Movies

Save Jeanie: On ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s’ 30th Anniversary, A Tribute To The Misunderstood, Mistreated Jeanie Bueller

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.

Which brings us to the most troubling scene in the movie that involves Jeanie: the one that has her finally learn to lighten up by making out with Charlie Sheen. At the police station, Jeanie meets a drugged-out dude played by Sheen who, before sticking his tongue down her throat, mansplains her life to her.

“You’re pissed off because he ditches and doesn’t get caught, is that it?” he asks, referring to Ferris. “Then the problem is you.” He adds: “You need to spend a little more time worrying about yourself and a little less time worrying about what your brother does.”

He kind of has a point. Let’s pause and consider some of the things we’ve learned about Jeanie. She has a car, while Ferris does not. She has friends, or at least people at school who seemingly want to engage with her, but she’s too consumed by her Ferris obsession to meet them halfway. Also: does Jeanie go to class at all in this movie? We see her prowling and scowling in the hallways and we definitely know, per her conversation with Grace, that she skipped consumer ed class. We also see her drive home before it would appear that school has been dismissed for the afternoon. Jeanie wonders why Ferris gets to ditch when everyone else has to go, and yet it appears that she gets away with ditching, too, and doesn’t even seem to realize it. Sheen’s character actually forces her to look with clearer eyes at her own situation. Or to put it another way: the druggie in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off helps Jeanie learn to lean in.

And yet the phrase he uses — “Then the problem is you” — feels both wrong and unfair. Because the problem is not just Jeanie. It’s also an entire community who wants to “save Ferris” when he isn’t even in peril and doesn’t notice that Jeanie — and other marginalized kids like her — need attention too. Maybe Hughes wasn’t trying to slyly satirize a society that always gives white guys the advantages and the benefit of the doubt, but man, it really is hard to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 30 years later and not see it that way.

At the end of the movie, Ferris actually does get saved, for real, by his sister, who covers for him when Mr. Rooney finally catches Ferris in his elaborate lie. For those inclined to think that Jeanie completely abandons her principles by coming to Ferris’ aid, I’d say that Jeanie actually does stick it to the man, in a way. “The man” isn’t her brother because, well, after all, he’s her brother. Instead she sticks it to Rooney, who is just as arrogant and entitled as Ferris but, because he’s an adult with zero boundary issues, arguably more dangerous. Throwing his wallet in the mud and leaving him to get attacked by the family Rottweiler is her revenge for making it seem like she made up the fact that he broke into the Buellers’ house. The movie conveys that Jeanie has a chip on her shoulder but, also, that the chip exists because of her upbringing and pro-Ferris environment. It ultimately resolves her story by reaching a compromise, too, enabling her to let Ferris off the hook while still getting to punish someone.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. That’s the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off mantra, but it’s not a lesson that Ferris himself learns. He already knew that at the beginning of the film and he knows it at the end, too. He may be the protagonist, but Ferris remains entirely unchanged in this movie. The two characters who are most transformed are the ones who live most consciously in Ferris’s shadow: Jeanie and Cameron. Because there was no sequel to Ferris — the short-lived TV adaptation does not count — we don’t know exactly what happens to either of them in the days after the day off.

But I like to think that someday, maybe after they’ve finished college and are both working in Chicago while Ferris jet-sets around the world in his career as an international assassin (or perhaps, begins his gig as a fry cook on Venus), Jeanie and Cameron become friends on their own terms. I picture them cutting out of work a little early to meet for happy hour, probably someplace not far from where that big “Twist and Shout” parade happened. I picture them laughing about all the ways that Ferris used to run roughshod over them. I picture them grown-up and each firmly their own people, no longer the fearful hypochondriac and the bitter older sibling. I picture them happy and something that the charmed Ferris can never quite be: fully appreciative of all their blessings because they remember what it feels like to not be so blessed.

The Ferris Bueller 30th Anniversary Edition is available on Digital HD now. 

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