This particular post concerns yet another topic often discussed with a great degree of acrimony amongst people on different sides of the issue’s fence: The common portrayal of popular kids in movies and TV shows as being mean-spirited jerks (think the appropriately titled Mean Girls and just about any TV show featuring high school and collage drama you can think of, e.g., Beverly Hills 90210 and Pretty Little Liars); and the equally common portrayal of the outcasts on the receiving end of the hate as being mild-mannered, kindly if eccentric souls who simply want to be liked (if “loved” isn’t an option).
This is another question that begs an analysis of human psychology in any type of system – economic, political, and social – where hierarchies exist, and where there cannot be winners unless there are at least an equal number of losers. Our socio-economic system thrives on a totem pole-ish system of hierarchies, so it’s no wonder at all that our social interactions as peers in various environments (the school setting, in this instance) take on similar dynamics. The social strata will always develop in ways that mimic and even form a strange sort of symbiosis with the prevailing economic and political system. But don’t worry, I won’t go off on a tangent about that system here, despite the ever-present temptation (*evil grin*).
I. So What’s Wrong With Hierarchies, Dewd?
The reason for making this post is two-fold.
The first is because I was one of those severely bullied children and adolescents. I grew up as a straight up outcast and iconoclast (and probably other types of “clast’s” too; pull out your thesaurus and find a preferred synonym). It’s no exaggeration to say that I was hated by many, and often disliked when not hated. Did I deserve it? That question would likely be answered differently by different people who were present at the time and place, as well as by others who weren’t present but happen to study the situation based on their individual experiences, perspective, and position within the hierarchy, both then and now. I’m certainly not blind to the fact that our own experiences and position in life will invariably color our perceptions and interpretations of these things. I will strive to keep that in mind as I deal with this topic. I ask all my readers to try and do the same (hey, it’s only fair, right?).
Secondly, this blog is intended as a response to this article by Diana Cook on Cracked.com (a fav site of mine!), “5 Unwritten Rules Hollywood Needs to Stop Following.” Specifically, scroll down to item #3 where Ms. Cook admonishes the following cinematic trope: “Popular People Need to be Portrayed as Mean-Spirited Evil-Doers.” Before beginning, I will say off the bird (why does it always have to be off the “bat”?) that I like Diana’s articles, and I agree with most of her points in this one, particularly #2! But that’s a whole other topic. It’s these words from her in decrying the popular trope of portraying popular students in films and TV shows as bad souls that are my concern here:
In the movie universe, popular, good-looking people may as well tattoo “sociopath” on their foreheads. More than any other group, they’re often to blame for all of the angst and heartache and acoustic indie rock songs in our hero or heroine’s world. We’ve seen it a million times: the high school queen bee struts through the halls leaving a legacy of damaged egos and emotionally scarred classmates in her wake. That is, of course, until she gets her much-deserved comeuppance by movie’s end. [Her male counterparts are generally no better, of course! Good examples: The Karate Kid (either version) and The O.C. TV series.]
In Hollywood’s version of the world, these evil, top-of-the-food-chain super-hotties spend all of their waking moments trying to figure out ways to make everyone else’s life a living hell, and they show up everywhere.
After providing a relevant cinematic example from Kick-Ass 2, Cook continues:
Sorry, there are good reasons why certain people are more popular than others, and it’s usually because they are likable and have good personalities. While there’s the occasional outlier who gained their position through unearned advantages, for the most part pro-social skills are what build friendships and lead to peer acceptance. In fact, having a good personality may even improve your physical attractiveness. What’s less likely to help are revenge fantasies. Sure, a montage of the outcast teen learning empathy and conflict resolution to gain a better social footing in high school would be a snooze-fest, even if it was set to a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, but there has to be a better way to write teen characters without relying on the tired cliche that popular and attractive equals mean.
Okay, does Cook have a point here that should be listened to? Yes, definitely. Are all popular people bad people? Of course not. Do many outcasts bring a good deal of the “hate” down on themselves with their frequently annoying personality traits? Most certainly, and I’m most definitely among those who were (and sometimes, still are) guilty as charged. There is nothing simplistic about this situation, as nuance tends to be the rule in all situations and issues.
But here is the problem with Cook’s analysis overall: IMO, it lacks a good deal of that nuance and operates on this simplistic premise: Most popular people earn their popularity by having “likable” and “good” personalities. But what Cook doesn’t go into in any type of detail is what largely constitutes “good” and “likeable” according to our super-culture’s attitudes and social mores. The reader knows what she implies by these terms, of course. But I think, again, that she simplifies the matter greatly, and largely in favor of the popular.
I do not know Ms. Cook personally, or anything about her outside of her writings either, so I have no idea from where her perspective hails. Readers of this blog do know where mine originates, however. With that acknowledged and kept in mind, let me explain why my personal experiences tell me that being popular, and how to attain and maintain that treasured social status, in our specific culture oftentimes – not always, but all too often – does our personal character and sense of integrity no favors whatsoever.
II. What Constitutes “Good” and “Likeable” in Our Culture?
These are the proverbial $64,000 questions to ask (or should that metaphorical figure be adjusted to $640,000 for inflation?). Before I answer them, I will acknowledge that anyone can think of exceptions to the rules. We can all think of some charming weirdo or uber-eccentric prankster who was relatively well-liked, and certain mean-spirited “alpha” personalities who were avoided and even opposed rather than lauded by the crowd. But these unusual exceptions notwithstanding, what did we usually see constituting the general mindset of popular and likeable people in our heavily hierarchical social world, particularly in high school and (to some extent) in college?
1. Their opinions on any given subject are most often whatever popular opinion on any of those subjects happens to be. Our culture thrives on conformity, not diversity of opinion and thought. We like to read about controversy, but we don’t tend to look kindly upon controversial individuals in our social circle, let alone their opinions. Instead, we tend to use them as convenient targets to vent our own personal frustrations upon. Think of the punching bag that boxers use in the gym to let off steam, but composed of flesh and blood.
2. They have interests, hobbies, and preferences that are popular, and most often those which tend towards the physically visceral. For instance, popular boys will all tend to be athletically inclined and heavily into boy-centric sports like football and basketball, or (depending on where you live, eh?) hockey. The girls will be heavily into popular “girly” sports like volleyball and cheerleading, and into community service where they win awards and recognition… yanno, like organizing drives that get blankets for the poor or bring awareness to some disease or other; don’t get me wrong, these are noble and often helpful endeavors, but not always done for altruistic reasons so much as earning more popularity notches. I’m not saying this is the case with all who devote their time to community service, as a great many people truly care about those in need; but no one can tell me this isn’t clearly the case with a good number in the popular crowd. Seeking brownie points, adulation, and approval from the greater community is a good way to receive it from the immediate social circle, as well as endearing themselves to the major authority figures in the hierarchy (in this case, teachers, the principal, the guidance counselor, the hall monitors who frisk you upon entering the school every morning, the pot salesman, etc.).
In contrast, those who are heavily into less visceral endeavors like writing, artistry, photography, the physical sciences, etc., tend to be marginalized and less popular, regardless of their own contributions to the public and the school itself (unless they are also doing some of the popular, more visceral stuff in addition to this). Students who are musicians and form their own bands tend to be popular, because music and on-stage performances are very visceral and engaging, much as popular sports are. The same goes for actors, particularly those who go before the camera instead of the stage. Has anyone reading this seriously failed to notice the pattern here? Even if, honestly, you were part of that pattern rather than relegated to watching it from the social equivalent of the bleachers?
3. They tend to be physically attractive, or at least “doable” (to use popular social parlance). Those souls like me who are not conventionally attractive, and overweight to boot, can be popular, but if they are natural iconoclasts, then lacking in the looks and/or fitness department greatly cements their position of unpopularity. Let’s be serious, people, and honest: how many attractive and physically fit people do we remember from school who were actually among the ranks of the unpopular? How many attractive males with good athletic skills and/or in local bands weren’t popular? How many attractive females with good standing in the cheerleading squad and/or in local bands weren’t popular? Yes, we had goth bands run by and catering to the misfits, but note that they tended to be on the lower popularity tiers compared to the rock, metal, hip hop, and pop musicians in much the same way that the kicker tends to be much less lower on the football team’s popularity tier than the quarterback and the defensive line backers. Get the analogy there, peeps?
4. They tend to come disproportionately from whatever group is economically predominant in whatever area they happen to live in. This is a major means of establishing social kinship and connection in a system based on economic disparity, which in turn breeds many social differences and values (yes, this was another underhanded but blatant blow against our exalted capitalist system, mwah-hah-hah!). You will notice that students who come from families of affluent means who attend inner city schools tend to be less popular and more “misunderstood” than the students from the more obviously working class families. The opposite is the case for students from families of modest means who happen to attend suburban schools in largely affluent communities, or private schools (a small number of students of modest economic status will sometimes attend wealthy private schools of high status if they win a scholarship).
III. Why Do So Many Popular People Tend to Become Mean-Spirited? Is This Even True, or Just a Cliche’?
Okay, let’s be honest with ourselves and our observations as we break down the list…
1. Becoming popular, and constantly treated with adulation, can very quickly fatten the ego as if it were metaphorically binging on cake with high fructose frosting. Being liked and looked up to by everyone; given special deference whenever you do something wrong; or special consideration when running for any particular public office (yanno, like class president or treasurer, or assistant deputy treasurer, or whatever); and everyone of the opposite sex trying to get up your bra or down your pants, or usually quick to let you get up or down theirs (whatever the case may be), will all too often affect your perceptions and ego in very specific ways. Many individuals – again, not all, but all too many – will develop a strong sense of entitlement, as well as an inflated perception of themselves. This privileged position does not encourage such individuals to see nuance in the world, or to view others who are not like them in positive ways. They will be encouraged to view some people as “measuring up,” and others who do not, and to greatly limit those of their peers whom they consider equals, or at least worthy of respect and/or acknowledgement.
2. The desire to become popular, or to maintain that status if you are not at the top of the tiers, or to work your way up the totem pole, does not incite you to develop enlightened thinking, or to deviate in opinion or interests from whatever happens to be popular opinion or “acceptable” interests. Quite the contrary, as would be logically expected. This encourages those aiming for the top to dismiss and even mistreat those whom they perceive as having little chance of “moving on up,” socially speaking. Let’s keep in mind that if popular opinion is that Person A is a disgraceful loser not worthy of being treated as a human being, or a total “slut,” or a total “nerd,” or a lover of the less trendy brand of cola, etc., those seeking to be popular themselves feel compelled to adopt that opinion, not to mention the attendant behavior that goes along with it.
“But Chris, what about what Cook said in her article about developing pro-social skills? Are you trying to say that counts for nothing at all?”
No, I’m not saying Ms. Cook has no points there (please keep the obvious nipple jokes to yourselves please, you pervs!). But consider this: If you are automatically accepted for being very attractive; plus admired for having good athletic skills in whatever sports are popular amongst your crowd; and are a naturally physically fit and tough individual (boys in particular are expected to be physically adept at fighting in our culture); or simply have a natural skill with talking and “working” other people in a verbal manner, then you’re obviously going to quickly learn to develop good pro-social skills. That is, if by pro-social, you mean knowing how to talk to others, and to say the right things at the right time, and in the right way. Or to be funny in a way that people laugh with you rather than at you. I think you get the gist.
Can anyone learn these skills? I think the jury is out on that. I believe that all of us can learn to improve our social skills whatever our inherent talent in this department, but it’s difficult to do that if you lack all of the above natural qualities and talents, as well as the advantaged social and economic position in any given area (or era). I think Cook is wrong to suggest that every student enters the school, or even the world, on a completely equal footing, and then some simply proceed to do the right things, while others do the opposite. This is a complex and heavily nuanced situation, and we live in a very complex and greatly unequal socio-economic system that does not favor or lean towards an equal playing field in the social realm.
It’s true that some individuals do manage to circumvent and find ways around all of the above-mentioned limitations to become popular and “winners,” and again, I think all of us can think of real life examples we have personally known or seen. But not everyone possesses the natural talents or opportunities to take advantage of this, just like not everyone has talent in math, or the opportunities to pursue a career in mathematics if they are. Other individuals, as my respected friend Joe Pro has reminded me, are simply good at taking advantage of happenstance if it should come their way. Conversely, others can be hampered by matters of happenstance that do not work to their advantage.
“So, Chris, since you were a bullied outcast, are you trying to romanticize such individuals, and claim that you’re the social equivalent of the cliched’ ‘noble savage’ in literature and folklore? Do you think people like you do nothing to make your situation worse? Hell, I know you personally, and are you seriously trying to tell me that you can’t get annoying and obnoxious with your personality traits at times?”
The short answers: No. No. And no. Which leads to…
IV. What Do Outcasts and Social Pariahs Oftentimes Do to Make Their Situation Worse?
I wager that many reading this – especially those who’ve had to deal with me on a regular basis (*snickers*) – are glad I asked this question. And even more glad that I’m going to follow up with answers.
1. Outcasts and “hated” individuals too often develop the opinion that sometimes negative attention is better than receiving no attention at all. Even when this continually backfires on them in sometimes very bad ways, the desire to be acknowledged by your peers and/or family in some way can lead one to develop personality traits that are, to say the least, not very endearing or easy to put up with. I don’t need to explain any further how this can exacerbate rather than provide an alleviation of social pariah-ship (if that’s not a word, it should be).
2. Being an outcast often leads to severe envy of even the moderately or “middle tier” popular crowd, as well as extreme bitterness towards the world in general. It further leads to heavy degrees of self-doubt and self-hatred, as one internalizes the negative feelings and reactions that the crowd has towards them. They will often begin to feel ashamed of who they are, what their interests happen to be, and even where they come from. This will cause them to act out in certain ways that get them into trouble at home and in school, and to become as unpopular in their family and amongst the teachers at their school as they are with their peers.
Let’s be honest here: our family members and teachers tend to like conformity as much as anyone else. They are by no means less prone to judging based on the prevailing cultural values. After all, the nuclear family unit and the administration of our current schooling systems are also very hierarchical in structure. And as I’ve noted repeatedly, hierarchies of every sort prefer conformity of thought and behavior.
“One of the popular girls told me that she caught you looking at her this morning. Is that true, you little punk? I should make you shine and polish all of my sports trophies, and all of her gold stars for raising funds to research African night blindness! That would take you months of hard labor!”
“So are you saying that the outcasts are never jerks themselves, and are always right in conflicts that arise with the popular?”
No, I’m not. Being in the position of an outcast doesn’t make you inherently noble or “good,” and the bitterness, anger, envy, and lack of a positive image of yourself also tends to do no favors for the type of personality and level of enlightenment that one develops under such circumstances. This is not a critique of popularity in and of itself, nor is it even a canonization of the outcast (especially when some of them “go Columbine” on occasion, which I do not condone, even if I understand it).
It is more a critique on the type of dog-eat-dog system we live under, that has so many institutions designed to “weed out” and tend towards establishing such a strong demarcation between winners and losers in the first place. It’s not a conducive atmosphere towards breeding equality of opportunity to develop pro-social skills. Again, some people have the natural talent to develop pro-social skills, whereas others rely more on their environmental circumstances to develop them.
“So are you saying no one should take responsibility for their behavior, and at least try to develop these social skills despite the obstacles?”
No, certainly not. I’m a strong advocate of never giving up and plowing against whatever obstacles are in your way, no matter how large, and to accomplish and develop as much as you can within whatever limitations you may have. I greatly admire many historical and personal examples of those who have accomplished this, and they are my inspirational idols. The same with many fictional characters who are archetypes for such positive character traits.
But I’m also saying that it’s not realistic to expect the majority of people with the odds stacked against them in the type of system that we currently live under to develop good pro-social skills en masse. We also cannot expect a system like the current global order to produce large numbers of popular people who possess this popularity simply because they are nice to, and considerate of, other people. That is every bit a cliche’ as the opposite trope Ms. Cook complained about in movies; we simply do not see the opposite extreme played up in films because, as she also noted, it’s less exciting and produces no drama. But it’s an equally simplistic cliche’/assumption/attitude nevertheless.
3. Outcasts tend to all too often gravitate towards movements and trends that purport to embrace the marginalized and encourage individuality… but in reality, have negative and generally grim sensibilities rather than uplifting or empowerment motifs. They ironically tend to encourage a different set of conformity. This only serves to further alienate and marginalize these outcasts from society, and make them come off all the more as “weirdos,” emotionally “tainted,” socially inept, and about as welcome in the crowd as a carrier of the Ebola virus.
Personally, I love the aesthetic of the goth movement, and I admittedly find goth chicks very attractive. Overall, I see the goth movement as a mixed bag, as it does have some interesting components, but I think it also has too strong a focus on overly “dark” elements like morbidity and death. I’m not saying that death in and of itself has to be horrible, but when tethered to an overabundance of suicidal thoughts, killings, accidents, violent imagery, and self-mutilation it veers towards death’s more depressing aspects. The emo cultural movement (if you can call it that) is IMO largely devoid of some of the more innovative and creative aspects of the goth sensibility, instead having a focus on negative emotions and a whiny pandering towards the perpetual victim mindset that is anything but positive.
4. The over-idolization of anti-heroes and destructive & self-destructive individuals, characters in fiction, and memes. There is no doubt that many outcasts harbor strong and often brutal revenge fantasies. I must confess that my thoughts have wandered in that direction more often than I’d care to admit. As long as it doesn’t consume your thinking on a pervasive basis, or lead you into actual acts of harm against others or yourself, it can serve as a healthy and understandable means of private venting and “cleansing” of your emotions. But when taken too far, as can too often be the case with outcasts, well… think about the high suicide rate amongst our number, and the occasional Columbine-ish incidents, and you get my drift here.
The idols of some outcasts in popular fiction too often include horror characters like Jason Vorhees, or anti-heroes culled from the comic book medium like the Punisher, Deadpool, Deathstroke the Terminator, Lobo, Harley Quinn, and Wolverine (before he became less of an angry loner and more of a standard hero over the past two decades; or, more specifically, after other writers took over the character from Chris Claremont).
Now don’t get me wrong, I think all of these characters are cool for what archetypes they represent, and I’m not only a big fan of the horror genre, but it encompasses a large amount of my published work. And my love for and interest in the comic book medium is well known by all who know me. Further, I like nuance, conflict, and moral ambiguity in both my real life heroes and fictional idols/inspirations.
But here is where I eventually learned to set myself apart from many of my fellow outcasts: I may think Jason Vorhees is cool, and I can appreciate the archetypal themes that he represents in our culture; but I do not identify with him, nor do I actually want to be him! The same with the likes of the Punisher, Deadpool, Deathstroke the Terminator, etc. I often admit to finding Harley Quinn darkly sexy and attractive with her quirky eccentricity and goth-like qualities, but would I actually want to be her male equivalent (hell no!), or have her as a significant other (hell yes! Well, erm, maybe for a few passionate nights, until she happens to kill half the people around me)?
But it took me a long time to learn to choose my idols in both real life and fiction a lot more carefully, and to not let my previous bitterness towards the world and my desire for revenge against it have too much of an influence on who I was actually inspired by, and wanted to be more like in real life.
“Don’t’cha just wanna be me, dewd? I’m totally smokin’! Well, at least my pistols are after I use ’em! Bwa-hah-hah! I totally slay me! Not to mention every other schmuck in my vicinity too! And look where my last bullet just hit that mail man! Booyah!”
And why didn’t the idiot writer of this blog find a way to shade my dialogue in yellow?
For perhaps another good example: I consider the X-Men a nuanced and generally positive, uplifting fictional archetype to identify with; but as cool as I think the Suicide Squad are, I most definitely do not consider them an inspiration to look up to or emulate! (Not that I don’t love reading about them, and writing characters similar to them, of course! Suicide Squad is one of the coolest and most bitchin’ team concepts in the history of fantastic fiction.)
Deadpool: “We’re very accepting of outcasts. They make good target practice.”
Harley Quinn: “You know it, Puddin’!”
Black Spider: “Why do you so frequently call everyone you’re into ‘Puddin”?”
Harley Quinn: “‘Cause, I can, bitch! Tee hee!”
King Shark: “Lemme eat the outcast!”
So yes, outcasts and social pariahs do need to take a strong, hard look at themselves, their behavior, and their allegiances. We have to take the blame for the things we honestly deserve to be blamed for. We simply do not deserve most or all of the blame. Moreover, we need to have an honest desire to stop finding “nobility” in being a perpetual victim, or idolizing the victimizers who serve as proxies for us in both true crime stories and popular fantastic fiction.
We need to realize that we can’t expect anyone else to like us if we do not like ourselves. We have to learn to be kind and respectful to others, while at the same time seeing a positive purpose in the world for the likes of annoying rabble rousers and iconoclasts like ourselves. It’s no easy feat to learn to love and respect yourself in the face of extreme condemnation and hatred from others around you, but giving into bitterness, hatred, self-pity, revenge, and despair is all too easy, and is thus the wrong route to go.
Most of all, we need to learn that it’s an awesome gift to be different, but that depends on the specific way that your differences manifest. We can aspire to be unwavering critical thinkers who care far more about what’s right than what is popular and thereby provide an example for the world, but we should never find inspiration in the sociopath or their tendencies. We also need to relish our differences as serving a unique purpose in the world, but also to realize that we should never seek certain allegiances to be different just for the mere sake of being different, or to get attention that we receive no other way, or for mere shock value, etc.
V. So What Solution Do You Offer?
The solution I offer is simple, but not simplistic. And it’s the same one I offer for a huge number of problems in the world, barring acts of nature like earthquakes and tornadoes (usually, that is).
We need to take a long and hard look at the system we live under, the institutions and values it encourages us to develop, and the type of environment it creates for all of us. We need to always strive to not only make ourselves the best we can be as individuals, but to collectively and cooperatively work towards establishing the best possible system and world order we can live under. I do not believe that the current global system represents that by a long shot. The problems we suffer in this world are too pervasive to lie squarely on “human nature” or individual inadequacies.
In regards to the specific topic of this blog, we need to oppose any type of system or institution based on hierarchies, conformity of thinking, and values that encourage competition and weeding out over cooperation and equality of opportunity for everyone. If we can accomplish that, then and only then we can have a realistic expectation for everyone to possess an equal chance in developing pro-social skills.