Jeanie Bueller's Day of Feminist Killjoying

Two things happened in the past few days, that started this post working its way into my brain.

1. I read, care of Tami Winfrey Harris, that Ferris Bueller took his day off exactly 30 years ago last Friday. Yowza!

2. I chatted with Parker Molloy yesterday on Twitter (shared with her permission; scroll up) about a short-lived sitcom that debuted 16 years ago, starring Jennifer Grey as Jennifer Grey.

The show, It's Like, You Know…, was incisively navel-gazey about the lifestyle of privileged white people living in LA, and, although it [video autoplays at next two links] looks pretty hacky now, it was really ahead of its time—not least of which because of Jennifer Grey, playing herself, after a nose job left her virtually unrecognizable and stalled her career. Totally meta, before meta was A Thing.

So, Parker and I were talking about how we loved Jennifer Grey in It's Like, You Know… But of course I loved Jennifer Grey long before that.

Dirty Dancing is one of my favorite films, and Baby Houseman one of my favorite film characters of all time, whom Grey inhabits with a perfect combination of burgeoning self-awareness and the unchecked privilege that manifests simultaneously as naïveté and courage. Female coming-of-age films are rare, and ones as good as Dirty Dancing even rarer, and Grey's Baby—a girl becoming a woman—was iconic to me the moment upon which I laid eyes on her, long before the rest of the world caught up.

Grey was also in another much-watched film from my youth, the aforementioned Ferris Bueller's Day Off, although I loved it for entirely different reasons: I was a suburban Chicago kid who may have, once or twice, had a "day off" in the city with my friends. A day full of angst and adventure.

Grey plays Ferris' long-suffering sister, Jeanie Bueller, who huffs and eyerolls and shouts indignantly through the film, a perfect picture of injustice in a pink cardigan.

collage of images of Jennifer Grey as Jeanie Bueller, looking exasperated and angry
I make all of these expressions at least once a day.

I'm certain that the filmmaker, John Hughes, imagined Jeanie to be lovable, and quite possibly a deeply cathartic character for lots of little sisters of golden boy brothers everywhere. But Jeanie was also written to be Ferris' adversary, a secondary foil to Principal Ed "Nine Times" Rooney. And you will find her on many lists of 80s "villains" as a result.

But while Principal Ed "Bad Knee" Rooney was primarily preoccupied with autocratically enforcing the rules—those high school rules designed for 14-year-olds; rules which have grown entirely stale and silly by the time you're about to leave four years later; rules Ferris Bueller successfully broke without consequences, thus exposing Principal Rooney's incompetence and overblown sense of importance in his teenager-inhabited fiefdom—Jeanie was primarily preoccupied with Ferris' rule-breaking because it was unfair.

Why should he get away with everything? Why should he be able to fool his parents that he's sick, winking at Jeanie behind their backs as they scowl with concern over his (manufactured) fever? Why should he be able to ditch school, and have its entire student body raise funds for his (imaginary) illness? Why should he be able to charm everyone into abetting his adventures, and why should none of them notice that he's entirely self-interested and offers them nothing in return but a dimpled grin?

Jeanie isn't having it. And she sets out to be his ruination.

Because Ferris is the hero, we are thus meant to root for him—and root fervently against Jeanie.

And maybe, if I had seen Ferris Bueller's Day Out (1986) and Dirty Dancing (1987) in the order of their release, I wouldn't have liked Jeanie as much as I did. But I saw Dirty Dancing first—and I was already Baby's most devoted champion. There was no way I couldn't feel affinity for Jeanie.

That only meant, however, I didn't hate her as much as everyone else seemed to. Even with vision clouded by heart-shaped summonings of Jennifer Grey, I still rooted for Jeanie's exposure campaign to fail, for Ferris to slip through her fingers one more time.

And I loved Jeanie best when, faced with the choice to finally claim victory over her brother, or sacrifice him to Principal Rooney, she chooses to instead save Ferris and leave Principal Rooney, tattered suit and all, to wallow in his defeat.

But Ferris Bueller had his day off 30 years ago. And three decades later, my feelings about Ferris and Jeanie are very different indeed.

Ferris seems a lot less like a charming rogue and a lot more like a privileged trickster who lies and schemes to get what he wants, who exploits people's generosity and trust in pursuit of his own pleasure and coerces his best friend to do his bidding. He seems careless with people's feelings, and irresponsible, and shallow. The kind of friend who seems like a whole lot of fun, until you actually need a friend to be there for you, and he's nowhere to be found.

And Jeanie. Well, Jeanie looks a lot more like a feminist who has had it up to here with the entitled antics of a very privileged man who does whatever he wants, suffers no consequences, and blissfully cruises through life getting handed nearly everything he wants, while she has to work twice as hard to get noticed and couldn't get away with a sliver of the crap he does.

Now I pay a lot more attention to Jeanie, to her understandable resentment and anger, to her tough demolishment of Principal Rooney, to her calling out his creepy fixations, to her amazing driving skills (!), to her taking a moment for herself to make out with the cute bad boy at the police station—Charlie Sheen, back when the most notable thing about him was being Emilio Estevez's little brother.

The thing is, Jeanie wasn't wrong. Ferris is kind of a douche.

Jeanie Bueller ends up on lists of 80s villians because she's villainized in a very particular—and familiar—way: She's a killjoy. She's a woman who is resentful of gender disparities that disfavor her and angry at a man who is exploiting them. She's a teenage caricature of the man-hating feminist, whose pursuit of justice is cast as a humorless scold trying to ruin a guy's fun.

Now, 30 years on, I root for Jeanie. And instead of feeling elated when she saves her brother, I wish she'd just close the door and smile through the window, while he finally gets his due.

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