The 30th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — which falls on June 11, but was commemorated with this past weekend’s Ferris Fest in Chicago — will undoubtedly spark plenty of tributes to the movie, and probably quite a few to Ferris, the character. People love Ferris. He’s charming. He’s skilled at jerry rigging doorbells as well as home intercom systems. He’s unafraid to claim he’s the Sausage King of Chicago. As portrayed by Matthew Broderick at the peak of his rakish cuteness, he’s basically the best.
But no matter how much of a “righteous dude” he may be, Ferris is also a guy so used to having his own way that he expects everyone in his orbit — parents, school administrators, his best friend — to automatically bend to his will. He’s, in many ways, the personification of white privilege, whatever his charms. Whatever Ferris wants, Ferris gets, with the exception of his own car (arguably a significant exception). That really irritates his sister, Jeanie Bueller, whom the movie paints as a bitter, angry young woman eager to see her lovable brother finally get his comeuppance.
But, to borrow a phrase from another John Hughes’ teen classic, that’s only who she is in the simplest terms, using the most convenient definitions. Jeanie is actually 100 percent correct in her assessment that Ferris has been cut way too many breaks in life and should be held to a higher standard. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, she’s not just a petty, jealous sibling, she’s a female voice of reason raging against a society that demeans her and disregards her opinions. As Jennifer Grey, the actress who plays her, told author Susannah Gora in You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, a book about John Hughes-era teen movies: “She fought her station.” Attention must be paid to Jeanie Bueller, dammit. And we’re going to pay it right now.
I don’t believe that John Hughes was consciously attempting to comment on gender politics or white privilege when he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The filmmaker famously penned the screenplay in less than a week and shot it based on that swiftly crafted draft. He was probably aiming primarily for what would work from a comedy perspective, and a storyline about a sibling both exasperated by and resentful of her brother’s good fortune is a solid set-up for laughs. But sometimes even subconscious subtexts become more noticeable and relevant, especially with the passage of time.
At the very least, in Jeanie, Hughes is doing something he’s done before: creating a teen character who’s alienated to an extreme by those who love her. Jeanie joins a small sisterhood of similar Hughes creations, including the birthday-neglected Samantha Baker of Sixteen Candles and Ally Sheedy’s Allison of The Breakfast Club, whose parents ignore her entirely. (On the other side of the gender divide, both Duckie Dale of Pretty in Pink and Cameron Frye of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off belong in this group, too.) Hughes had an innate understanding of what it feels like to be marginalized, and, as a writer, a particular kinship with young women placed in that position. So like Samantha and Allison, Jeanie has to deal with a mom and dad who sideline her, who coo over poor wittle Ferris when he’s sick in bed and pay no attention when she announces, “That’s it. I want out of this family.”
Even outside of her home, Jeanie repeatedly comes into contact with people who discount her feelings. When she walks into Ed Rooney’s office, Grace immediately greets her by saying, “Hello, Jeanie. Who’s bothering you now?” When she refuses to donate to a fund raising money for a new kidney for Ferris — a kidney he clearly doesn’t need — a fellow student responds by calling her “a heartless wench.” Of course, Jeanie is met with hostility because that’s usually what she brings to the table first. In most of her scenes in this movie, her mood is either pissed or super-pissed. But because we, the viewers, have a broader picture of what’s happening here, we understand why her squinty-eyed outrage is at least partly justifiable.
Jeanie is not the only person in this movie intent on bringing Ferris down; Mr. Rooney is on his own mission, too. But the humor in their respective narratives works on completely different levels. Mr. Rooney is a buffoon, an arrogant Keystone Cop of an authority figure who screws up over and over again. What’s funny about Jeanie’s scenes is her exasperation with the morons around her who have been completely snowed by Ferris’s long cons. Unlike Rooney, she’s no idiot. In fact, she and Ferris are probably the two smartest people in the movie.
The degree of injustice that Jeanie faces becomes most apparent when Jeanie calls the police to report that there’s an intruder (Mr. Rooney, although that doesn’t seem to register with her initially) in her home. After the cops inquire about Ferris’ well-being even though Jeanie is in the middle of an emergency distress call, she screams into the phone: “I am very cute, I am very alone, and I am very protective of my body. I do not want it violated or killed!” Again, Hughes may have been aiming for comedy here, but it’s a moment that also pretty starkly highlights the way that society often dismisses and discounts women. The victim-blaming is taken to new levels when Jeanie is the one who winds up at the police station, accused of filing a false report.