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Ferris Bueller:

Youth Rights Anti-Hero

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) Starring Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Grey, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, and Jeffrey Jones. Written and directed by John Hughes.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off is such a fun, joyful movie, one can easily miss the fact that this film lacks a hero in the lead role. The man we cheer, Ferris Bueller, is immensely enviable but not remotely admirable. He is dishonest, irresponsible, and he uses people, even his friends.

Some have argued Ferris Bueller is motivated by a desire to help his friend Cameron; near the end, when Cameron's character and life-course have been improved by the events of the film, Ferris's girlfriend even accuses Ferris of having planned that from the beginning. Yet Ferris denies it, and the film offers little evidence that Ferris ever intended more than his own self-gratification.

Other characters talk about Ferris as though he has done favors for everyone, but we never witness that, and the widespread gratitude Ferris gets seems as undeserved as the widespread sympathy he gets for his nonexistent illness.

The man who knows Ferris best — Cameron — has so little faith in Ferris's loyalty that when Ferris disappears at the parade, Cameron suggests Ferris may have returned to school just for the fun of leaving his equally truant friends holding the bag.

In the film's climatic chase scene, we see Ferris steal a neighbor's soda, trespass through another neighbor's home, and chat with sunbathers in a way his girlfriend would probably not like.

The Anti-Hero

Ferris Bueller's Day Off DVD
So why do we cheer on Ferris every step of the way? Partly it is because he is everyone's fantasy: a confident charmer in control of his life, getting away with everything and having a ball along the way.

But there's another factor. Like any great anti-hero, Ferris Bueller's bad side is easily forgiven when we watch him tackle enemies who are even worse than he is. Young audiences especially can forgive Ferris because the enemies he humiliates are ageist.

Consider the scene where Ferris and friends visit a classy restaurant and Ferris confronts the snooty maitre d'. Selfish as usual, Ferris tries to steal another customer's reservation. But the maitre d' gets hostile, not because Ferris lacks a reservation nor even because Ferris and friends are underdressed. These issues are not even brought up. What does come up, what seems to bother the maitre d' most, is Ferris's age. "Why don't you take the kids back to the clubhouse," he tells Ferris. "Take the field trip outside." When Ferris protests, the maitre d's final dig is "I weep for the future."

Ferris then tricks the maitre d' into believing Ferris is older than he looks and is a successful businessman. Suddenly the maitre d' is servile and apologetic, even laughing along when Ferris insults him. Ferris is using the man's biases against him. An egalitarian maitre d' would not have looked so foolish.

Ferris's sister, though young herself, also represents ageism. She's both victim and perpetrator. Unable to escape school, bullied by her unloving parents, even harassed by police, she becomes a collaborator. She makes it her mission to ensure other youth are victimized as effectively as she is, giving her misery some company.

And Ferris strikes back at her perfectly: the best revenge is success.

The Villain

Ferris's ultimate enemy, of course, is Ed Rooney, Dean of Students. His mission is to maintain dominance over his students, but Ferris damages that dominance, defying Rooney's authority by cutting school and showing the other students how easy it is to out-maneuver Rooney. This is underlined in the following exchange between Rooney and his secretary:

Rooney: "He jeopardizes my ability to effectively govern this student body."
Grace: "Makes you look like an áss is what he does, Ed."

Rooney, too, is ageist. Being shown up is bad enough, but for Rooney the ultimate insult is being shown up by a kid. As Rooney fumes, "I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind."

In one of the funniest scenes in film history, Rooney gets a phone call supposedly from a parent. Rooney, knowing it's really a teenager, insults him. Then Ferris tricks Rooney into believing it really is an adult on the line, and Rooney falls over himself apologizing, much as the maitre d' will later.

In real life, most teenagers know they are owed an apology from the adult world, but seldom get one. Ferris Bueller, by hook or by crook, gets that apology. How could young audiences not cheer him on?

The most poetic justice comes at the end. After Rooney has devoted all his energy to locking up Ferris in school, not only does Ferris slip away, but a degraded Rooney is forced to ride home on the school bus. The warden has become one of the prisoners.

The Hero

The film ultimately does find a hero: not Ferris, but Cameron. Cameron is honest, responsible, helpful, and generous. Sadly, for most of the film he is not a hero but a victim.

He lives in poverty while surrounded by his parents' wealth. His parents can afford a garage full of classic cars, kept only for show, but Cameron is relegated to driving an old clunker.

Cameron can escape school only when he really is sick. All his decisions are made for him — by his parents, by his school's staff, by his friend, and by his germs.

What makes Cameron different from teenaged protagonists in other films is Cameron's last scene where he finally becomes a hero. He chooses to stop being a victim. He deliberately damages his father's prized Ferrari while giving us a classic John Hughes soul-searching monologue:

I put up with everything. My old man pushes me around. I never say anything. ... I've got to take a stand against him. I am not going to sit on my áss as the events that effect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I'm gonna take a stand.

Ferris Bueller, in his only selfless act in the film, offers to take the blame for damaging the car, but Cameron won't let him:

I'm going to defend it. Right or wrong I'm going to defend it. ... When Morris comes home, he and I will just have a little chat.
  Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Cameron (Alan Ruck): a hero at last

This represents a break from other teenager films, including other John Hughes films. In The Breakfast Club, the teenagers talk about problems with their parents but never solve them. In Weird Science's best scene, Kelly LeBrock tells off Anthony Michael Hall's unloving parents. But later LeBrock causes the parents to forget that the confrontation ever took place, leaving Hall with the same troubled family life he'd endured all along — and Hughes presents that as a happy ending, as if escaping consequences were better than confronting problems.

This time, Hughes gets it right, at least in telling Cameron's story. Cameron learns that the only way out is through, and Hughes lets that stand as Cameron's happy ending.

Sloan: "Do you think Cameron is going to be okay?"
Ferris: "Oh, yeah. ... For the first time in his life."

Cameron, in fact, will be more okay than Ferris will. Sure, Ferris escapes consequences, but Ferris will have to spend the rest of his life performing for his parents, using words like "blankie" and "ringy-dingy" to convince his dorky parents he's the son they want him to be, whereas Cameron will finally demand respect for the man he really is.

The Fight Club Theory

Some online argue that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is like The Fight Club, that Ferris does not really exist except in Cameron's imagination. Nothing in Ferris Bueller's Day Off hints at this being John Hughes' intention. I believe the Ferris Bueller Fight Club Theory has gained traction for one reason only: it makes Cameron the film's protagonist.

In most films, the hero who earns the happy ending is the film's main character. Here, it is Cameron who acts heroically and earns a happy ending. That's why reshaping Ferris Bueller's Day Off to make Cameron the main character is so attractive to people: it just feels right.

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