You might know them as the greasers. You might know them as Sam Baker and Farmer Ted. You definitely know them as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. They were Hollywood’s youngest and hottest commodities, holding up an unprecedented mirror of teenage life on behalf of the post-Vietnam War generation and churning out some of American culture’s most iconic films in the process. They are the Brat Pack, and for those who came of age in the shoulder-padded, Bowie-bumping ‘80s, they were heroes.
The gilded era of coming-of-age was inaugurated by The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of the S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel. Featuring then-unknown actors Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, and Patrick Swayze, The Outsiders brought the high school classic to life, while introducing a startlingly honest reflection of teenage trauma to the big screen. Two years later, 1985 saw The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire—portraying high school and college life, respectively, with the same crew of rising stars, relatable adolescent woes, and quintessentially ‘80s wardrobes.
It was in that same year that the perpetually angsty on-screen, partying off-screen circle of buzzy young actors were dubbed The Brat Pack. Writer David Blum planned to write a brief profile of Emilio Estevez, but after sharing a Hard Rock Cafe table with Lowe’s charm and Judd Nelson’s brooding—as well as the inflated ego between the three—Blum widened his scope, and an unshakable, era-defining title was born.
Although the exact Brat Pack roster is up for debate, non-negotiable players include Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, and Judd Nelson. However, plenty of the era’s other young actors had either the John Hughes endorsement or general heartthrob-ness required to be roped in with the pack—including Tom Cruise, Matthew Broderick, and Robert Downey Jr., to name a few.
The cast of characters rotated (albeit slightly), but every Brat Pack flick carried variations of the same attributes. Suburban, likely Chicagoan high school? Check. White, upper-middle class teenagers, who make up for their lack of math class attendance with angst and enviable outfits? Check. Peer pressure, parent pressure, and/or societal pressure? Check, check, and/or check.
Upon their release, many Brat Pack films were cast aside by critics. Even mega-hits like The Breakfast Club were slammed for youth-centric storylines, saccharine synth soundtracks, and casting that meddling group of actors who just couldn’t seem to hang up the angst. However, for Gen X teens in the audience who had never seen their school bus stress or hallway bullies portrayed in such a real way, these films made an indelible mark on their own path into adulthood.
The coming-of-age trope was far from new when the Brat Pack stomped on set, but the group’s movies did something that the film industry had never seen before: they took teenagers seriously. Brat Pack flicks made teenagers the narrators and decision-makers of their own lives, at least for the two-hour run time. Movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles kept the lens entirely within their teen protagonists, and laid their emotions bare across the screen without a hint of irony or disdain—this was especially radical when the lead was female, courtesy of Demi Moore’s or the legendary Hughes-muse Molly Ringwald.
Boiled down, each storyline of this era simply followed teenagers trying to find their place in the world. The obstacles differed—from Saturday detention, to strict parents, to the void of post-grad unknown—but threaded through each film was an unprecedented sense of empathy that came to embody the anger and anxiety of the generation watching. Above the everyday adversaries like locker room bullies floated profoundly identifiable themes, such as class identity, self exploration, and simply feeling misunderstood. All the while, no storyline was complete without a dose of optimism—the popular girl could choose the right boy, the brooding rebel could have a heart, the all-star jock could stand up to his overbearing parents. In doing so, Brat Pack films influenced the way their young audiences viewed everything from wealth and love to fashion and sex.
The Brat Pack genre is frequently cited as defining a generation, but in doing so, it defined filmmaking itself. No generation before ‘80s teens was given films that so transparently and empathetically addressed the teenage experience without making it the punchline. The films told an entire generation of audiences that they mattered, their perspective mattered, and their problems mattered.
Ironically, it was the very article that christened the Brat Pack that led to the group’s demise. The actors themselves despised the term, they felt that it grouped them into a single party-hopping entity rather than regarding them as individual actors. Being tagged a Hollywood “brat” inevitably wounded the young stars’ blossoming careers, and the end of their gilded era began. Each member was advised by their manager to avoid working together after Blum’s New York article was published—Estevez, Nelson, and McCarthy never appeared together in a film again.
Despite dismissive critic reviews, the products of the Brat Pack era have grown to become iconic films in cinematic history. The Brat Pack itself had disbanded by the 1990s, but the label stuck around and by the turn of the century it had shaken its ego-ridden connotation. The media returned to celebrating the group. In 2012, a major entertainment publication named The Breakfast Club the best high school movie ever made, and every card-carrying member of the Brat Pack holds a spot on VH1’s list of the greatest teen stars in Hollywood history.
Although the slang, technology, and fashion of Brat Pack films are undeniably ‘80s (for better or for worse), the timelessness of teenage angst makes the storylines and characters relatable to every new generation of viewers. While the era itself was fleeting—and its glaring lack of diversity beyond the cisgender, straight, white middle class would fall flat in today’s theaters—the Brat Pack was both a flash in the pan and an inextinguishable flame in the evolution of teen cinema. Year after year, with every English class’ swoon over C. Thomas Howell’s Ponyboy or fist-raising belting of “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” a new generation of teens is inducted into the enduring cult of adolescent empathy that the Brat Pack unknowingly built from scratch.END
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