Americans are infatuated with high school – high school films, songs, musicals, you name it. They have persisted through generations and will continue to do so probably until the end of time. Cult films such as The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls are incontestably American staples, film classics.
Why is it that we fixate on and romanticize high school?
Is it the relatable character identities, the social hierarchies, or the nuanced experiences? Maybe it’s the mundane that always gets transformed into the extraordinary. But that’s just the problem – the ordinary becoming extraordinary.
Hollywood’s glamorous depiction of high school is often false and creates a picturesque image of teenage life to very impressionable young minds.
Though these movies undoubtedly come to hold a place in many hearts, they can also cause unrealistic expectations of what high school experiences and teenage years should look like. From those unrealistic expectations can emerge feelings of deprivation and frustration.
The reality often is high school does not resemble these films. The outcomes and lessons being taught, though somewhat applicable, do not hold truth in everyday life.
Getting sent to detention sucks. You most likely will not be there on a Saturday or long enough to have life transforming conversations with strangers. High school cheerleading does not look like a scene from Bring It On. The cattiness, sure. The flips, stadium filled football games, and pyramids? Nope.
Most teenagers do not have the luxury of waking up like Cher Horowitz. They do not select outfits from a digital screen or drive a Jeep Wrangler to school without a license. Most teens do not form burglary rings and commit theft in A-list celebrity homes.
Writing love letters to your want-to-be boyfriends most likely will not lead to you getting a boyfriend. Of course we all want to believe it would, but reality harshly says otherwise.
Even films like I Love You Beth Cooper, not necessarily on the same magnitude of the cult classics, still depicts high school in a romanticized fashion. Crazy reckless nights, large parties, glamorized underage drinking, and rich youth all foster this plagued narrative that isn’t true. So why do we hold such reverence for these films?
The realistic depiction of high school often resembles grudgingly waking up in the morning and attending class (maybe skipping it in a parking lot). Then the potential after school activities and finally returning home to repeat the day the next morning. It’s repetitive, it’s dull, it’s normal. This is the high school experience the majority of American youth experience. Why is it never portrayed as such?
Perhaps film portrayal is the experience we all long for but never see come to fruition.
Electric nights, money, and friendships – there’s something about being young, naïve, and being allowed to make mistakes that also characterizes the majority of these films.
There’s a reconciling with the self along with others that clearly resonates with audiences. Maybe this reconciliation is missing in reality. As a result we imagine situations where we can live to be our utmost selves. We self-identify with the characters. This becomes the embodiment of being carefree and reckless, without any serious consequence or responsibility at stake.
It’s an imaginary world where we create characters reminiscent of actual people, but there is something intangible about them that cannot be amounted to in real life. It’s reachable, yet unobtainable. It sucks you in while distancing you out. That’s the pull.
Everyone goes through high school. Everyone wants their experience to be extraordinary. We long to encounter a love like Sandy and Danny in Grease, to have a friendship like Blair and Serena (well, maybe more stable), and to find a happy medium with both life and yourself like Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen.
There’s a longing in each and everyone one of us.
We want to feel something extraordinarily relatable. High school is the epitome of “youth,” and the media says it’s supposed to be memorable. When it’s not, we turn back to these movies, to those innermost desires and question the validity of our own experiences.
These films will continue to be made, but should such rampant devotion to them be everlasting?
Romanticizing high school by the media has occurred for decades. But as times change, so too should romanticizing. It should reflect the actuality of the American teenager, and find a way to immortalize and paint it in a heroic light.
Cult classics are classics for a reason. They resonate with people, and I’m no different in paying homage to them just like any other romantic. But adoring our own experiences is essential, regardless of how unglamorous or dull they may be. Coming-of-age in any fashion is important; it matters.
The next time you wish you were in a 1980’s Molly Ringwald film, try to find love in your own vision of high school, the one you inhabit right now.1
Also published on Medium.