You’d be hard-pressed to find a single teen comedy from the 1980s that hasn’t aged at least a little poorly. It’s inevitable that as social attitudes change, things that were perceived as normal thirty years ago might come across as cringey. But what’s surprising about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is not the presence of an off-color joke or questionable gender politics – it’s the film’s entire conception of Ferris as an aspirational figure. They portray him as some sort of philosophical wunderkind, dancing through life on charm alone, while his sister Jeanie is presented as a resentful killjoy for being a fairly normal teenager, albeit one who is perpetually frustrated at having a sibling who gets away with everything. Ferris is the embodiment of white upper middle class male entitlement, and if you made this movie today, you could have everything happen exactly the same way, only Jeanie would unquestionably be perceived as the protagonist.
Over the course of this one specific day where Ferris Bueller skips school, we see him break all the rules, both academic and societal, with virtually no consequences. He manages to get himself out of any number of potential scrapes because he is emboldened by the supreme confidence only a wealthy white man whose brain hasn’t finished developing could have. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, his personality is framed positively, like he’s a free-spirited, “seize the day” lifestyle guru. But the problem is that he sucks so many people into his web of entropy, and they’re often the ones who end up paying the price (a fact that he shows a spectacular disregard for).
Frankly, Ferris is a bully. His so-called best friend Cameron clearly has an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, but rather than express any empathy, he thinks the solution is for Cameron to be more like him. Ferris not only drags him along on his various misadventures, he purposely pushes him towards triggers that Cameron repeatedly articulates discomfort with, as some sort of amateur exposure therapy. Ferris knows that Cameron has difficult, demanding parents who punish him severely for any perceived infractions. But because Ferris has a very different home life, and he is incapable of stepping outside his own experiences to see someone else’s point of view, he believes that he knows best and he acts accordingly. Throughout the film, he shows a callous indifference for the feelings of people he supposedly cares about.
So if Ferris is our hero, who is our villain? Well, our main villain is Ed Rooney, arguably the most overreaching principal in cinematic history. But Ferris’s sister Jeanie occupies a similarly antagonistic role, as she becomes determined to get Ferris in trouble for skipping school. Jeanie is clearly frustrated by the fact that Ferris always manages to get away with murder, and all of his misdeeds only serve to make people like him more. That an overlooked teenage girl would be bitter towards her brother in this situation is entirely understandable, especially when she does everything right but is still ignored in favor of the mischievous golden child. Really, that shouldn’t be difficult for audiences to empathize with. But there’s an underlying sense of misogyny that is intent on having Jeanie framed as uptight and unlikeable, her assertive nature presented as a fault rather than an asset.
And the film severely ignores the trauma that Jeanie goes through on this day. While Ferris is off having fun adventures, singing “Twist and Shout” on a parade float and pretending to be the Sausage King of Chicago, Jeanie is fighting off a home invader (yes, it’s just her principal, but she doesn’t know that, and at any rate, he shouldn’t be in her house without permission) and being taken into police custody for filing a false report. Throughout all of this, she maintains her composure as well as anyone could expect, which makes juvenile delinquent Charlie Sheen’s advice for her to just relax laughable. (Maybe she’s having a day and doesn’t need you telling her that her eye makeup makes her look like a whore, Charlie.) And also, not for nothing, but she’s the one who outsmarts Ed Rooney at the end of the day and protects her brother even though he doesn’t really deserve it. She’s not an annoying sister who learns how to lighten up: she’s the hero.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still a fun movie, and Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris is so charming that it is deservedly one of the roles he’s most remembered for. But looking back on the film 35 years later, it’s clear that Ferris isn’t quite the unquestioned good guy that he might have been when it first came out. Watching this film in the 1980s and 1990s, it sent the message that we should be more like Ferris. But we can’t all waltz through life with totally unearned confidence — nor should we. Jeanie may not be perfect, but she’s arguably the more relatable and sympathetic figure of the film.