Ferris Bueller and the Nature of Goodness

*spoilers abound throughout*

During a recent bout of sickness, my boyfriend and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it is a wonderful, happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when you have to periodically pause it to rush to the bathroom. While I was watching it, two things struck me. First, it is a wonderful happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when, well, I guess I covered that already. Second, Ferris Bueller does almost nothing I approve of, and yet I can’t help liking him and rooting for him. He rejects education for entirely juvenile reasons. He lies to every authority figure, bullies his best friend into going out, takes another person’s car out for a joyride and cons his way into taking someone else’s dinner reservation (both of which are on the borderline of stealing), all without showing a hint of guilt. Now, there are many stories out there with an amoral, rule-breaking protagonist, but often I root for these protagonists while cringing. I don’t want them to be doing what they are doing, but I still care about them and hope that somehow things work out for them. They are often tragic protagonists who are punished in the end for their wrongdoing, and though I didn’t want to see them suffer I also wouldn’t have been satisfied by any other ending. Ferris, however, is someone who I root for unreservedly, and when, at the end, everything works out for him, I am completely satisfied. It is the one movie that can make me forget all my normal values while I watch it.

Or is it?

The antiheroic characters I described above earn my sympathy through two methods. First, they tend to be charming, cool and often funny, so they are likable. Second, they tend to oppose characters who are unlikable, sometimes even characters who are more morally corrupt than they are. Both of those do apply to Ferris (he is funny and charming, and his main antagonist, Principal Rooney, is so rude and unapologetically overbearing, it’s impossible to root for him) but there is another layer to Ferris’ success as a character. While in an academic sense everything he does is wrong, while you are watching him do things the way he does, it’s hard to disapprove of them.

For one thing, his misbehaving is incredibly harmless. He never seeks to do harm, only to enjoy himself. I’m trying to think of bad things that could have happened offscreen as a result of his actions, and I can only think of one; the maitre d’ who was duped into giving Ferris someone else’s reservation probably got chewed out by his manager. That’s all, and odds are if he’s a decent maitre d’ who doesn’t normally make this kind of mistake, and if the manager is willing to listen to the full explanation, it’s doubtful he suffered any long term consequences. Ferris never steals from somebody who isn’t capable of easily replacing what was taken, he never lies with the intent to cause somebody else physical or emotional pain, and in general he never shows ill will towards anybody, even Mr. Rooney.

In fact, the humiliations Mr. Rooney experiences are entirely unrelated to anything Ferris does. In another movie a Ferris-like scalawag might set sadistic traps for him, but that’s not Ferris’ way. Ferris is content to get out of school, and leave Mr. Rooney in peace. It is Mr. Rooney’s own actions that hurt and humiliate him. He is rude to a lesbian who he mistakes for Ferris, and gets soda spat in his face. He trespasses on the Bueller’s property, and their dog chases him down. He trespasses again, frightens Ferris’ sister and gets the police called on him. I’ve heard some people argue that Mr. Rooney is actually just doing his job, and we just root against him because he is unsympathetic, I think that is a hard position to support. While it is true that Mr. Rooney has a responsibility to maintain his school’s attendance rate, do you think any court or review board would say that responsibility justified abandoning his school for an entire day to chase down a single absent student? Or intruding on someone else’s property? Dropping a flowerpot on their dog? Even though his anger at Ferris is somewhat reasonable, his actions are not.

So there is one reason why Ferris is easy to identify with. He never harms anyone directly, nor does he intend to hurt anyone. That doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. If he cares only about his own pleasure, without any intent to hurt others, that makes him an amorally blithe spirit. To really be considered a good person, he has to care about others in addition to caring about himself. Does he meet this criteria?

I think he does. He brings two people along with him on his day off; his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane. At first, when Cameron is sick in bed and conflicted about going, this seems selfish. Ferris claims that Cameron’s illness is all in his head, that he is chronically depressed and anxious and what he really needs is to get out of his head and have some fun. For many characters, this would be just another sort of manipulation, or justifications made for the speaker’s  own convenience, but this movie backs this up. Once Cameron gets out of his house, he really does stop showing any signs of sickness. His facial expressions and mannerisms are very consistent with being anxious, and his parents are described as being both strict and neglectful (speaking as someone who was in the same position for a while, I related to Cameron quite a lot). After Ferris has gotten Cameron out of the house, he continues to have asides to the camera about Cameron’s mental state. Ferris only drops his carefree attitude when he talks about Cameron, because he is genuinely afraid that Cameron will never loosen up and find his confidence. At one point Sloane suggests that Ferris planned this whole trip for Cameron’s benefit, and we aren’t given any reason to think she’s wrong.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Ferris is a sociopath, and it’s true that he is manipulative and shows a callous disregard for the rules, but neither of those are the defining traits of sociopathy. What separates sociopaths from non-sociopaths is that sociopaths completely lack empathy. In fact, people who have many traits of sociopathy, but whose sense of empathy is normal, are known for being extreme altruists; the kinds of people who run into burning buildings or dart into traffic to save small children. Ferris is not a sociopath. He does two things a sociopath would never do. First, when Cameron falls into the pool, seemingly catatonic, Ferris dives in to save him. The look on his face when Cameron falls is of shock and terror, and it’s not for the benefit of any audience. Nobody else is there, except Sloane, who is behind him and couldn’t see his face anyway. Second, when Cameron, at the end of the film, destroys his father’s car, Ferris offers to take the blame. He begs for it. He says this is too much heat for Cameron to take. His feelings for Cameron are both selfless and genuine.

One of Ferris’ most morally questionable acts in the beginning of the film is stealing Cameron’s father’s red Ferrari. I say it’s the most morally questionable because, while Ferris doesn’t intend for it to be damaged, it easily could have been, and because, while Cameron’s family is probably financially capable of replacing it, it has strong emotional value to Cameron’s father.  The car is kept shut up in a garage, never driven, never used, just polished and admired and doted on. Many kids would complain jokingly about their parent’s loving some trinket more than them, but when Cameron says his father loves the Ferrari more than his own son, nobody treats it as an exaggeration. It is this transgression of Ferris’ that worries Cameron the most.

In the end, the car is returned to the garage unharmed, but Ferris’ plan to take off the miles they have driven turns out to be based on a complete lack of understanding of how cars actually work. Cameron goes catatonic for a while, and Ferris’ blithe demeanor is shaken for the first time. He is truly anxious for his friend. Then, Cameron comes out with it, and suddenly trashes his father’s car. He has lived his whole life in terror of his father, and now, facing the imminent threat of his father’s wrath, he decides the fear is not worth it. He wants to face his father, accept whatever consequences there are. This is how you get rid of fear; you stare the thing you fear in the face, and you accept it. From this point on, Cameron does seem more confident. Initially, he was a rule follower, not because he had an internal moral compass telling him to do so, but because he feared authority and devalued himself. Ferris takes him on an adventure to show him that authority is not all powerful, and that Cameron is worthy of the good times that the rules would so often deprive him of, and in the end, this pays off, though not quite the way Ferris had expected.
This movie, while portraying actions that I would never ordinarily condone, does in fact have a moral core that I completely agree with. Ferris breaks the rules because he knows that the rules aren’t always good. In this film, everyone who follows the rules does so for completely the wrong reason. They are either like Mr. Rooney, insisting on the rules because they feel the rules should benefit them personally, or like Cameron, following the rules because they are afraid of the consequences. Their morality does not come from a place of compassion, empathy, or desire to make the world a better place. Instead, it is Ferris’ mischief that actually comes from concern for others, and that makes the lives of those around him better.

Rules don’t exist to make people good. Rules can’t make people good. Rules give us a sense of how the world work, they give us a framework to live in, but it’s up to us to live in that framework in a way that is empathetic and giving. As long as the rules are consistent with that kind of inner goodness, it is good to follow them, but when that’s not always the case. Sometimes the rules are made by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart, like Cameron’s parents, or maybe the rules become just an excuse for people who aren’t acting in a way that’s really good, like Mr. Rooney. For those times, we need characters like Ferris to remind us that sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.

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