Neither Geek Nor Bro: Ferris Bueller in the Internet Age
Today is the 27th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, released on June 11th 1986, and if there’s one film I feel comfortable writing the retrospective for, it’s Ferris Bueller. I’ve seen it roughly 12 thousand times, which I don’t mean as a boast, it was just on cable a lot and I had a boring childhood. How good or bad it is seems almost irrelevant anyway. It’s one of those cultural touchstones that nearly everyone of my generation remembers, like the Fresh Prince theme song, the intro to “Baby Got Back” or “I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU, DAD!”
Ferris Bueller is such a fond, shared childhood memory, that one of my friends gave out Ferris Bueller DVDs as party favors at his wedding and it made complete sense. Matthew Broderick reprised the role for a Honda CR-V commercial during the Super Bowl and people lost their minds. People liked remembering Ferris Bueller so much they got excited for a goddamned glorified minivan commercial.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s husband driving minivans aside, I totally get it. I look back so fondly at Ferris Bueller, and like all forms of nostalgia, it’s partly out of a Sorkin-esque romanticization of my own adolescence, but also partly because Ferris reminds me of an ideal of cool that seems like it’s been lost. He’s a character I grew up idolizing that I’m not sure could even exist in pop culture anymore. Ferris Bueller was, essentially, defined by his coolness and general likability. “He’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”
Unlike almost every modern protagonist I can think of, whether it be comedy or drama or superhero movie, Ferris Bueller wasn’t defined by his exclusion. He didn’t wear some dumb label, like “jock,” or “drama geek” or “bro” or “nerd,” he was just himself. He was a little bit of everything, and that’s why people liked him. On his day off, he went to a ball game and an art museum.
After the brief Ferris fever that spawned a Ferris TV show, and Ferris TV shows in everything but name, like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Saved by the Bell, the pendulum swung back the other way, with a deluge of awkward, nerdy protagonists who weren’t always awkward or nerdy, but were almost always defined by their outsider status. There’s nothing new about that – think Holden Caufield or, you know, The Outsiders – but the idea of the cool outsider or the put-upon schlub who can’t do anything right but will have his revenge in the end, seems to have metastasized in the internet age and infected everything, to the point that the people can hardly celebrate who they are without implicitly defining who they aren’t. Not a jock, not a rich kid, not a hipster.