My friend Audrey and I often text silly GIFs and pop culture memes back and forth, trying to out gun one another on the GIF-draw with our speed and cleverness—the obscurer reference the better. It’s a small game that brings me a bit of joy I can wedge between myself and whatever latest development has arisen in the 2020 Despair Games. That’s how I found myself looking through captures of Jeanie Bueller from the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Directed by John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, National Lampoons Vacation), the movie stars Matthew Broderick as the charming slacker, Ferris, and Jennifer Grey (yes, that Baby, no, no corners please) as his perpetually beleaguered younger sister, Jeanie. Like so many of Hughes’ films, Ferris taps into the vein of benign teen rebellion whereby a group of young people joyfully flaunt society’s dopey rules about, essentially, adulting. The plot unfolds over the course of one day where Ferris, along with his girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) and best friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) skip school. The trio leaves their sleepy Chicago suburb in the rear view to enjoy a day off in the big city. Hijinks ensue.
Two things threaten to upend Ferris’ day of leisure. One is Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the bumbling, idiotic principal who, sick of being made into a chump by a sixteen-year-old kid already smart enough to game the system, makes busting Ferris his white whale. The second is Jeanie, who is also done with watching her older brother sail through life like it’s one long vacation. Both individually decide that this particular skip day will be his last. More hijinks ensue.
I scrolled through an entire page of just images of Jeanie, looking for one to illustrate the thread Audrey and I had running. Most showed her in scenes wearing a variation of the same expression of barely contained fury: eyes narrowed, lips pursed into a scowl, jaw clenched. Thumbing through them was like parsing through a model’s Lookbook showcasing her one feature: anger. Jeanie’s sublime bitchiness and self-possession are her pervasive attributes for most of the movie. In the hands of someone else, this would make her shrewish and one-dimensional, the sloppy punchline of 1980s misogyny. However, in the John Hughes realm, Jeanie Bueller’s attitude—her sarcasm, her blatant disdain for, well, everyone—are equal parts comedic devices and the keys to her ultimate empowerment.
Really? Isn’t she just a character in a goofy comedy from the 1980s? Not exactly. The movies released alongside Ferris in the summer of 1986 included Back to School about a middle-aged man played by Rodney Dangerfield who enrolls at his son’s college and Karate Kid Part II that continues the story of Daniel LaRusso. Newly victorious from defeating bully Johnny Lawrence in a match, Daniel travels to Japan with his sensei, Mr. Miyagi, to ultimately defeat bullies in Japan. If the plot formula isn’t broken, right? In short: roles for women in comedies were thin at best. Roles for strong female characters like Jeanie Bueller, as elusive as a polar bear in Arizona.
As a teen girl, I identified with Jeanie Bueller on several levels. I have an affable, charismatic older brother who could charm a zebra into giving up its stripes. He is the guy that doesn’t need an invitation to anything; every room is livelier with him in it. He can talk to a plant, he can talk to a president. As a rule-following, authority-respecting sibling, it’s not at all infuriating to stand by and watch him breeze through sticky situations that should have landed him in a few inches of hot water at least. Jeanie, I see you, girl. Jeanie is also neither cover model gorgeous, nor particularly popular, and definitely not cool. Relatable 4-eva. There were plenty of us in high school who squelched our anger and loneliness because they didn’t fit the narrative of 1980s ideal femininity. Fortunately, we were handsomely rewarded in the exquisitely morose female characters of the 1990s with their moody flannel and black lipstick.
At the time, there was no way I could really appreciate Jeanie as a radical female character. On the surface, she seems like nothing more than a comic foil for Ferris. Jeanie colors within the lines, which fails to earn her attention or respect from parents, teachers, or any authority figures who are supposed to validate and reinforce the social order of things: good kids like Jeanie Bueller get rewarded; kids who dick around like Ferris get punished. In the John Hughes cinematic universe, this tension is constantly in play and, typically, thwarted every time. Oddballs, misfits, outliers, rule benders, gentle miscreants are the true heroes of Hughes’ skewed worlds.
The harder Jeanie tries to go through the right channels to rat her brother out, the more she gets knocked down, which heightens the comedy of her frustration, making it funnier to watch her spin her wheels. If Rooney is Elmer Fudd, stalking Bugs Bunny, Jeanie is Daffy Duck who reaches a tipping point and decides to take matters into her own hands.
Teachers and parents don’t believe her about Ferris’ truancy, which forces her to go rogue. And that’s where everything changes. In an attempt to outsmart Ferris and beat get hard proof to use against him, Jeanie ditches school and heads out on her singular mission to destroy her older brother. Through a series of events, she gets holed up in her own house locked in a hilarious stand-off with who she thinks is a dangerous intruder (who in reality is the hapless Rooney). She eventually gets taken into custody for making a phony 911 call. At the police station she encounters a scruffy, smarmy, weirdly attractive grease ball played by Charlie Sheen. The two end up locked in a mad make-out session when her irate mother comes to pick her up. None of this is characteristic for Jeanie Bueller. It suits her and, maybe for the first time in her life, she knows it.
This is why, in the end, she passes up the chance to get temporary satisfaction by turning in Ferris. Instead, she uses her leverage to save Ferris, thereby putting him in her debt, while blackmailing Rooney at the same time. Damn, Jeanie! You went there! Jeanie is so much more formidable than Ferris, and, it turns out way cooler. He skates by being suave and silly and cute. Jeanie is self-defined. Her humor is acerbic; mockery is her second language. She owns her righteousness, especially when the world tries to steal it from her. She is resilient, smart, and capable of outmaneuvering authority when it’s to her advantage to do so, not, like Ferris, because it’s a fun game to play.
Jeanie prefigured a wave of feminist women in TV and film that have disrupted and reshaped all kinds of narratives about gender in general and about centering women in comedy more specifically. Because of her we have Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the deadly girls of Heathers and so many more. Because of her we have another reason to love this goofy comedy from the 1980s. Ferris can have his day; Jeanie is out for the whole damn world.