89–123.
The Breakfast Club. Directed by John Hughes, Universal Pictures, 1985.
TV Shows Referenced:
“A Thousand Little Trees of Blood.” Euphoria, created by Sam Levinson, season 2, episode 6, HBO, 2022.