Monday, December 19, 2011

The Tyranny of Conformity

Okay, I'll admit it. This post on High School Hell had me panicked. Because you see, I was lucky. Generally my high school experience was pretty decent. I don't have any of the obvious stories of being bullied, hazed or slushied in the face. 
No Slushies were sacrificed during
my high school experience.

For sure, those memories would be truly horrific to revisit, and I'd never wish them on anyone, but let's face it, they'd make a killer blog post.

Instead, my lack of Big Hellish Moments has had me thinking about the more nuanced ways that high school was a demonic experience. And honestly, I don't like what I've remembered.
This is me in my senior year. Cute huh? I'm really rockin' the 80s asymmetrical wedge cut, aren't I? And here's me with my friend, Doug in our Class Actors photo from our year book. Aside from being a major thespian, I was also a classically trained singer and could belt out an Italian aria or a Barbra Streisand tune on command. Basically I was the original Lea Michele, just a little less annoying. And I had friends, got good grades and occasionally had a boyfriend. Sounds pretty great, huh?

Yeah, in hindsight, I'd say so, too. But oddly enough, despite these major accomplishments, I was pretty insecure. No matter what, I didn't think I was pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough or popular enough to compete with the big kids. There was always an unrelenting drive to be better, cooler than I was. And that led me to do some pretty uncool things. Like sometimes I dumped a friend in favor of hanging out with more upwardly social kids, jerks who never really accepted me anyway. Probably because I wasn't being true to myself, and they saw me for the fraud that I was.

All this introspection got me thinking about the messages teens get from popular culture and what drives this insidious insecurity and aspiration to be something we're not. For the record, I know there are plenty of books, movies and television shows that explicitly drive home the point that--girls especially--should be happy in their own skin and just be themselves. Those notwithstanding, insecurity still grips teens and shakes their self esteem, driving them to succumb to peer pressure and conform to other people's idea of what's cool. So where do these notions come from?

We've all seen movies where the popular girl takes a dorky loser under her wing and gives her a make over. Once she's "beautiful" she fits in with the popular crowd, gets the guy and lives happily ever after. 

Remember Clueless? Alicia Silverstone's character, Cher Horowitz adopts the "tragically unhip"Tai Fraser, steers her away from the stakeboarding slacker she likes and teaches her the mysteries of popularity. We root for Tai as she climbs the social ladder and in fact, surpasses her teacher, relegating Cher from queen bee to a mere member of the popular court. 
Too cool for school.
Tai goes from Tragically Unhip to...

And who could forget what the Pink ladies do to Olivia Newton John's Sandy in Grease? Sandy starts out the perfect goody-two-shoes square. After a brief summer fling, John Travolta's Danny Zuko, the coolest, leatherest wearing guy in school, has broken her heart. Once school starts, they can't be together because he's a bad boy and she's...well, definitely not a bad girl. At least until the pink ladies pierce her ears, teach her to smoke and squeeze her into some spandex pants.  
Then it's all, "You're the One that I Want" do wop do watty waah and everyone's happy. Well, everyone but poor pregnant, unwed Rizzo, but that's another story.

These movies are undoubtedly entertaining, but I can't help but wonder how much they contribute to lowering teens' self esteem. Sure, they're fun and make us root for the underdog, but at what cost? The only way the underdog becomes the top dog is by changing who she fundamentally is and "climbing up" the social ladder. Who does she leave behind in favor of her new "friends"? Are Cher and the Pink Ladies worth it? Unfortunately it took me way too long to decide they weren't.

In my book, THE HOODOO APPRENTICE, my heroine, Emma isn't a popular girl. In fact, beside her secret crush, Cooper Beaumont, and brother, Jack, she doesn't have many friends. Shy and artistic, she spends a lot of time on her own, sketching nature. Her unusual familiarity with herbs and plants is one reason the old Gullah root worker takes her on as an apprentice when Jack is stricken with a wicked flesh-eating curse. If Emma hadn't been true to herself, and instead given up her unique talents to join some dumb group of populars in school, she wouldn't have the skills she'd need to help save her brother. I for one am glad she didn't. I'm sure Jack appreciates it too.


Lea Nolan can be found at her website, on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads.  She is represented by the astonishingly fantastic Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency.  

So what do you think? How does popular culture shape teens' perspectives on themselves and their self esteem? Did kids at your schools relentlessly strive to climb the social ladder? What did conformity cost them? 


Jo Ramsey said...

Thanks for your perspective, Lea. You sound like the girl I wished I could be in high school, but from this post, it sounds like you and I had some of the same concerns and insecurities in common.

TV and movies definitely tend to make "being popular" seem like the most important thing to teens. We need more books where the "losers" and "geeks" are the heroes.

Melissa Landers said...

Great post, Lea!

I think kids have always felt the need to C&C: Climb & Conform. If you go back generations before TV and film were so prevalent, there were still cliques and different rungs on the social ladder. A letter jacket, dating the star jock or homecoming queen, a vote of popularity from one's peers: kids of the past still envied these things.

I think we're more aware of it now because of a prevalence in media, including books.

Jen J. Danna said...

First of all, can I just say that I had a very similar haircut in about 1984? We were just too cool for school back then!

I'm with you on the high school experience. I had a good one - lots of friends, busy as hell in the music department (sang in a concert and jazz choir, and played oboe in the concert band and pit band), no bullying, minimal drama, good grades. I definitely wasn't one of the cool kids, but I was one of a big group in the music department, so we were all not cool together so we never thought twice about it (see, this is why I like Glee... that was me in high school).

But I really see how that message comes across in my own kids. My oldest is a follower, and, in grades 7 and 8, SO wanted to be one of the cool kids. And was crushed when she wasn't allowed into the inner sanctum. It didn't do good things to her self esteem. But, in grade 9, she suddenly realized that being unique is a good thing and she stopped trying to copy other kids and was more happy being herself. Thank goodness...

PJ Sharon said...

Great perspective. I think that being socially accepted, and even revered, is a built in survival instinct that is Darwinian and goes back to the "survival of the fittest" mentality. As a culture, we value success, acheivement, strength (jocks rule) and anything that sets us in the upper end of the pack--money, looks, talent, etc.

The reality is that someone has to be in the back of the line and most kids really fit into the lower 7/8 of the pack. That is a lot of insecure kids. Even the ones who sit in the top dog position are in constant fear of losing that edge. Living in a state of fear is just the nature of humanity.

Living in faith and knowing your intrinsic worth is a spiritual concept that our society does not yet understand or promote fully because of the disparity in how we think about religion. When we can embrace the fact that spirituality has nothing to do with religion, concepts of love, belief and self worth will become universal and hopefully become ingrained as deeply as our thoughts of low self-esteem.

We have a lot of evolving yet to do:-)

Kimberly said...

Just one correction in your post. Rizzo was not pregnant! Remember? She yells down to Kenickie from the ferris wheel that is was "a false alarm." :-)
I know me my Grease trivia. LOL.
Other than that teeny tiny little mistake, I loved your post. Conformity is a hard pill to swallow, and I think we've all swallowed our fair share in our teen years. Heck, I think we struggle with it into our adult years as well.
I wish all kids could grow up learning to appreciate themselves and others and realize that the differences between them are what makes life interesting. Conforming takes away the adventures of high school.