Some Observations on the Underlying Cultural Meanings of American High School Movies

If you take out your sociological binoculars and gaze back across our recent pop cultural history, you will notice a trend. It begins most likely with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and stretches well into our present day with High School musical, and will most likely end sometime in the future with High School Musical 31, in which Zac Efron in his 50’s will play a jittery Science teacher.

 This trend is a genre of films in which the American High school operates as a metaphor for wider society. The amount of films that make use of this metaphor is vast and could include Heathers, Encino Man, American Pie, Clueless, Grease, 10 Things I hate about you, Pretty in Pink, Mean Girls, Ferris Buellers Day Off, Stomp the Yard, Twilight, American Beauty, Elephant, Bring it On, and so on.

All play with the social and class distinctions that make up the American High School. In most High School movies this distinction usually is polemic, pitting the Jocks/popular kids/Cheerleaders/WASP/Economically privileged against the Nerds/Alternative/Punks/Goths/Vampires/Non-WASP/Economically disadvantaged. Just as an earlier genre of British ‘school’ novels (ie Tom Brown’s School days), used the setting of British Private schools as a way of talking about class distinctions in English society, so American High School movies enable movie makers to examine the conventions and values of broader American culture, specifically the idea of class in a culture which is supposedly classless.  

Specifically the High School genre explores the concept of the meritocracy, that it is the ordering of society into a system in which personal effort and merit is rewarded. In contrast to European society which traditionally ordered itself around the class distinctions which grew out of the feudal system, the founding Fathers of the United States, desired to create a republic in which class did not matter, and in which hard work, ingenuity and entrepenurialism were rewarded.

 The high school movie genre questions this concept, asking just how fair is the meritocracy, the Jocks and cheerleaders symbolize the privileged upper classes of the United States. Some films portray the redemption of the privileged classes of the high school such as Clueless or Bring it On, in which the privileged develop a social conscience, other movies such as Heathers take a much darker view, portraying the elite as psychopathic narcissists capable of murder. 

Almost always the elites in High School movies hold onto their power through violence. The jocks use their brawn, and the cheerleaders/popular girls use their sexuality as a weapon.  Many high school movies also use the symbol of the Jock and the Cheerleader as examples of the distortion of male and female roles in American culture. The Jock is a muscular, sleazy, unintelligent, vain, bully, and the cheerleader is a shallow, manipulative, catty, sex object.

Thus the high school movie, becomes a way of asking as to whether the system of meritocracy is slanted in the favour of the wealthy, powerful and attractive. Some films ask for the destruction of the whole system such as Rock ‘n’ Roll high School in which The Ramones watch on as the High School blows up, to movies such as Remember the Titans in which the African American students exploits on the basket ball court prove the meritocracy still works for those willing to work hard despite their race or creed.

An interesting slant on the high school movie is Saved! Set at a Christian private school, Saved! obviously reflecting on the rise of the religious right in American life, posits the Christian kids as the elite and re-tells the usual High School movie in the social context of evangelical America. 

An interesting High School movie which does not follow the trend is Harry Potter. I wonder if part of the attraction of the Harry Potter phenomenon to readers and viewers in the United States, is that Hogwart’s college in comparison to the American High Schools shown in films seems like some educational Utopian paradise. Sure there a couple of bad eggs, and jibes from the rich kids, but the usual American high school class divisions on the whole seem to be absent from Hogwart’s college as kids of every creed and colour mix together.

A key element of this mixing seems to be the concept of houses, that is the internal ‘teams’ that our found in British and Commonwealth schools. Whereas in American high School the internal competition is based in individual versus individual, in the British system a Jock and a Goth can be thrown together in order compete against other ‘houses’, thus weakening the schools internal subcultures, (a reality which is ironic considering the early British School genre) .

Taking this all into account the High School movie genre show no signs of abating, and for all of you youth culture vultures out there, is a worthwhile subject to keep your eye on in order to hear the story being told behind the story.


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