The Breakfast Club is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and classic movies of the ‘80s. Five mismatched students, the athlete; the brain; the princess; the criminal; and the basket case are forced to spend the day together in Saturday detention.
The Social Penetration Theory explains how individuals grow closer to one another in their relationships. There is a public layer of a person that everybody has access to. It is simple things that can be told in the early-stages of relationships, like favorite food or their college major. However, as the relationship begins to progress, the layers of an individual progressively get deeper. This is typically illustrated as peeling back the layers of an onion, each layer revealing more information. At the very core of an individual is their most deeply held beliefs and convictions.
The theory states that in a normal process of building relationships, people begin at the top layer then slowly dig deeper and uncover more layers of an individual. The law of reciprocity creates equity in a developing relationship. One person is open which leads the other person to be open as well. Reciprocity is a give-and-take exchange which allows people to progress equally as they reveal more personal information.
There is a famous scene in the Breakfast Club where this band of misfits use the Social Penetration theory to learn more about each other and build unlikely friendships. In this scene, all five students are sitting in the library talking to one another. They have learned a lot of peripheral facts about one another throughout the day and this scene really shows the wedge being driven into the onion. The students are having a light-hearted conversation when one of them asks Emilio “How are you bizarre?”.
Emilio, who is a star athlete, begins to tell everybody why he was in detention that day. He begins with some basic facts about how he ended up in detention. However, as his story progresses, the topic quickly switches to a serious tone as he explains why he did what he did and it reveals personal information about his relationship with his father. As he is telling his story, he is slowly peeling away the layers of onion as he self-discloses more information. By the end of the story, he is almost in tears and the others are silenced by the depth of penetration that has been reached. Emilio’s story allows the other members to be open with him and also reveal personal information about family relations. When Emilio ends his story, Judd, the criminal kid with a bad background, comments that “I think that your old man and my old man should get together and go bowling”. This reciprocity opens the door for Judd to reveal personal information about his relationship with his father.
The social penetration theory helps us to understand how the scenes in the Breakfast Club play out and how the relationships develop among the students. By using this theory to understand the behaviors of the students, we can better prepare to determine behaviors in our own relationships.
– Anna Joy Zima