Popularity On Screen
In the world of high school movies, popular students form a special
clique of their own: they are at the top of the social ladder, recognised
by everybody as a higher cast. They are socially privileged and have a
remarkable amount of power in the community. In Mean Girls, The
Plastics are compared to real world celebrities:
They're teen royalty. If North Shore 1 was US Weekly 2, they would always be on the
cover. (Scene 2)
According to the three films examined for this paper, there are two
distinctive elements that are always connected to being popular: first,
popular students are famous. Everybody knows who they are and what they
do. Being popular means being the centre of public attention. This is how
Cady describes popularity in Mean Girls:
Being with The Plastics was like being famous. People
looked at you all the time and everybody just knew stuff about
you. (Scene 8)
The second attribute that is usually given to popular students is that
they only associate with other popular students. Popularity is rather
easily fractured; just talking to someone who is considered to be at the
bottom of the social scale can damage a popular student's reputation. In
10 Things I Hate About You, Bianca actually forbids her own sister,
who is a social outcast, to address her in public. In Clueless,
Dionne is sceptical about Cher's plan to befriend the unpopular Tai:
Cher: Dee, my mission is clear. Would you look at that
girl! She's so adorably clueless. We have got to adopt her.
Dionne: Cher, she is toe-up. Our stock would
plummet. (Scene 5)
A strict separation between popular students and everybody else seems
to be one of the most important social rules in high school. It is
acknowledged and followed on both sides of the barrier. In 10 Things I
Hate About You, Michael warns Cameron about trying to affiliate with
the popular students:
Over there, we've got your basic beautiful people. Now
listen, unless they talk to you first, don't bother.
On the other hand, being noticed by a popular student can upgrade one's
social status remarkably. In Clueless, Cher and Dionne explain to
Tai that being associated with them gives her a great deal of social
credibility. Furthermore, 10 Things I Hate About You includes the
following piece of dialogue between the popular Joey and the unpopular
Joey: What's in it for you?
Michael: Hey –
I'm walking down the hall and say hello to you. You say hello to
Joey: Yeah, yeah. I get it. You're cool by
association. (Scene 4)
According to the three films, a popular student is always physically
attractive. The most popular girl in school could be described as being
flawless, fierce, and glamorous. Popular students are the fashion icons of
their school; their style is admired and copied by other students. In
Mean Girls, an unpopular girl declares:
I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip-flops, so
I bought army pants and flip-flops. (Scene 8)
In addition, popular students are nearly always at least fairly
wealthy. It can be assumed that being rich means being able to do all
kinds of favours for one's friends, and thus perhaps being able to buy
one's way to popularity. In Clueless, the most popular boy in the
school, Elton, also happens to be the son of a very rich and influential
Tai: Who's Elton?
Dionne: Oh my god, he's
way popular. He's like the social director of the crew.
Yeah, and his dad can get you into any concert.
However, while popular students are constantly under public attention
and their company is widely desired because of its beneficial effect on
one's social status, they do not appear to be genuinely liked as people.
Often the popular students in the films are associated with adjectives
like mean, conceited, and snotty. Cher in
Clueless is an exception to this rule as she is generally
well-liked by everyone (although Cher's stepbrother Josh does accuse her
of being a ”superficial space-cadet”).
In 10 Things I Hate About You, Bianca is perceived to be
arrogant, attention-seeking, and not very bright. In Mean Girls,
the most popular girls in school are called The Plastics because their
appearance and conduct is cold, shiny, and hard – like plastic. At the end
of the film, Cady and Janis have a heated argument after Cady has
abandoned her old friends to become popular:
Cady: You know what? It's not my fault that you're
like in love with me or something!
Janis: What? See,
that's the thing with you Plastics. You think everybody is in love
with you, when actually, everybody hates you. (Scene 12)
On the basis of these three movies, it can be concluded that popularity
in films is a contradictory concept: on the one hand, popular students are
admired and their company is sought. They have a high status in the
community and remarkable social influence. On the other hand, they are not
necessarily liked as people; one does not have to be friendly or
trustworthy to be popular. Being popular does not always mean being the
Furthermore, it is suggested in the films that it is not always easy
being the popular student. A lot of social pressure and expectations are
connected to popularity. Often friendships inside the popular clique are
rather superficial and almost two-faced; all interaction between people is
an elaborate charade created to keep up the compulsory social structures.
In each of the three films, a popular student's personal preferences and
wishes do not necessarily have anything to do with the way they live their
lives; their choices are mostly determined by the expectations of the rest
of the social community.
Myth Vs. Reality
According to the three films analyzed in this paper, the following
things may be said about popular students: they are well-known throughout
their school but only associate with students inside the popular clique;
they are affluent, attractive, and fashionable; and they have a strong
influence within their respective social communities. On the other hand,
their fellow students often consider them to be conceited and even
mean-spirited, and they have few genuine friends.
In order to determine the authenticity of the image of popularity in
the three films, an online
questionnaire [PDF] was developed to solicit responses from U.S. high
school students and recent graduates from several regions of the United
States 3. The questionnaire was available
during the ten-day period between the 8th and the 18th of April 2010. A
total of 58 responses were received from seven U.S. states: California,
Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York and Texas.
The respondents were asked to give their gender and high school class;
or, if they had already graduated, the year of their graduation. They were
also asked to describe popularity and popular students as well as assess
the truthfulness of several statements on popularity that were based on
the three films analyzed for this paper 4.
The answers were hoped to provide a realistic point of comparison to the
cinematic representation of ”popularity.”
Basic Information: Gender, High School Class Or Graduation Year,
School Name And Region
Out of the 58 respondents, 28 (48%) were male and 29 (50%) were female;
in one response gender was not identified.
The majority of the 58 respondents, 33 or circa 57%, were senior
(10%) respondents were junior students, and nineteen (33%) respondents had
already graduated from high school. This diversity, even if a relatively
small sampling, provides different perspectives on the subject; a person
who is still in high school might have a different take on popularity than
a person who has already graduated a few years ago and is looking back to
his or her high school years.
The respondents were asked to give their high school's name and also
the city and state the school was situated in. To ensure the respondents'
privacy, only the respondents' home states are indicated in this paper.
Out of the 58 respondents, 34 (58%) were from California; 11 (19%) from
Missouri; 4 (7%) from Maryland and Massachusetts [e.g. 2 from each]; 3
(5%) from Connecticut; and 1 each (2%) from New York and Texas.
Therefore, although a clear majority of the respondents came from the
West coast, the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast were also
represented. In the regional comparison of the answers, the responses were
divided into the following four categories: California, Missouri, the
Northeastern states, and Texas. Maryland is included to the
Northeastern states because of its close proximity to them in order to
simplify the processing of the responses.
Question 1: According to many films which depict recent American high
school life, the following characteristics are typical of 'popular'
students. On the basis of your high school experience, which would you
associate with students you felt were 'popular'? What other
characteristics would you suggest instead of, or in addition to, those
In the first question, the following list of eight different
characteristics typical of popular students in high school films was
presented: attractive, affluent, socially
influential, well-known, fashionable,
superficial, conceited, and unkind. The respondents
were asked to choose the characteristics in the list that fit their own,
personal idea of a ”popular” student. They were also given the chance to
include other characteristics that were not on the list.
Out of the eight characteristics, well-known, attractive,
and socially influential were most often associated with a popular
student: well-known was chosen by 52 respondents (90%),
attractive by 37 respondents (64%), and socially influential
by 36 respondents (62%). Popular students were thought be
fashionable by 26 respondents (45%). Conceited got 15 votes
(26%), affluent got 14 votes (24%), and superficial got 12
votes (21%). Unkind was least associated with popular students; it
was chosen by only 9 respondents (16%).
There were some regional differences in the responses;
well-known was associated with popular students by over 90% of the
respondents in both California and the Northeastern states, but by only
64% in Missouri. This divergence might be connected to the small size of
the Missouri school, which several respondents commented on; in a
relatively small school where practically everyone knows everyone,
students are less likely to perceive a certain student or group as
particularly ”well-known.” This familiarity might also be the reason why
none of the Missouri respondents chose superficial; this is
presumably a characteristic more often associated with a person whom one
does not personally know, or knows only ”superficially.”
California differed from the other areas in that altogether 21% of the
Californian respondents chose unkind as a characteristic typical of
popular students, while in Missouri and the Northeastern states it was
chosen by only 9% and 8%, respectively. In Texas it was not chosen at
all. Otherwise all areas were rather similar in their responses.
There were some differences between male and female respondents; the
characteristics well-known, fashionable and
superficial were clearly chosen more often by female than male
respondents. Also, while no male respondents chose unkind,
altogether 31% of female respondents thought it to be a typical
characteristic of a popular student.
In addition to the ready-made list, there were also many other
characteristics, both positive and negative, concerning both personality
and behaviour, that were suggested by the respondents themselves. Most
commonly the respondents characterized popular students as
outgoing, nice, smart, and athletic. Being
active in sports or some other social extracurricular was also thought to
be typical of popular students. Negative attributes, such as
immature or selfish, were suggested by a few respondents.
The most notable difference in responses between regions was that
athletic, while quite popular overall, was by far the most popular
characteristic in Missouri, where it was suggested by 56% percent of the
respondents. In Northeastern states it was suggested by 25% and in
California by only 9% of the respondents. In Texas it was not offered at
all. Adjectives such as nice and sociable were clearly the
most popular in the responses from California and the Northeastern states,
while nearly all the characteristics offered from Texas were negative,
including words such as liars and cheaters.
There were hardly any differences between male and female respondents
in terms of the self-suggested ”popular” characteristics; athletic
and outgoing were the most popular adjectives among both genders.
Female respondents were slightly more negative than male respondents;
unfavorable attributes, such as slutty or dumb, were
suggested by 14% of the female respondents and 11% of the male
Question 2: How do you think 'popularity' is (or was, if you are a
graduate) defined in your high school? How would you describe a 'popular'
In the second question, respondents were asked to describe a popular
student in their own words. Most often a popular person was perceived as
someone who is well-known throughout the school and has a lot of friends.
A popular student can hold a conversation with anyone and participates in
several extracurricular activities. He or she is also usually fairly
smart, athletic, good-looking, and confident. In short, a popular student
was commonly thought to be someone who excels in class, sports, and social
life. Some respondents expressed mild discontent with the fact that a
popular person usually needs to be at least fairly good-looking and
attractive, while it is more difficult for a different-looking, e.g.
overweight, person to become popular.
There were also a few negative descriptions, although not many. Some
respondents described popular students as being slightly standoffish and
easily influenced by peer pressure, and noted that popular students
generally spend time at a particular place on the school grounds, where
other students are expected not to go. One respondent wrote that in her
school, the popular students from each grade had their own, grade-specific
”cool spot” where they spent their time; going to an area that did not
belong to one's own grade was not approved of unless one had siblings in,
or was dating someone from, a different grade.
Similarly to this, the popular girls in Clueless and Mean
Girls always sit at a specific table in the school cafeteria where
only a select few are welcome. A few respondents believed that the popular
group in their school had actually just given themselves the title of
being ”popular,” while no one else treated them any differently.
There were no significant regional differences in the responses,
although it could be pointed out that the answers from the Northeastern
states were overall the most positive, with hardly any negative comments.
Male and female respondents answered this question quite similarly;
both genders considered knowing a lot of people throughout the school to
be the most important attribute of a popular student. However, there was a
slight difference in the way male and female respondents perceived the
criterion: male respondents in general thought that a popular student
usually has an outgoing and sociable personality and is therefore able to
make friends easily, thus having a lot of acquaintainces around the
school; female respondents on the other hand emphasized the importance of
being actively involved in school-related activities, such as the marching
band or a sports team, and becoming well-known that way.
Question 3: Most film portrayals of high school popularity have
focused on girls. In your opinion, are the popularity criteria for boys
similar to or different from those for girls? Briefly, how and why?
The third question concerned the possible difference between boys and
girls in terms of popularity criteria. Out of the 58 respondents, 24 (41%)
thought that the popularity criteria for boys and girls are similar,
whereas 29 respondents (50%) thought they are different. Five respondents
(9%) did not answer this question.
The respondents who thought that the popularity criteria for boys and
girls are similar wrote that both popular boys and popular girls need to
be outgoing, good-looking, affluent, and well-known. Being athletic and
having a good sense of fashion were also deemed important for both boys
The respondents who thought that the popularity criteria for boys and
girls are different wrote that while girls emphasize appearance and
clothing, boys are more concerned about being good at sports. The
popularity criteria were said to be less strict for boys; unlike a girl, a
boy does not necessarily have to be good-looking to be popular if he is
funny or athletic. Several respondents wrote that boys have more liberty
not only in terms of appearance, but also behaviour.
Regional comparison showed a remarkable difference in the responses
between California and the other areas; while 50% of the Californian
respondents considered the popularity criteria for boys and girls to be
similar, only 18% in Missouri and 17% in the Northeastern states shared
this idea. In general, Californian respondents thought that both popular
boys and popular girls usually need to be fairly attractive, funny,
outgoing, and friendly. The 38% of Californians who thought that the
criteria were different, pointed out that girls' popularity is a bit more
focused on attractiveness, while boys' popularity is based on having some
sort of talent, such as athletic ability or musical skills.
Most respondents from Missouri and the Northeastern states, 82% and 75%
respectively, considered popularity criteria to be different for boys and
girls; a vast majority of respondents from both areas listed athletic
ability as the single most important criterion of boys' popularity, while
girls' criteria were more focused on appearance and material things such
as clothing or make-up.
There were practically no differences between male and female
respondents' answers to the third question. The majority of both genders
considered the popularity criteria for boys and girls to be different; it
was generally agreed that boys' popularity is usually based on athletic
ability and girls' popularity is based on attractiveness. It was commonly
thought that the popularity criteria are more strict for girls. Most male
respondents considered boys to be altogether less concerned about who's
popular and who's not, and several female respondents commented on boys
having a lot more liberty in terms of their looks and behaviour without
being in risk of losing status.
Question 4: Would you consider yourself to be a popular student? If
'yes,' why or in what sense? If 'no,' why not?
In the fourth question the respondents were asked to determine whether
they thought themselves to be popular or not, and to explain their answer.
A majority of 33 (57%) of the respondents did not consider themselves to
be popular, while 25 (43%) did think of themselves as popular.
Most commonly the respondents who felt they were not popular thought
this was because they did not know or were not known by very many people
in their school, and only had a few close friends rather than a large
number of acquaintances. Many respondents wrote that although they were
popular among their own group of friends, they weren't popular throughout
the whole school. Other, less-mentioned reasons included, for example,
being too quiet or introverted, not being confident or noticeable enough,
and being too involved in academics, i.e. ”nerdy.” A few respondents also
wrote that their school does not really have a popular clique.
The respondents who considered themselves to be popular believed that
the reason for their popularity is having a lot of friends and being able
to get along with everyone without exclusion, being very outgoing and
involved in different kinds of school activities, and being nice to
others. Again, a large number of respondents mentioned being athletic and
playing sports as one reason for being popular. Other reasons included,
for example, having a good reputation among students and teachers alike,
being open, dressing well, and being voted as the most popular student at
a public event, such the Homecoming or Winter Formal.
There were no significant regional differences in the responses for the
fourth question, although a slightly larger number of respondents did
consider themselves to be popular in Missouri than in the other areas.
This might be due to the fact that while other schools seemed to have a
larger number of different criteria for popularity, in the Missouri school
one just needed to be an athlete and play sports in order to be well-known
and popular. When there are fewer criteria to meet, more people might
feel justified in calling themselves ”popular.”
There was an interesting difference between male and female respondents
in this question. Almost half of the male respondents, 46%, considered
themselves to be popular, while only 38% of female respondents thought
they belonged to the popular group. The explanations for both genders were
mostly the same; the respondents who considered themselves to be popular
thought this was because they had a lot of friends and had an outgoing
personality; the respondents who did not consider themselves popular
thought this was because did not know many people and were not well-known
throughout their school. However, several female respondents wrote that
while they considered themselves to be relatively well-known and
well-liked in their school, they did not feel ”popular” because they were
not personally acquainted with the particular group of students that were
considered to be the ”popular” group.
Question 5: Do you feel popularity might be defined differently among
the students in your school than in some neighboring schools? If so,
The fifth question concerned the possible difference in the definition
of popularity between the respondent's own school and some other schools.
This question was included because it could be assumed that respondents
are able to talk more freely and objectively about schools and students
they do not personally know; one might feel uncomfortable making possibly
negative observations about one's own environment, but it may be easier to
honestly assess other social settings.
Out of the 58 respondents, 27 (47%) believed that there was a
difference in popularity between their own school and neighboring schools,
and 21 (36%) thought there was no difference. However, ten respondents
(17%) did not answer this question at all. Thus, the 27 who felt there was
a difference between their own school and some neighboring schools
actually comprised 56% of the 48 respondents who answered this question.
The most common difference between schools mentioned by the respondents
was that each school has different cliques and little groups that form a
unique social pattern, and therefore the typical popular student may be
different from school to school. Many respondents also pointed out that
popularity might depend on what each school values; in a school that is
academically competitive, academically successful students would be the
popular ones; in a school that is good at sports, the popular group would
Popularity might also be defined differently between schools that are
situated in economically different areas, or between schools that differ
from each other in size. Many respondents wrote that in a small school
everybody knows everybody, and therefore a ”popular” clique in the
”conventional” sense often portrayed by popular media does not exist.
Respondents from Missouri emphasized the differences between smaller
and larger schools a bit more than respondents from California, the
Northeastern states or Texas, but otherwise there were no regional
differences in the responses.
A majority of both male and female respondents thought that popularity
was defined differently in their school and other schools, but female
respondents attributed the differences between schools to different
cliques and social groups more often than male respondents, who emphasized
differences in affluence and school size.
Question 6: Do you consider the following statements to be true or
In the sixth question, the respondents were asked to determine whether
they considered the following eight statements to be true or false:
- Being popular means being the center of public attention.
- Popular students only associate with other popular students.
- Associating with an unpopular student may cause a popular student to
- Being ”noticed” by a popular student can remarkably raise one's social
- Popular students are the fashion icons of their school. Their style is
copied by other students.
- Popular students usually have a lot of money.
- Being popular does not necessarily mean being well-liked.
- A lot of social pressure and expectations are connected to popularity:
popular students may be expected to act and behave a certain way in order
to maintain their high social status.
The statements with their respective responses (”true” or ”false”) can
be viewed in the table below.
||1. Being popular means being the center of
||2. Popular students only associate with
other popular students.
||3. Associating with an unpopular student may
cause a popular student to lose status.
||4. Being "noticed" by a popular student can
remarkably raise one's social status.
||5. Popular students are the fashion icons of
||6. Popular students usually have a lot of
||7. Being popular does not necessarily mean
||8. A lot of social pressure and expectations
are connected to popularity.
- Statement 1 (”Being popular means being the center of public
attention”) was considered to be true by 32 respondents (55%) and
false by 26 respondents (45%).
- Statement 2 (”Popular students only
associate with other popular students”) was considered to be true by
15 respondents (26%) and false by 43 respondents (74%).
- Statement 3
(”Associating with an unpopular student may cause a popular student to
lose status”) was considered to be true by 8 respondents (14%) and
false by 50 respondents (86%).
- Statement 4 (”Being 'noticed' by a
popular student can remarkably raise one's social status”) was
considered to be true by 25 respondents (43%) and false by 33 respondents
- Statement 5 (”Popular students are the fashion icons of their
school”) was considered to be true by 23 respondents (40%) and false
by 35 respondents (60%).
- Statement 6 (”Popular students usually have a
lot of money”) was considered to be true by 21 respondents (36%) and
false by 37 respondents (64%).
- Statement 7 (”Being popular does not
necessarily mean being well-liked”) was considered to be true by 47
respondents (81%) and false by 11 respondents (19%).
- Statement 8 (”A lot of social pressure and expectations are
to popularity”) was considered to be true by 29 respondents (50%) and
false by 29 respondents (50%).
Out of the eight statements, numbers 2 (”Popular students only
associate with other popular students”) and 3 (”Associating with an
unpopular student may cause a popular student to lose status”) were
most clearly thought to be false, and number 7 (”Being popular does not
necessarily mean being well-liked”) most clearly thought to be true.
The other statements were a bit more evenly assessed, number 8 (”A lot
of social pressure and expectations are connected to popularity”)
dividing the respondents exactly in half.
There was some regional variation in the responses. Statements 1 and 2
(”Being popular means being the center of public attention” and
”Popular students only associate with other popular students”) were
considered to be true by a significantly smaller number of respondents in
Missouri than in the other areas. The reason for this difference might,
again, be the small size of the Missouri school; in a social environment
where everyone knows everyone, a particular person or group of people
whose actions everyone follows and who only associates with certain people
is less likely to exist. While statement 3 (”Associating with an
unpopular student may cause a popular student to lose status”) had
some support from both California and Missouri, it was considered to be
false by all respondents from the Northeastern states and Texas. Statement
5 (”Popular students are the fashion icons of their school”) got
more support in Missouri than the other areas.
There were some interesting differences between male and female
respondents: statements 2 (”Popular students only associate with other
popular students”), 5 (”Popular students are the fashion icons of
their school”), and 7 (”Being popular does not necessarily mean
being well-liked”) were significantly more popular among female than
male respondents. Many respondents mentioned in some of their answers that
popularity overall is a bigger issue for girls than boys; girls are more
concerned about who's popular and who's not. Perhaps girls therefore pay
more attention to the ”barrier” between popular and unpopular students,
which might explain why statement 2 was more often chosen by girls than
boys. Girls were also said to pay more attention to clothes and fashion,
which might explain the fifth statement's popularity.
Statement 7 being more preferred among female than male respondents
might have something to do with the definition of popularity; boys
considered having lots of friends and being well-known because of that to
be the most important criterion for being popular. Girls, on the other
hand, stressed the importance of being involved in different kinds of
activities at school and being well-known and popular because of that. In
this type of popularity being well-liked might not be as relevant as it is
in making and having friends.
Statements 4 (”Being 'noticed' by a popular student can remarkably
raise one's social status”) and 8 (”A lot of social pressure and
expectations are connected to popularity”) were more popular among
male than female respondents. The popularity of statement 8 among male
respondents was a bit surprising; most respondents had earlier agreed that
the popularity criteria are a lot more strict for girls than boys, and
therefore it might have been expected that girls would connect more
pressure and expectations to the concept of popularity. Perhaps male
respondents felt that the pressure and expectations are connected to
sports; popular boys are nearly always expected to be strong and
successful athletes, which might create a sense of stress.
Question 7: Is the way high school life was presented in films such as
Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless
similar to how it is (or was) in your high school?
In the seventh question the respondents were directly asked to compare
certain high school-themed films with their own experience. A clear
minority of only 8 respondents (14%) considered high school life in films
to be similar to how it is in their own school; 50 respondents (86%)
thought it was different. A few respondents had not seen any of the films
The respondents who considered cinematic high school life to be similar
to their own experiences wrote that, much like in the films, real high
schools also have cliques: people are naturally separated into smaller
groups according to their interests or social status. Some respondents
also wrote that, similarly to the films, popular students are a
standoffish group who are somehow separate from the rest of the student
body. A few respondents wrote that popular girls can often be just as mean
and conniving as they are portrayed to be in the films. Other similarities
mentioned between the films and reality included similar clothing,
cliques, and girls who are mean-spirited.
Nearly all the respondents who thought that high school life in films
differs from how it is in reality considered most high school films to be
exaggerated and overly dramatic. According to the respondents, students
are not mean to each other like they are in the films, but are usually
cordial and accepting. Popular students are not evil or bad and they do
not strive to ensure a social pecking order.
One respondent wrote that a social hierarchy does not really exist;
there are only people who are outgoing and well-known and people who are
less outgoing and less well-known. Most respondents thought that although
students usually are divided into smaller groups of varying social status,
it is perfectly normal for students from different groups to interact with
However, there were a few respondents who wrote that even though life
in their own high school was not at all similar to the way it was
represented in the films, it would probably be so in some other, often
There were no regional differences in the responses. Male and female
respondents also answered this question very similarly, although a
slightly larger number of female respondents considered high school life
to be similar to how it is portrayed in the films. Otherwise the majority
of both genders thought that their own high school experiences were not
relatable to the films.
Question 8: Are there other films you feel would describe your high
school experience more realistically than the ones cited in this
questionnaire? If so, could you please list their titles and briefly
describe how you feel they are more realistic?
In the eighth question, the respondents were asked to list films which
they thought might be considered more realistic than the ones analyzed for
this paper. Only 11 respondents (19%) suggested a film or several films
that were more realistic in their opinion. Eighteen respondents (31%)
replied that they could not think of any such film, and 29 respondents
(50%) did not answer this question at all. Many respondents who could not
think of a more realistic film considered most high school films to be too
dramatic and exaggerated to be really relatable.
The 11 respondents who did have suggestions for more realistic films
listed the following movies: The Breakfast Club (1985), Varsity
Blues (1999), Bring It On and its four sequels (2000-2009),
Friday Night Lights (2004), suggested by 2 respondents,
Speak (2004), Coach Carter (2005), Glory Road (2006),
Superbad (2007), suggested by 2 respondents, and Juno
(2007). Two television series were also offered; Gilmore Girls
(2000-2007) and The Hills (2006-).
One interesting point that came up in the regional comparison of the
responses was that all the sports-themed films in the above list were
suggested by Missouri respondents; this was consistent with the fact
that in question 2, which concerned the typical characteristics for
popular students, athletic was by far the most popular in
Missouri [see Note 3].
Exaggeration And Dramatisation Make High School Films Unrelatable
It may be concluded on the basis of the questionnaire conducted for
this paper that the way high school life and popularity are presented in
films such as Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You or
Clueless cannot be considered realistic. Even though these films
often contain realistic elements, those elements are grossly exaggerated
and often overly sensational. Furthermore, the several negative attributes
given to popular students in the films, such as unkindness or
conceitedness, do not seem to be usually associated with ”real life”
According to the majority of the respondents, a popular student is
someone who is friendly, approachable, and smart; in the films, popular
students were mostly presented as conceited, mean-spirited, and
occasionally a little stupid. Most of the respondents felt that a real
popular student has a lot of friends and is well-known in his or her
school, often due to being actively involved in different kinds of
activities around the school environment, but he or she does not use this
socially influential status to spite or manipulate other students.
There were, however, some elements in the films that, according to the
respondents, can also be found in real high schools; popular students are
usually attractive, well-known and socially influential, just as they are
in the films. They are often the center of public attention and not always
the most well-liked. Furthermore, popular students may sometimes, like
they do in the films, constitute a group that is somehow separate from the
rest of the student body. Nevertheless, nearly all of these similarities
between the films and real high school life were mentioned with certain
reservations; it was commonly thought that although the films may have
some truth in them, these 'truths' are too dramatic and overstated to be
In conclusion it may be said, as one of the respondents put it, that
in real schools friends are made by being nice and affable; being
manipulative or controlling will most definitely not make a person
popular. Therefore, it seems probable that the exaggerated and
mean-spirited image of high school life and popularity given by many high
school films is not even meant to be realistic; rather the exaggerated and
overly-negative portrayal is a dramatic device intended to attract the
audience's interest and curiosity more effectively.
- North Shore High School is the name of the school that Cady and her
friends go to.
- US Weekly is an American celebrity gossip magazine that was
founded in 1977.
- Responses from three basic regions (East, Midwest, West) were
solicited by contacting (a) a classroom instructor at a high school in
Silicon Valley, California, who encouraged her students to respond; (b) a
male high school student in Boonville, Missouri, who encouraged his
classmates to respond; (c) a female high school student in suburban
D.C., who encouraged a group of her friends to respond; and (d) a group
high school graduates from Texas. The responses which came from
additional states are assumed to have been informed of the questionnaire
by members of one of the 4 groups who had been contacted directly. Groups
A-C were arranged by the supervising instructor for the paper; Group D was
contacted by the author.
The male student in Missouri was an athlete on his school's track and
field (athletics) team, and it is
probable that many of his classmates who responded were also athletes.
This has probably influenced the sports-orientation of the Missouri
responses, as well as the identification of athletic achievement and
popularity in their responses.
- A copy of the web questionnaire is included in the appendices.
- 10 Things I Hate About You. Written by Karen McCullah
Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Dir. Gil Junger. Perf. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt, Julia
Stiles, Heath Ledger, Larissa Oleynik, David Krumholtz, Andrew Keegan,
Susan May Pratt. Produced by Andrew Lazar. 1999. Video Cassette.
Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
- Clueless. Written by Amy Heckerling, based on a
novel by Jane Austen. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Perf. Alicia Silverstone,
Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Breckin Meyer, Jeremy Sisto, Justin Walker.
Produced by Robert Lawrence and Scott Rudin. 1995. DVD. Paramount
- Mean Girls. Written by Tina Fey, based on a book by
Rosalind Wiseman. Dir. Mark Waters. Perf. Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams,
Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan,
Daniel Franzese. Produced by Lorne Michaels and Tony Shimkin. 2004. DVD.
Paramount Pictures, 2009.