Thursday, January 21, 2010

Popular Goes the Weasel

Popular - Nada Surf (mp3)

When I was a sophomore and junior in high school, I studied the movie Heathers like the Zapruder film.

Although it didn't quite tug my teen heartstrings like The Breakfast Club, watching it helped me hold my head a little bit higher and told me maybe the Unpopular Life wasn't so bad after all. Some Kind of Wonderful and Revenge of the Nerds provided similar comfort for the outcast, but in Heathers the statement had more of a "f*#k you" attitude. The unpopular anti-hero in Heathers didn't want your pity or your love. He wanted your blood, like Johnny Ringo in Tombstone.

Somehow, it was possible to enjoy watching Christian Slater's character finally bite it by blowing himself up on his school's front steps, yet also find comfort in his nihilistic separatist extremism. Goobers like me, aching so much to be accepted that it sometimes seemed to cause stigmata, found that life on either side of the popular extreme seemed to be just as miserable and painful as being trapped in the middle.

Unfortunately, all these movies wrestled with a noir version of teen reality. Popular was evil, plain and simple. The queen or king bee was the Emperor, and the unpopular dork was Luke Skywalker. While this simplicity feels good for a while, it inevitably loses its grip. Which is why, as I get older, I find The Breakfast Club, where there are no purely good or purely bad people, a much more powerful and vital experience.

Recently, thanks to GLEE and the authors of NurtureShock, a more balanced version of the "Popular" tale is told, and for someone like me who longed to be more popular but hated himself for wanting it, their explanation provides tremendous comfort:

...if Mean Girls were as unrelentingly vicious as they are cracked up to be, then the Mean Girls would not be popular. Instead, they would be the hated social outcasts. The reality—which Glee captures so well—is that Mean Girls aren't just mean, after all.

Patricia Hawley, a researcher at the University of Kansas, has studied popular kids, and she's found that for each mean thing a Mean Girl does, the girl also does two really nice things.

In other words, those so-called Mean Girls are actually twice as nice as they are mean.

And while the geeks aren't as mean as the popular kids, they usually aren't as nice, either. (In Glee, Rachel may be a talented singer—but everyone agrees that she's just insufferable; there's very little pity for her outcast status, even from the other Losers.)

But what really makes teens popular isn't just a pure ratio of nicety to meanness.

Instead, Hawley has discovered that the really popular kids are what she describes as "bistrategic controllers." Popular kids intuitively understand that both kindness and cruelty can be equally effective strategies for social manipulation. And they also come to believe that the key to social dominance is in knowing when to be nice and when to be cruel.

If you, like me, were not popular but studied the popular kids in the hopes of stealing their moves and learning their mysterious ways, then you will most certainly know how very true those statements are.

The popular guys in my school were rarely out-and-out cruel. Their ratio of kind or nice moments to mean ones might even have been higher than 2:1. But they could be cruel. And when they were, it was vicious, like a saw-toothed shiv. The act left its viewing audience both starstruck and scared shitless. And their cruel moments always had an audience. Cruelty in private was pointless.

We sideline losers were just grateful to be mere witnesses and not the victim, as if life were a game of Duck Duck Goose. When you have many more moments of feeling spared than you do of feeling victimized, you feel this perverse obligation to help feed that popularity. Like, because you know just how much worse they could have made it for you. Maybe it's the same thing that happens to hostage victims when the abductors treat all but one or two of them very, very nicely.

Although high school was in many ways miserable for me, I feel extremely fortunate to have worked in this environment as an adult for more than 13 years. Contrary to pop culture's depiction, teens judge most adults -- especially those to whom they're not related -- on much kinder terms than they do one another. I'm cool and/or acceptable to most of them solely because I seem to be comfortable in my own awkward skin and, more importantly, call them out for their flaws without seeming to judge them as human beings.

The only harsh judgment teens render on adults is this: that we simply can't connect all the way to the world in which they live. And I kinda think they're right.

I just sure as hell know I wouldn't do it all over again.


Daisy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daisy said...

Great post! The older I get the more I hear people say they were miserable in high school. Many of these people were not social misfits like I was. Is there such a thing as a happy teenager?

troutking said...

Your co-blogger needs to study the ACTUAL Zapruder film...

Bob said...

"Back and to the left, Trout. Back and to the left."

BeckEye said...

I love Heathers.

And I was just thinking about this topic the other day. I was kind of the "hallway ghost" in school, neither popular nor unpopular enough to get really picked on. But all through junior high, I was consumed with wanting to be popular. So much so that, even though I made some great friends who were "burn-outs," I started to distance myself from them in an attempt to be more palatable to the in crowd. And I'm sure I had my moments when I wasn't very nice to the "geeks" too, because being popular was all that mattered at that age.

Thom Anon said...

My Kindergartener is getting his first taste of the Popularity Contest, and I shudder to think of the long road ahead of him.

Yeah, definitely not the Best Years of My Life, by a long shot.