Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School. Shermer, Illinois 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see as you want to see us: in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions.
— The Breakfast Club, 1985
Shermer, Illinois is a storied town. It’s home to John Bender and Claire Standish, Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye, Sam Baker and Farmer Ted. But it’s not a real place. You may remember an embittered Jay and Silent Bob relaying the news in Dogma’s diner scene. (Jay did most of the talking.)
Shermer, Illinois is actually a fictional composite: a geographical metaphor devised by filmmaker John Hughes to represent the culture and social politics of the North Shore. The North Shore is a string of affluent lakeside towns just north of Chicago, which rose to national visibility as the setting for such classic high school movies as The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles.
The etymology of Shermer is pretty simple: Hughes went to high school in Northbrook, Illinois, a North Shore suburb incorporated in 1901 under the name “Shermerville.” The town was renamed in 1921, but a Shermer Road survives as one of the area’s main roadways.
A more complex matter revolves around delineating the borders of the North Shore, because those who live inside can lay claim to the all-American Hughes canon.
“Northbrook kids try and take credit for The Breakfast Club all the time,” says a rising senior at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois — my alma mater. “But New Trier actually invented Breakfast Clubs, so we own that.”
What she says is true: New Trier students nicknamed their before-school and weekend detentions “Breakfast Clubs” at some indeterminate point in the school’s 112-year history. My father attended New Trier in the mid ‘70s, and the school’s administration had officially adopted the term by then. It’s actually printed in the student handbook: “Three or more unexcused tardies will result in a Breakfast Club.” Hughes borrowed the term to title his hit 1985 film when he was living in nearby Northfield and his kids were enrolled at New Trier.
But comments like “Northbrook kids try and take credit for The Breakfast Club all the time” indicate a greater cultural divide on the North Shore that surpasses disagreements over cinematic minutiae. The debate over what constitutes “the North Shore,” and what constitutes the North Shore adjacent, is older than Shermerville.
Historically, the North Shore consisted of nine villages clustered on the western shore of Lake Michigan, all due north of Chicago. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Lake Forest and Lake Bluff compose a literal north shore. But since the incorporation of Kenilworth, youngest community in the North Shore proper, the definition has expanded. The tiny village of Northfield was ceded to New Trier Township, a collection of six villages whose teenage residents attend the birthplace of Breakfast Clubs. And since New Trier Township is often thought to be the heart of North Shore life, Northfield was brought into the fold. As suburban development expanded west of the Edens Expressway, Wilmette swallowed up the village of Gross Point, and the towns of Glenview and Northbrook became increasingly populated. Slivers of “Glenbrook” would be included in New Trier Township, and once again, the North Shore label swelled to accommodate.
But still, a faction of hardliners insist that in order to be “North Shore,” as the adjective now stands, you must live in a town that actually has a shore.
“I’ve gone on trips, to Florida or New York or wherever, and I’ve actually met people from Arlington Heights and Palatine who claim they’re from the North Shore,” says Dana, a Winnetka-native pursuing her master’s at the University of North Carolina. “There’s at least two or three towns separating them from Lake Michigan. How do you convince yourself of that? By ignoring geography?” She counters, “Nothing against Arlington Heights. It’s a fine town. It’s just not on the North Shore. Let’s not pretend it is.”
This kind of hyper-local territoriality is not unique to the North Shore. You’ll find it among residents in any place with status, self-ascribed or popularly recognized. New Yorkers are adamant about what qualifies them as New Yorkers: Unless you’ve lived in the city for at least 10 years and paid your fair share of ridiculous rents, to the natives you’re indistinguishable from the weekend Bridge and Tunnelers or freshly minted N.Y.U. students.
Perhaps this partially illuminates why North Shore suburbs jockey for John Hughes bragging rights. Then again, considering the films’ profound messaging and nuanced portrayals of youthful emotion, perhaps the North Shore simply wants to demonstrate some artistic gravitas. John Hughes is our Woody Allen, and we want to ensure our claim on him is recognized and respected.
In the isolated universe of Chicagoland, the North Shore is prime real estate. It competes with few other areas to draw the wealthiest and most illustrious newcomers from metropolitan Chicago. It considers itself a cultural hub for the region, and not arbitrarily. Diverse Evanston is home to Northwestern University and thriving art, dining and theater scenes. Lake Forest is home to Lake Forest College and the nationally famous Ragdale artists’ colony; F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a great deal of time in Lake Forest, whose history very much mirrors the kinds of exploits that took place in Jazz Age West Egg. And Hughes wasn’t the only filmmaker to set his work in the area. Ordinary People (1980) and Shattered Glass (2003) are both examples. But on a national scale, there’s little to differentiate the North Shore from its counterparts across the Midwest – Edina, Overland Park, Ladue – and those around the country: Chevy Chase, the Main Line, Palo Alto, even Long Island’s very own “North Shore.”
Another movie that features the North Shore prominently is Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004). Set in Evanston at the fictional “North Shore High,” the film follows protagonist Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) as she navigates the social treacheries of what has largely been accepted as “the typical American high school.”
When the film came out, I distinctly recall whispers that North Shore High was based on New Trier — the high school I was set to enroll at in a year’s time. (This prospect only exacerbated my pre-freshman nerves.) As the years progressed, the certainty with which my classmates affirmed this rumor grew to the point where we all accepted it as fact. “Tina Fey worked in Evanston. She knows about New Trier,” we told each other in weirdly reassuring tones. We dismissed the fact that Evanston had its own high school that undoubtedly contained pretty, wealthy blondes, a few of whom were presumably mean. We disregarded the reality that Tina Fey based Mean Girls on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by parenting expert Rosalind Wiseman, who carried out the majority of her research at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. That didn’t matter to us. We were convinced. Probably just as convinced as those poor Arlington Heights kids who think they had a beach somewhere.
I spoke with a few childhood friends about this shared experience, this odd self-delusion we devoured.
“To be fair,” says Derrick, a graduate of neighboring Evanston Township High School who now works in radio in Boston, “Even though Mean Girls was set in Evanston, we thought it was based on New Trier too.”
It probably doesn’t alleviate any misconceptions when New Trier “Trevians” make it a point of conversation to introduce themselves as graduates of “the school Mean Girls was based on.”
“My college friends gave me a lot of shit about that,” says Carly, a childhood friend from my hometown of Wilmette, now a publicist in Chicago. “I was so obnoxious about [Mean Girls] freshman year.”
I myself am guilty of misrepresenting New Trier for my own conversational benefit. I recently had post-work drinks with some new co-workers in Washington, and once we exhausted the usual conversation topics of “Where do you live?” and “Where did you go to college?”, we resorted to the age-old but tireless “Where are you from?”
I always demure when someone asks me that particular question. “Oh, a suburb of Chicago.” I might specify “Just north of Chicago,” if I’m feeling chatty. Never do I claim provenance from the city itself. Although I was born on the North Side and spent a substantial chunk of my early years a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field, born-and-bred Chicagoans are even more merciless than New Yorkers in shaming zip code poseurs. The backpedal is never graceful.
This time, I elaborated. Why not make an impression?
“Oh, I’m from a little town just north of Chicago.” Silence. “It’s actually kind of well-known.” More silence. “Mean Girls was based on my high school…?”
“Did you go to New Trier?” asked a girl across the table.
“Yes,” I said.
“You people never shut up about Mean Girls,” she said. “Why do you think that’s something to advertise — that mean girls went to your high school?”
I pathetically followed up with a John Hughes justification (“My aunt lives three doors down from the Home Alone house!”), but the damage was done. This girl, in all her cantankerousness, was absolutely right. Why on Earth do we brag about graduating from a school that so closely resembles a parody?
“Truthfully,” Carly from my hometown says, “I think [we] believe we’re the premiere area in Chicagoland. Essentially the Beverly Hills of Chicago. But on a grander scale, we realize that’s not all that special. A bunch of big houses on a lake isn’t really a claim to fame. I think people feel the need to justify its mark.”
Here we can pinpoint the central insecurity of many North Shore residents and ex-pats. We grew up in “the Beverly Hills of Chicago” or “the Westchester of Chicago,” not vice versa. No one refers to Pasadena as “the Wilmette of Los Angeles” or Wellesley as “the Lake Forest of Boston.” There’s an innate inferiority complex lent to all Chicagoans that’s especially magnified in those who consider themselves the area elite. It’s a Second City complex.
And in glorifying the slice-of-Americana essence of the North Shore as remedy to this complex, we overlook the rhetorical core of Hughes’s work: Shermer, Illinois is not a perfect place anymore than it’s a real place. It was not created to portray the North Shore — however you choose to define it — in a wholly positive way. Even the least angsty film in the Hughes portfolio, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was still pretty angsty. (“Ferris, my father loves that car more than life itself.”) Pretty in Pink wasn’t just a love story; it explored the suburban wealth gap, the malaise of privilege. Sixteen Candles, in the proudest of Hughes traditions, conveyed the daily mistranslations that take place between parent and adolescent. Even Fey’s Mean Girls depicted the North Shore as a multilayered locale: a place that, once you peel away the absurd façade of conspicuous consumption and social playacting, contains real people with real problems that can translate across generation, gender, class, race and even nationality.
Ultimately, Hughes’s movies didn’t accentuate the North Shore as an especially distinctive place. The purpose of Shermer was to act as an Everytown, U.S.A., a vessel in which John could deliver relatable stories. And he didn’t just pick the North Shore because he lived there. He understood the place held value not in its distinctiveness, but in its translatability. And therein lies the cure for Second City complex: Worry less about defining the North Shore on a national scale, because the North Shore, in spirit, might define the nation.
Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.
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