“I Want Out of This Family:” Jeanie Bueller’s Lament

by Ann Lightcap Bruno

In 1986, in the salty darkness of the Westmoreland Mall cinema, I fell under the spell of Ferris Bueller’s devil-may-care bad boy, fake sick baby talking, “Twist and Shout” lip synching, excellent adventures in Chicagoland. Jeanie, his bitch-on-wheels (more on the wheels to follow) sister didn’t tug at my sympathies in the slightest. As played by the Ringwald-bobbed Jennifer Grey, she was a pill. At every turn, Jeanie let loose one scathing zinger after another (“Bite the big one Junior.” “Go piss up a flagpole.” “Why don’t you put your thumb up your butt?”), further solidifying her status as annoying sociopath and Ferris’s as righteous dude. It would be years later, specifically the recent occasion of watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on Netflix with my twelve-year-old girl and fourteen-year-old boy, that I would finally begin to see things from Jeanie’s mirror-lensed perspective. Yes, Jeanie is a bitch – but with an insanely popular brother who gets away with everything, how could she be anything else? It also occurred to me that Ferris is just as tortured by his resentment of Jeanie as she is of him.

Jeanie’s rage is never quite murderous (Charlie Sheen’s police station druggie asks her: “Did you blow him away or something.” Jeanie: “No, not yet.”) but close enough. When Hamlet’s Uncle/Stepfather Claudius soliloquizes about his ear poisoning of Hamlet Sr., he says, “It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t/A brother’s murder.” Just as Cain’s jealousy over God (as father figure) showing favor to Abel results in the first on-record murder, so do countless famous siblings have it in for one another. J.R. and Bobby Ewing, Lady Mary and Lady Edith, Baby Jane and Blanche, Michael and Fredo Coreleone, Mufasa and Scar (see above, Claudius and Hamlet Sr.). Examples abound. Typically these feuds involve same-gender siblings jockeying for position in matters of money, fame, politics, romance. It is somewhat tougher to find media and literary representation of mixed-gender sibling rivalry.  As an older sister to a younger brother, and as a mother to a boy and a girl, I have seen and experienced my fair share of “I can’t believe what you let him/her get away with” histrionics. There is something distinctive about the acidic resentment which can run through the veins of a brother and sister. Our respective genders typically render us fundamentally different in our identities, and yet they also gall us into dwelling on the gender-specific injustice doled out by our parents. Why do I always have to shovel more of the walk than she has to? It’s totally unfair that he can come down to breakfast with no shirt on and I can’t walk around in my sports bra. 

At first glance, writer/director John Hughes seems to paint Jeanie as the vindictive, hyperbolic, uptight sister (“If I was bleeding out my eyes you guys would make me go to school”)and Ferris as the blithe, adorable, carpe diem spouting brother (“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you’ll miss it.”) Jeanie is obsessive about her brother’s ability to hoodwink the whole wide world, just as Ferris seems quite Zen and non-plussed by her meanness at his pseudo-sickbed. And yet, when he’s alone with the camera, breaking the fourth wall with pointed asides, he offers us glimpses of a fairly deeply-rooted resentment of his own: his parents have bought Jeanie a car (Is she younger? Are they twins? Either way it’s a travesty of justice) and all he got was a stupid computer. The whole movie pretty much revolves around the car. Most noticeably, the movie hinges on Ferris’s manipulation of the woe-begotten Cameron into stealing his father’s rare and preternaturally beloved 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. When, in the end, the car sails through the glass window of the garage and lands, obliterated, in the woods below, Ferris makes a half-assed gesture of taking the blame, but he concedes immediately when Cameron insists that he needs to come clean with his father.  This was the point in the movie when my daughter said, “I can’t believe Ferris actually gets away with everything. What kind of movie ends like that?”

Despite his myriad talents for sucking up, giving good kids bad ideas (to borrow the words of Dean of Students Edward Rooney), catching foul balls, and having impeccable timing, talents that offer him significant power as a teenage boy, Ferris feels emasculated by his lack of wheels: “I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off of people.” And Jeanie, in one softened voice over, concedes that maybe she’s overreacting: “I got a car, he got a computer.” Jeanie’s white Pontiac Fiero is, indeed, stuck in Ferris’s craw, prompting him to make himself feel better by driving that sleek, phallic Ferrari into oblivion. Though he wears his resentment with a difference, Ferris, like Jeanie, is plagued by an insidious jealousy of something he can’t claim as his but that his sibling can.

On our good days, my brother and I enjoy each other’s company, laugh at awkward memories from the childhood we shared, trade worries about our parents and our children. And on our bad days (usually at the wearying conclusion of some family holiday extravaganza), we become children ourselves, feeling strangely satisfied at the predictability of one another’s poor behavior. Isn’t that just classic him/her.  How typical. Were we to catch a glimpse of Jeanie and Ferris’s future as siblings, we might see them gathering with their kids and spouses and parents once a year at the big white house. On the first night they will drink merrily and watch Ferris’s son, Wrigley, teach Jeanie’s daughter, Shauna, how to crawl into the kitchen through the dog door. By night three, Jeanie will be seething as Mrs. Bueller praises Ferris for helping Mr. Bueller take out the trash as she neglects to comment on the four-course meal Jeanie has prepared single handedly (Ferris and his wife are so busy with their new baby!) And Ferris will use his iPhone to look up the price of the fur-lined boots his parents bought for Shauna, up and against the pittance spent on Wrigley’s Lego set (It wasn’t even the one he wanted!) And in the morning as they say their goodbyes, everyone will hug and say,“This has been great,” having learned how to mask the true emotion.

In the end, it’s all really about a fear of responsibility, a fear of adulthood, a fear of reality, for both brother and sister. In one of his final asides, Ferris hints at his anxieties about life after high school. With these glory days nearly over and done with, Rooney might be right -- Ferris might beon the verge a rude awakening. And Jeanie, having found her inner “Danke Schoen” after a makeout session with Sheen at the local precinct, might be ready to emerge from her bitch cocoon and become a likeable human being. After all, it’s Jeanie who saves Ferris when Rooney corners him at last at the threshold of their home.

Why does Jeanie save her brother? His being caught is her elusive dream, and in an instant, she gives it up for the sake of a Hollywood ending (Again, my daughter is crying out, “Not even now?!! He HAS to get in trouble!!”). Jeanie, perhaps as the younger of the two, is possibly reacting to Rooney’s threat of another year of high school for Ferris. Or maybe she is so transformed by being found desirable by a drug-addled boy that she is suddenly all sunshine and flowers. I tend to think that Jeanie saves Ferris because she can. It’s about social power, something that he has oodles of, regardless of his carless status, and that she lacks. No one really likes her, no one really listens to her. And here, with Ferris’s fate in her hands, she has her own kind of small victory by stepping in to save him when he is incapable of saving himself.  

Despite the cliché, Ferris is right. Life does move pretty fast, carrying us from high school to middle age at reckless speeds. As grown-up brothers and sisters, we maintain many of our primal jealousies and don’t always save one another from crashing and burning. But we have our protective moments, our don’t-mess-with-my-kinfolk moments, just as we have our self-absorbed meltdowns. The perspective that hopefully comes with age and experience is that he/she is not the real issue. “Spend a little less time worrying about what your brother does,” the wise seer Sheen tells Jeanie right before they make out. “Your problem is you.”

Ann Lightcap Bruno's stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Sweet, Alimentum, Elimae, Painted Bride Quarterly, Talking Writing and Memoir.