CENTER: Reflections on jocks, popular girls and the politics of the cafeteria. By Audrey Abel and Maddy Levin.
Sandy’s leather jacket, mess of curly hair and ‘tell-me-about-it-stud’ attitude is iconic. Molly Ringwald’s character in the The Breakfast Club joins her as a token cinematic popular girl. Regina George, too, is the ultimate Queen Bee. Movies project glory on high school sports teams and comment on the fragile power dynamics of the cafeteria. They make up stories that become central to pop culture, a picture of the perfect teenage life.
Staff and students at East High School reflect on this fictional depiction of high school, contrasting it with reality–but also finding truth.
“I think it changes over decades, right?” says Matthew Murphy, East Theatre teacher. “Lots of cliques, lots of jocks versus nerds, lots of nerds getting the pretty girl. All are dealing heavily with concepts of popularity.”
In the eyes of Murphy, Hollywood has romanticized the high school experience. Popularity on-screen stands as the ultimate marker of success. On some level, high school movies capture what it means to be a teenager, but they can also enforce unrealistic expectations.
“It’s not the best time of your life. It’s actually probably the weirdest, most uncomfortable time. It’s a hot mess.”
“High school: it’s the best time of your life…Right?” Murphy wonders, “That’s not real. It’s not the best time of your life. It’s actually probably the weirdest, most uncomfortable time. It’s a hot mess.”
For characters like Ferris Bueller, Cher Horowitz and Troy Bolton, their time in high school is glamorous, a collection of stylish outfits and triumphs against teachers. Their stories carry common themes: touching on relationships, ‘mean girls’ and what it’s like to be a part of the social food chain.
NOT SO FETCH
Like many aspects of pop culture, Hollywood influences the notions of teenage life. But junior Marin Griffith, president of the Espresso Yourself Club, feels the stereotypes that Hollywood implements harm society’s view of high school. “We’re not accurately representing what we see and what we know,” she asserts. “Hollywood actors, playwrights, directors and screenwriters all went to high school at one point and know how it feels to be isolated or in a clique. It’s weird to me that they don’t portray what they’ve experienced.”
Head Girl Ajala Way agrees. “I think everything that Hollywood does is an exaggeration or stereotyped version of reality,” she says.
Math teacher Gordon Fieseler also comments on the common misconceptions of high school, “Hollywood glorifies certain aspects of a very complicated system, and to assume that high school is [one way], does not show the reality of how complicated and challenging high school really is.” The adolescent experience is far more deep than what can be shown in a few hours on-screen.
UGH, AS IF!
Griffith sees inaccuracy in Hollywood movies. “High school movies create this little fantasy for us by ignoring real, genuine feelings,” she says. Griffith believes teen movies struggle to acknowledge the truths of high school, creating false ideas that perpetuate through generations of young adults.
A cookie-cutter way to achieve in high school.
Fieseler agrees that high school movies present a one-sided idea of success. “Students believe there is a cookie-cutter way to achieve in high school and to be successful,” he observes. “To assume that each student is going to achieve in the same way, is just not reality…because everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses…we’re all human, and we’re all different.” Like Griffith, Fieseler understands that on-screen blockbusters can be one-dimensional, failing to celebrate students’ individuality. He hopes that students can value their originality, despite the stereotypes that some movies portray.
Yet, there is an element of nuance in classic teenage films—one that can be easily missed by the viewer. “In movies, high school is always portrayed as extremely clique-y and segregated. People always stick with their own crowd and bully people that aren’t like them,” Way acknowledges. However, Way sees the storylines are more complex than just that of bully and bystander. “I don’t think it’s ever that serious in real life,” she adds, “At least not in my experience, but I do think that it draws from some truth. We’re segregated to a degree and still speak badly about those that are different…”
DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME
Way’s examples of segregation and social conflict hints at a larger theme of teenage-centered films, lacking awareness and sensitivity about real issues. “I’m biracial, and I find that, although East is diverse, we’re pretty segregated,” Griffith expresses, “you kind of go with your cliques based on race a lot of the time.”
Racial identity, a topic not often discussed in movies, has been a large part of Griffith’s East High experience. “I found my people, but it was really hard at first to know where to fit in. I think high school enables identity crises,” she continues.
Mental health is another taboo topic for Hollywood, Fieseler notes, “Movies have really tried to shy away from anxiety and depression, which are very serious struggles that students are facing.”
The pressure to balance schoolwork with social life has contributed to mental health rising to the forefront of teenage issues. Way puts it simply, “Time management in general is just a lot more difficult than the movies make it seem.”
YOU CAN SIT WITH US
Still, Head Boy Cole Finley-Ponds appreciates that the relationships in high school are more meaningful than in the movies. “I can say ‘What’s up?’ to any and everybody, and everybody gives me a smile,” he says. “[If] me just saying ‘What’s up?’ to them makes their day a little bit better, that makes my day good.” The ability to connect freely with peers of different grades and backgrounds is part of what Finley-Ponds likes most about high school.
“It’s funny how friend groups work in high school movies,” Griffith adds, “They can love each other and then hate each other. Yes, in real life there are social hierarchies but not to the extent that they’re portrayed in movies.”
To some, the social structure of high school is irrelevant, a background to their classroom and studies. But to others, groups of friends consist of like-minded students from similar cultures and home lives. “People definitely stick with people that are like them,” notices Way.
“People definitely stick with people that are like them.”
Fieseler, however, believes that relationships are defined through individual decisions and achievements. “Looking back, I assumed everyone really cared about me and my accomplishments, when in reality, the only thing that my choices determined was my own life and the friendships that I formed,” he reflects.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
Underneath East’s signature clocktower, students hope that their four years will be flawless. They will be the first to master having both their “head in the game” and their “heart in the song,” becoming jocks or Queen Bees, Troys or Gabriellas, the protagonist in their own movie-like existence.
This expectation rarely lives up to the promises of Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean that high school is any less valuable, instead teaching more rich lessons on identity, relationships and balance.
“[Movies are] like a reoccuring drama that everyone just changes roles in,” concludes Murphy. However, we can all wish that our lives came with a soundtrack—a little “Greased Lighting” to break up the day.