Here’s a brief cultural history of “the villain is actually right” hot takes, as I understand it. People were like “What if Claudius is the real hero of Hamlet? Makes you think” and it didn’t really stick. Then a couple of hundred years passed and someone pointed out Walter Peck from Ghostbusters was obviously correct to not let the Ghostbusters run a nuclear reactor without permission, and it got clicks, so people were like “I wonder if I can do that with other eighties movies” – haven’t you ever noticed it’s always eighties movies? – and now we live in a world where three people in the comments of an already terrible article about why some eighties bad guys were the secret heroes of their movies suggested Mr Vernon from The Breakfast Club be added.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, this is a man who threatens a teenager with assault before leaving him locked unsupervised in a closet. I understand why unscrupulous click-hungry hucksters publish this rubbish, but the traction it gets online is baffling and a little scary, to be honest. I know that people disregard and even hate teenagers, consistently treating their problems as if they didn’t matter and then acting shocked – SHOCKED, I tell you – when they kill themselves at higher and higher numbers. I know this, I’ve written about it before, I’ll probably write about it again. But, I have to admit, I don’t understand why. I don’t see what anyone gets out of shitting on teenagers except, I guess, the grim, bloodthirsty satisfaction of kicking someone while they’re down. People do like to just hate and hurt other people for its own sake, though they also tend to come up with ad-hoc rationalisations for it, so they don’t have to acknowledge their own sadism. Maybe the reason so many people get older and suddenly start yammering about how the antagonistic authority figures of teen movies were actually the heroes all along is because it lets them tell themselves they’re still the heroes of their own lives, now that they’ve become the villains of their adolescence.
Ed Rooney is not the secret hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It’s such an obvious truth if you think about it for five seconds that it shouldn’t require a whole essay to explain, and yet, here we are. It’s one of the more common examples of the genre, and it always starts with the same explanation. To quote an influential Cracked article on the subject: “this is his goddamned job. He is the Dean of Students, not the Dean of Not Giving A Damn. People are always all up the public schools [sic] system’s digestive tract for not taking a more active interest in their students and that’s exactly what Mr. Rooney was doing.” People will then usually go on to point out that Rooney was correct and Ferris was actually faking illness to skip school. There’s two problems with this reading of the film: first, even in the most generous interpretation of his actions, Rooney is a wildly incompetent administrator who breaks the law repeatedly and wilfully turns a blind eye to child abuse; second, the fact that he was right and “just doing his job” is only exculpatory if his job isn’t to maintain an evil system’s control over teenagers.
Let’s quickly review Rooney’s response to Ferris’s truancy on the assumption he’s sincerely just trying to stop Ferris skipping school. He calls Ferris’s mother to let her know about the truancy, and when she seems nonplussed about it, he proceeds to try and break into the Bueller home to prove Ferris isn’t actually there. He breaks a pipe in their back garden, gets into a fight with their dog, and when Ferris’s sister Jeanie comes home and leaves the front door unlocked, he enters their home and sneaks around like a creep until he gets kicked in the face by a terrified Jeanie. Even if you completely ignore the content of Rooney’s character, and the fact that he’s clearly a petty, vindictive man who wants to crush Ferris because he gives other student’s notions about not complying with the diktats of the Rooney regime, how exactly are his actions supposed to be sympathetic in any way? One of his students doesn’t show up and even though that student’s parents assure him that he’s ill, Rooney leaves school to drive across town and break into the student’s home. Maybe my standards are just too high, but that doesn’t seem terribly heroic.
But I think the most troubling issue with the contrarian take on Rooney is the scene when Ferris comes to school to pick up his girlfriend Sloane in disguise as her father. Sloane runs down to Ferris, who asks her if she has “a kiss for daddy”. Sloane and Ferris then make out right in front of Rooney. And how does Rooney react to what he believes to be a man in his thirties or forties making out with his teenage daughter? He says, “So that’s how it is in their family” and leaves them to it. Ed Rooney, the misunderstood valiant protector of his students, sees what appears to be the incestuous abuse of a student in broad daylight and is just like “huh, don’t see that every day”. If we assume he’s not just totally chill with parents sexually abusing their children, then Rooney is displaying, at the very least, astonishing moral cowardice. Rather than cause a scene by saying “hey, Mr. Peterson, maybe don’t abuse your daughter”, he just shrugs it off. He decides he’d rather waste a whole day trying to collar Ferris than, say, call Child Protective Services on a man who’s molesting one of his students.
That’s the most generous interpretation of Rooney’s character. Here’s the accurate one: he’s a bitter psychopath out to ruin Ferris’s life because he hates him. Not only does he hate him, he’s one of just two characters who do, along with Jeanie. (And Jeanie’s character arc is about admitting she only hates Ferris because she doesn’t have the courage to skip school herself.) While the disproportionate and ever-escalating histrionic response of the school community (and eventually the entire town) to Ferris’s absence is absurd and hilarious, it speaks to a somewhat uncomfortable fact for proponents of the “Rooney is a hero” perspective: Ferris seems to be a fairly nice, personable guy. Lots of people, regardless of their stance on Rooney, argue that Ferris is actually a huge dick – if not an outright psychopath – and, to be fair, he’s not perfect. He can be self-centred, hedonistic and even a little manipulative. But that’s about the worst of it, and it basically just makes him a teenager. (People constantly blame him for wrecking Cameron’s dad’s car, but Cameron was the one who wrecked it and Ferris was willing to take the fall for it, so.) The school secretary, Grace, talks about how all the different cliques in the school are united in their admiration of Ferris: “The sportoes, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads, they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” Even the teachers seem to love him:
“What’s dangerous about a character like Ferris Bueller is he gives good kids bad ideas” is Rooney’s explanation for his vendetta. “He jeopardises my ability to effectively govern the student body.” Grace scoffs. “He makes you look like an ass is what he does, Ed.” Rooney says he has to catch Ferris so he can prove to the other kids that emulating him “is a first-class ticket to nowhere”. But what does he mean by that? He can’t possibly mean that taking after Ferris will affect their academic achievement, since Ferris is a good student:
No, what makes Ferris the bane of Rooney’s existence is that Ferris dares to kick against the confines of the modern education system and, worse still, helps and encourages others to do so. We’re given two insights into what makes Ferris so popular in the film. First, there’s a student who remarks that Ferris is helping him get out of summer school – saving his summer, in other words. Second, there’s Garth, the burnout delinquent played by Charlie Sheen that Jeanie meets at the police station, who says there’s “somebody [she] should talk to” so she can learn to not be so cowed by the system that she feels compelled to rat out her own brother. (“If you say ‘Ferris Bueller’, you lose a testicle.” “Oh, you know him?”) People think Ferris is a swell guy because he gives them the same advice he gives the audience throughout the film. And not just practical tips on how to skip school, but the philosophy underneath it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
See, here’s the thing that underpins Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: school is awful. There’s a reason the film isn’t called Ferris Bueller’s Nice Day. What Ferris isn’t doing is as important as what he is. He’s not trudging from class to class at the behest of a schedule handed down from on high, under threat of punishment. That’s what he does almost every other day, to prepare him for doing it for the rest of his life. The main thing people learn in school is to show up at a certain place at a certain time and stay there for most of the day – and cumulatively, most of your waking life – because otherwise you’ll get in trouble. The content of our education is almost arbitrary compared to the core lesson it aims to instil in us: this is what life is like, the only way life ever will be or could be. So you won’t be surprised when you leave school and enter the workforce and it’s the same thing again. Homework prepares us to take our work home with us as adults. The idea that we shouldn’t just spend our whole day at this shit but should go home and keep doing it, should put as much time as we can into it, because we need to stay ahead, stay competitive. Assignments and exams prepare you for the constant state of anxiety of having all your actions rated by your boss, a virtually unimpeachable authority figure who can ruin your life at the drop of a hat. And it doesn’t matter if what you’re doing means anything to you or enriches your life in any way. You have to do it or else, even if it leaves you with no time or energy for the things that make you happy and give your life meaning and value.
The “bad ideas” that Ferris gives to “good kids”, what Rooney fears and hates about him, is that this is all unfair – that it’s “childish and stupid”, as puts it in his monologue – and that now and then, for the sake of their humanity, they should blow it off and enjoy life for its own sake. One of the most wonderful things about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that Ferris, Cameron and Sloane don’t just slack off for the day, they head into the city and experience the best of life. They go to Wrigley Field for a baseball game, they eat fine food at a nice restaurant, they go to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Cameron is mesmerised by George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Soon they’ll graduate, go to different colleges all over the country and quite possibly never see each other again, so they decide (or rather Ferris decides, with Sloane’s support, and eventually manages to persuade Cameron) to have this one amazing day together. Ferris sees how depressed Cameron is, how consumed by panic and dread, and he risks not graduating, trapping himself in this hell for another year, to cheer Cameron up. And Ferris doesn’t just want it for himself and his friends, he wants it for all the kids at his school and all the real kids at home watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He doesn’t even advocate an overthrow of the system, he’s just saying it’s okay to buck it once in a while so you can grasp desperately at a little bit of joy in the world, but that’s still too much for Rooney and the joyless bastards who call him the “real hero”.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and John Hughes’ other teen films are very special because they manage to thread a very difficult needle. Unlike the vast majority of stories about teenagers, they refuse to be coming-of-age stories – the characters may grow, but only as teenagers, never into adults – but the inevitability of adulthood and all the misery it entails still haunts them. The Breakfast Club live in terror of becoming their parents. Duckie in Pretty in Pink is deliberately flunking so he doesn’t have to graduate. Cameron is paralysed by the expectation he must suddenly choose what he wants his life to be, as if anyone really knows what they want their life to be. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film for young people with those same anxieties, and where The Breakfast Club is a dramatic expression of them, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a permission slip that says “you know what, it’s okay to want to just not deal with this today”.
Ed Rooney is not the secret hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s exactly as much of a monster as the film makes him out to be, if not more so. He is everything wrong with how society treats teenagers in human form. He’s spiteful on one hand and negligent on the other, a smug, slimy, self-interested git who treats teenagers as if they’re subhuman and tells himself that he’s heroic for doing so. He doesn’t want to help his students, just “govern” them. Jeanie initially mirrors him but eventually admits she’s motivated by envy and helps Ferris evade capture at the end of the film. If I’m being generous, that envy is probably what motivates a lot of the contrarian “Rooney is the hero” takes. People hate Ferris for ditching when they can’t or won’t. If I’m not being generous, anyone who thinks Rooney is the hero is probably as big a dick as he is. Either way, it’s a terrible read on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a beautiful film about squeezing the joy out of life whenever you can get away with it.
Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero.