Hello, boys and girls. I’m going to ask some questions and I’d like you to think about them. Don’t answer them out loud, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably not talking to anyone and saying something out loud would just create a very awkward and embarrassing situation for you. But think about them. Has Lake Forest High School succumbed to the stereotype of having a social hierarchy? When you see someone in the halls, can you name their friend group by the way they’re dressed or who they’re talking to? Are there certain areas of the lunch room that are sectioned off for certain groups? Have we formed our own unimportant, trivial social code that no one acknowledges but we all obey?
Well, if we are what our culture seems to perceive as high school, we would be all that and more.
Everyone loves the classic rom-coms and high school movies from the late 90s and early 2000s, like Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless. In watching these movies, I noticed one very strong similarity. To be more specific, one similar scene. To explain the high school atmosphere these stories are set in, a scene is included where a student explains the various cliques and groups of the school. They go something like this:
“You got your freshmen, preps, JV jocks, asian nerds, cool asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst…beware of the Plastics.”
10 Things I Hate About You
“Here’s the breakdown. Over there, we’ve got your basic beautiful people. Unless they talk to you first, don’t bother. To the left, we have the coffee kids. Very edgy, don’t make any sudden movements around them. These delusionals are the White Rastae, Big Marley fans–they think they’re black, semi-political but mostly–”
“Smoke a lot of weed?”
“Yeah. These guys–”
“Lemme guess, cowboys?”
“These are your future MBAs. We’re all Ivy League accepted.”
“That is Alana’s group over there. They do the TV station. They think it’s the most important thing on Earth. And that’s the Persian mafia. You can’t hang with them unless you own a BMW. There’s all the most popular boys in the school. If you choose to date a high school boy, they are the only acceptable ones. Looties generally hang on the grassy knoll over there. Sometimes they come to class and say bonehead things and we all laugh, of course, but no respectable girl actually dates them.”
These scenes are light-hearted and funny, yes, but they also create an extremely warped perspective of high school for middle schoolers and even students of the high school age that may be watching them. For an adult to write about high school as if it’s a cartoonish collection of tribe-like groups who spend a surprising amount of time talking to their friends in disproportionately long passing periods is slightly ignorant when they consider what message they are sending with their stories.
In fact, in their perception of authenticity, they objectify ethnicities, gender roles, intelligence, the relationship between identity and self-worth, and most of all, the American high school.
To begin with, these situations are obviously exaggerated in order to make for interesting entertainment. In high school—at least in my own personal experience—friend groups are formed and certain people become close, but there are not such great and profound divisions that it’s considered unfathomable that a varsity football player and the head of robotics club would be talking to each other. What is important to remember is that, when we exaggerate, we are always pulling from our perception of real life. When adults are writing about these cliques, they believe they are basing them on the true atmosphere of the American high school, which the audience can, in turn, recognize and identify with. Ultimately, however, we expect our pop culture to be somewhat reflective of what is actually occurring in our lives, and when we see this over-exaggerated version of school, we recognize it as a blown up version of reality.
And I might be giving us too much credit. Sure, logically we realize that these silly rom-coms are written for the purpose of being ridiculous and are not a documentary of high school life (how boring would that be), but do we really take this into account while forming our opinion of a social hierarchy? Our culture is chock-full of comedy, from sit-coms to rom-coms to your average, every day comedies. In order for these countless comedies to have any relevance to our lives (and keep us to like watching them), they must be based on real life situations. When we recognize these situations, we often don’t think much about the differences manufactured to produce comedy, but rather we ponder what we can relate to. Our culture enforces what we believe, and if our culture is full of nonsensical depictions of high school, we will start to believe that high school is just as nonsensical. The fact that we are making fun of these hierarchies proves that we believe in them in the first place.
More than anything, the stereotypes brought on by certain activities are enforced by these movies. In Mean Girls, the popular girls are long-legged with blonde hair and perfect skin, while the bottom rung holds the goth girl and gay guy. Clueless comes across with a very similar picture. Regina George and Cher Horowitz are both tall and blonde. What does that say about our culture if we accept that as normal? What if we are reminded by this ideal so much by Hollywood that we perpetuate it in our own lives almost automatically? These movies are teaching kids that, if you’d like to find footing in the seemingly very important high school social hierarchy, you can’t be openly homosexual or prefer wearing black to pink, and instead have to look like a walking Barbie doll.
And in addition, these movies go on to teach you that, in high school, one single thing about you defines who you are. If you get straight As, you’re a nerd. If you’re on the cheerleading team, you’re dumb. If you wear designer brands, you’re a snob. And, apparently, there is an already established clique just waiting for you to join based on that one defining factor of your identity. However, this could not be farther from real life. High school kids are just as complex and compassionate as any adult writing the scripts to silly teenage rom-coms bleeding from the reel with letterman’s jackets, posh sports cars, and bullying. We have so many different things going on in our lives–from school to sports to a social life–that there is no way our entire identity could be defined by one aspect of our insanely busy lives. The lesson that a student’s certain likes and dislikes will constrain them to one group of friends and only one defining activity for their entire high school experience is a misleading one, despite how goofy the rest of the movie is.
What has bothered me most is that, although the popular people in these movies might be cast under a negative light, the characters always seem to strive to become one of them. This glorification of a flimsy and temporary high school hierarchy is the reason they still exist. From experience, I can tell you that almost any kid at Lake Forest High School will carry a pleasant conversation with you, whether you play on the varsity baseball team or are first chair in band. We, at LFHS, are not self-absorbed morons with the inability to have genuine kindness towards others simply because of an overrated establishment dating back for decades. This fascination with the idea of fleeting high school popularity is the reason that these movies intend for the main character to have that objective, rather than simply not care where they rank and carry on being happy with themselves. Are we supposed to be dissatisfied with our lives if we are not Homecoming king or queen? I could name many people who are perfectly satisfied doing what they wish to do with who they wish to do it with and are very much unaffected about what label (if any) they might receive because of it.
But that’s just my view on the situation. Now, I’ll bring you back to my earlier question. Is LFHS plagued by the confinements of a binding social hierarchy? Is popularity the number one objective? Do we define and judge others by how they dress, what they’re a part of, and what grades they get? I have a feeling there might be a variety of answers.