In the 2012 film 21 Jump Street, Channing Tatum’s character enjoyed his popularity quite a bit in high school. When he goes back, years later, as an undercover cop, he assumes high school has stayed the same–that homophobic jokes, making fun of nerds and not trying hard in school will help him relive his glory days. In fact (spoiler alert) he discovers that the landscape of high school has changed. The new popular kids are good students, LGBT-accepting, and nice to everyone. The tables have turned, and what follows is both hilarious and oddly realistic.
I’m worried that some YA authors are making the same mistake. Why does young adult literature assume that all its readers are coming from a particular social situation? Why do we lump together entire groups of people as “shallow” so that our precocious narrator looks down on them? Even the Harry Potter series, my all time favorite, leaves a bad taste in my mouth regarding Lavender Brown, Ron’s first girlfriend. She and her friends are portrayed as simpering and idiotic compared to the virtuous, brilliant Hermione. Or how about in Twilight where Bella instantly writes off practically an entire school of people? Is it fair to say that some authors are projecting their own high school insecurities by writing thinly-veiled versions of themselves who orchestrate revenge, or at least quietly devastating wit, on the social elite? Perhaps.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are books (and shows) like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. They are both are unabashedly fashion-forward and incredibly fun. They also shed light, even if for a second, on what it’s like to have an eating disorder, or struggle with your sexuality, or have absentee parents– even as you look at life from the top of the social pyramid. They are, in a way, far more nuanced about the realities of high school than books where our protagonist is an outcast.
I was pretty normal in high school, assuming normal is relative, but at the time I thought of myself as a Hermione Granger among Lavender Browns. It didn’t matter that I had plenty of friends and even dated a bit… I looked down on most of my peers with a scorn and superiority complex that any ostracized YA protagonist would envy. And for the first few years I looked back on high school, I took my own perspective at face value. This narrative, about being bullied incessantly by peers who didn’t understand me, stayed with me until I watched the season 2 episode of 30 Rock, “Reunion.” In it, Liz Lemon, now in her late 30s, tells everyone that she was tormented by popular students in high school, and as an audience, we see that in a flashback. But when she goes to her high school reunion to prove how cool she’s gotten, it turns out everyone was afraid of her. The same flashback. this time from their eyes, shows the popular so-called bullies petrified of an acerbic, defensive Liz. She treated her peers with contempt. In her own right, she was a bully too.
I’ve had the same best friend since second grade and after watching that episode she immediately turned to me and said, good-naturedly, “Sound familiar?” She was right. I was exactly like Liz. Sure, people were mean to me, but you know what? I was cruel too, whether it was snickering at someone I deemed vapid and unworthy or attempting to “defend myself” from bullying with an eye-for-an-eye attitude. And the reason I was always quick with a judgmental one-liner is because, deep down, I was scared that people would see me for who I really was: sad and gay, with an almost pathological need to be liked. Maybe there were Gossip Girls in my high school dealing with those issues too, but I wouldn’t know, because I never bothered to ask them. In fairness, they never bothered to ask me either.
I’d like to think we’ve all grown up since then. And I’d like to think that maybe high school isn’t quite a social pyramid after all. There is an incredible amount of push and pull in the complicated relationships teens build with one another. Students who are bullied might bully others in turn. Maybe I didn’t have as many friends as I thought I deserved because I was flat-out rude to people who were trying to befriend me. Maybe there’s a bit of Liz Lemon in all of us. Maybe that’s the kind of YA we should be reading, books where it’s not so easy to pinpoint who the loser is.
This is all not to say I believe that from now on, all YA lit should be written about the Regina Georges of high school, anyone else be damned. It’s more to say that we owe it to ourselves, whether we are still in high school or long since out of it, to be nuanced and thoughtful in our portrayal of how it works. For example, Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes (an Ultimate Teen Bookshelf selection) is written from the perspective of an outcast, but sheds a brilliant light on students who are popular and somewhere in between as well. I dare you to read that book and not identify with one or more of the students.
In the end, popularity is all relative, and high school is four years of your life. Whether you get through it with The Perks of Being A Wallflower or Pretty Little Liars, the important thing is that you get through it.
-Chelsea Condren currently reading Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, by Angela Bonavoglia