high school movies are weird man
I think an ancillary question is why we so often feel that our experiences need to be universal to be worth taking seriously. Being bullied sucks. I don't understand why saying that it's not a universal experience would be perceived as demeaning that experience.
For me, the only time school remotely resembled the movies was middle school. The girls were cliquey and cruel, and there was a clear social hierarchy. But in retrospect, the nerdy girls (including me) were probably worse. Popular girls mocked the nerds for being awkward and unfashionable – but we called them bitches and sluts, and we **hated** them to an obsessive, unhealthy degree.
I thought the 30 Rock episode about Liz’s high school reunion captured this pretty well. She believed she was a victim because she was nerdy and uncool, but then it turned out that the popular girls saw Liz as a bully because she was constantly insulting them.
But again, that was middle school. In high school, everyone calmed down. We were sleepy and bored in class, content with our friend groups at lunch, and absorbed in our own activities after school. The most popular girl was a sweetheart. If the teacher split us into random groups for a project, you could count on everyone to be friendly and cooperative.
I wasn’t cool or popular, but in high school I never felt like my social status was a problem. I had my friend group, the queer & artsy kids, and we worked on the lit mag and hung out with our English teachers in peace.
I feel like there’s something slippery going on when you say popular people are usually popular because they’re kind. I look back and can absolutely identify people who were popular because they were kind and inclusive, but the popular *group* was a different idea all together. That group was defined by its exclusion, and the relatively ruthless way they executed that exclusion, including bullying to keep the battle lines clear.
Also, while not a movie, Friday Night Lights the series portrayed almost every single character as nuanced and floating between cliques and interests.
The appeal of Freaks and Geeks is that it starts out as the extremely rigid and stereotypical highschool story, but by the end of the season we see how those same rigid categories can't possibly make sense. It's worth watching. Plus it's fun to see that cast before they all became superstars.
My brother and I were talking just the other day about how weird high school shows are. For the most part, they portray (in an extreme light) social dynamics that are far more consistent with junior high than high school — except for parties. In shows, high school parties seem a lot more like college parties than actual high school parties.
A reality for a lot of kids that somehow never makes it into movies is school as a refuge. I had some pretty shitty ongoing conflict at home for the second half of high school, and going to school was an enormous relief - a place where I knew the rules, where the people I loved and trusted most in the world were also obligated to be, where I got to do stuff that, if I succeeded at it, would speed my path away from home as soon as I graduated. Far from a fixed social world, it felt like the one place on Earth I had control over my own environment.
…Although, my clique was - God help me - the fandom-nerd kids, which meant we spent our social life passing around notebooks full of fanfiction and fanart, including stories in the popular genre of the high school AU, in which our favorite characters of the moment would be written into the exaggerated version of high school social cliques described in this post. We never felt any need to examine why it was fun to divide our faves between the goths, the stoners, the popular kids, and imagine their dopey adventures in a high school that resembled our own experience not the slightest bit. We never wrote in the church kids (who were the popular kids in our school), we never wrote characters taking AP courses (though the AP/non-AP college prep divide was an important social factor for us), we never even thought to write in any version of our own clique - the point was not that it should look like high school, but that dividing people up and sending them to small-stakes war was endlessly narratively fun.
It seems that high school as portrayed in movies is actually more like the social dynamics of middle school. I assume that a big chunk of the audience for movies about high school is people who are ABOUT to be in high school, so maybe that's it: movies about high school are written with middle schoolers in mind.
Talk to educators instead of artists and they pretty universally agree that middle school is the horror show, not high school. Girls tend to value themselves based on their social status, and there isn't much differentiation in middle school--so they create it themselves. Real psychological damage can happen. If you have a kid being bullied in middle school, pull her (usually a her) out. Different school. Don't screw around.
In high school, I think a real impact on high school social issues is diversity. The more diverse the school, the more fragmentation, the less single definition of "popular"--the better. Kind of like cultural tastes in general. The more you can break off and not care about who is the best football player, the more that being head cheerleader doesn't mean a thing, the better.
Race is a good automatic diversity indicator, but you can also achieve cultural diversity in a racially homogenous school.
I attended a school that was about 30% white, 30% black, 30% Hispanic (this is back in the 70s, when that was pretty rare). Our 10 year high school reunion (the only one I went to) was hilarious. Mostly white. Me and my friends were like, "did the blacks and Hispanics have their own party?"
That's the downside, I think. Fragmentation also means no real cohesion. Ideally, you shoot for both. That's what my current school (38% Asian, 35% Hispanic, 20% white, 10% or so black) does pretty well. The other schools in the district (two of them 80% Asian) have a lot more trouble with bullying.
I was homeschooled, so my perspective on high school was formed solely by the media depiction you describe. When I had to take a random class here or there with other kids as a high school aged teenager, I was petrified because I thought I would be fighting for my life. However, everyone was more or less in the same boat I was, kind of awkward and scared, eager to be liked and friendly enough if they could get over themselves, but I was convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that those dynamics were bubbling under the surface.
Nowadays I think Twitter is more like high school, at least in terms of constant petty drama, than actual high school is.
I have no idea if my experience is more typical than yours, or if neither is very typical, but the popular people in my high school were not in general kind or warm-hearted. They were "cool," and were deemed so largely by each other and because of their participation in sports, especially but not exclusively football. They were cool in middle school, and thus they stayed cool on high school. They didn't go out of their way to be cruel, usually, although they often did in middle school, but they certainly didn't shy away from it, either. I got bullied a fair bit in middle school, but that faded away by high school, I don't know why. So my experience is closer to the movies than it is to yours, but neither is particularly close.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if the whole thing in movies is just because it generates drama, though, and has nothing (or anyway not much) to do with the dynamics of the lives of those writing them. A high school slice of life movie where the popular person is just a good and kind person might work once, but not as an entire genre.
I'm always surprised how much sex there is in high school movies. My school had 2500 students and barely anyone was screwing. The few exceptions were usually in grade 12 and in relationships. There wasn't a single pregnancy, or any drama surrounding sex.
The key here is that the memory of having a "nasty" high school experience is much more likely to be fundamental to one's sense of self than the memory of a pleasant experience. The weight is wildly disproportionate.
Best revenge of the nerd show ever is on "The Premise" anthology series with the episode called "Butt Plug." Rest of the anthology is meh.
Social science backs up your thoughts on peer popularity. Kathryn Wentzel’s work out of University of Maryland has shown a strong relationship among social competence, academic success, and popularity. For a seminal read see James Coleman’s “The Adolescent Society”.
I think for me it was less the bullying then the constant sense of loneliness and not really being well liked or understood by anyone I really wanted to like me. Which I guess is partially the problem of my priorities.
My hot take is that high school is exactly like adult life, in that it prepares you to be largely anonymous to the vast majority of your peers and to not expect community support outside of family, close friends, or romantic relationships.
Off the top of my head, Booksmart is not a perfect movie but it is very funny and largely avoids the trope of a rigid social hierarchy.
Mean Girls sucks, the love for that movie is pure millennial nostalgia and nothing more. Clueless, on the other hand, holds up incredibly well, in part due to the genre subversion you point out.