The Eighties and The Midwest: Who We Think We Are

breakfast clubI was going to write a very compelling piece on What Commissioner Kappos Should Do About Tafas (which I care very, very much about in my scholarship and which is actually more important than this particular blog post), but I got distracted again.   This time, I was mourning the death of John Hughes, the filmmaker behind Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful

I love John Hughes.  I do.  I almost missed Hurricane Katrina descending on Oxford, Mississippi, because there was a John Hughes retrospective on the same day.  I had more important things to do than pay attention to rather persistent hurricane warnings, as well as my sister and my Grandma Rosa (who were all kind of suggesting to me that a major weather crisis was heading my way). 

In fact (guilty confession!), I may have set up my entire fact pattern for Question Two in Property this year around Sixteen Candles.   All of my Property students will have answered a question involving Sweet Sixteen Way, Samantha Baker, and the immortal Jake Ryan.  

I may have loved The Breakfast Club the most.  I stopped counting the times I have seen the movie at seventeen (this was when I was sixteen).   I think that The Breakfast Club worked best because it actually inverted a key copyright doctrine, the scenes a faire doctrine.   Put simply, the scenes a faire doctrine states that copyright protection will not be accorded to a scene or character type that is common to a particular genre (so, a cop movie that involves a frenetic car chase cannot be seen as something perhaps worthy of copyright protection).  The Breakfast Club is all about subverting the particular stereotypes of the high school movie genre, and indeed ends with the immortal words of Brian Johnson:

Saturday, March 24,1984. Sheerer High School, Sheerer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did *was* wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? 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. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.

Don’t You Forget About Me!

As I was getting all nostalgic about my childhood and early adulthood again, I recalled my earlier post on Michael Jackson and Prince.  I realized that everyone I have been talking about this summer is from the Midwest: Michael Jackson (Gary, Indiana), John Hughes (Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and the imaginary Shermer, Illinois), Prince (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and Madonna (Bay City, Michigan).   What was going on with the Midwest in the Seventies and the Eighties? 

I am temperamentally a Southerner.   A colleague of mine, Debbie Bell, once described the difference between Southerners and Midwesterners as “Southerners have an instinct for excess.”  However, I am certain that all of the above Midwesterners have that particular excess.  I am putting this out to the Marquette Community.   Why was the Midwest the center of it all?  What was it about the Midwest that spawned the greatness that was the Eighties?

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Sean Horkheimer

    It still bothers me that they make the nerd write the essay at the end of The Breakfast Club. They probably planned that all along.

  2. Mike McChrystal

    Great questions, Kali. Although it pains me to admit it, I wonder whether the Midwest’s sense of economic decline (rust belt — ugh!) created a fertile climate for creativity and critique, perhaps like industrial England in the Sixties.

  3. Gordon Hylton

    I agree with Kali that something was definitely up with the Midwest and the 1980’s. But whatever it was, it ended in the early 1990’s.

    We can see that in the career of John Hughes. The last movie that he directed was Curly Sue in 1991. Once a great writer of films, his post-1991 screenplays are either forgetable (Dennis the Menace, the remakes of Miracle on 34th St and 101 Dalmations, and Maid in Manhatten) or embarassing (Baby’s Day Out, Home Alone 2, 3, and 4, Flubber).

    Hughes definitely ran out of gas in the early 1990’s. Maybe the Midwest did too.

  4. Kali Murray

    (a) I like the developing thesis–the Midwest’s Industrial Decline led to a serious artistic ferment (Prince, Madonna and John Hughes fit that theory), although MJ actually seems more connected to its rise (through Motown).

    (b) Sean’s point is well taken. I have always wondered that, myself!

    Although I would have to say that the other logical candidate, Ally Sheedy’s (Allison Reynolds) would then be denied her entrance into the library and the subsequent capture of Emilio Estevez’s (Andrew Clark’s) heart. For the ladies in the audience that was pretty crucial.

  5. Richard M. Esenberg

    With all due respect for Commissioner Kappos and Tafas (isn’t there a great title in there?), I think its a pretty interesting post.

    John Hughes did run out of gas and he seemed to know it. As for the connection between his initial burst of creativity and the Midwest, it seems to me that what he really was interested in was suburban middle class life. He placed it in the Chicago area because that was what he knew.

    And if you are interested in middle class America, the Midwest presents it without the accretions and affectations of the coasts and the cultural distinctiveness of the South. You’re getting what we think is the “real” stuff.

    I’m not so sure that the other folks Kali mentions shared Hughes’ interests. Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson may have been from the Midwest but they were not of it. They were of the eighties which – culturally – was all about accretions and affectations, i.e., it wasn’t very Midwestern at all. (Although there was the mullet. You’ve got me there.)

  6. Kali Murray

    I take Rick’s comment about Madonna and Michael Jackson. Both of them ultimately left the Midwest, and in particular for Madonna, it seems to be only important in her music and persona as the place she left.

    I will stick with Prince, though, as Midwestern. Take for instance, the song, Sometimes It Snows in April (which is on the Under the Cherry Moon Album). This was a song that as an East Coast/Southerner I always thought was wonderfully strange (how can it snow in April?). Then I moved to Milwaukee, and lo, Sometimes It Snows in April. The song, which is always a bit over dramatic, becomes a funnier, wry song (and indeed, might be read as a comment on the character’s being played by Prince as over-dramatic).

    Moreover, Prince has stayed in Minnesota, and came out a wonderful music scene in Minnesota. I would venture to say of all Prince’s assumed identities, being a Midwesterner, is the most consistent.

  7. Richard M. Esenberg

    But, Kali, I think that proves my point. A true man or woman of the midwest would never have written that song. It always snows in April. Maybe not much. Maybe only on one day. But always.

  8. Chad Oldfather

    There’s way too much going on here for me to even come close to nailing it in a comment to a blog post (it’s no longer possible for me to address any topic in less than 40 pages, it seems). But here are some thoughts. First, your Midwestern cities and states are not created equal. Wherever the Rust Belt might extend, it surely does not include the Twin Cities. And, as we are raised from birth to understand, we Minnesotans are special – God’s chosen people. Different not only from southerners and coastal-types, but also our neighbors. (In my corner of the state, for example, you will not find beer at church events the way you do here. It would be unthinkable.) We understand that it is our lot – because we are not pushy about it, and because it is cold – that the rest of the world will tend to overlook our specialness. We’re mostly OK with that. That leads, however, to the second point. Which is that as much as “we” are special, none of us individually is. Google the word “janteloven” for a caricaturized version of the culture in which I grew up. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, the mindset amounts to “everyone else is cold, too, so stop complaining.” (And I have to tell you, it’s not such a bad mindset. Everyone else really is cold, too. So, you know, stop complaining.) Couple that with a collective emphasis on education, and the tensions that result in the creative mind occasionally produce spectacular things.

    Of course, I have no idea whether this applies to Michigan or Indiana. But there’s probably a different way in which the point generalizes. I would bet that creative geniuses tend disproportionately to originate from out-of-the-way places. If you grow up in San Francisco or New York and you’re creatively inclined, you’ll tend to internalize the prevailing norms for hipness and creativity and thus not come at things differently. And as a result you won’t be a world changer. Whereas if you’re a creative kid in Nebraska you can’t (or at least couldn’t – the internet is probably changing this) even figure out what those prevailing norms are, and so you come up with your own thing. If you’re especially talented and a little bit lucky, it becomes a big thing.

  9. Stacie Rosenzweig


    I *was* the nerd in high school (more in a Lindsey Weir of Freaks and Geeks way, but still) and I’m positive, even after a day of knocking down stereotypes, I would have written the essay. I might have volunteered, because everybody else would have done it wrong. It’s hard to break typecasting.

  10. Melissa Greipp

    Thinking about another Midwesterner–here’s to the great Les Paul, who chose to come back to his hometown, Waukesha, to be laid to rest this week.

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