Dispatch September 2009

The Rise of the Band Geek

Glee, a new series on Fox, shows just how far portrayals of teen social life have evolved since the angst-ridden era of Breakfast Club.
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On May 19, Fox did something insane: immediately following the finale of American Idol, it aired the pilot of Glee—an offbeat new series about the formation of a show choir in an Ohio high school—with no plans to air another episode for three-and-a-half months.  Yet on the strength of that single, slightly demented episode, and the soaring rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that ended it, Glee has become the most highly promoted and hotly anticipated new series of the fall. 

The show might seem to have come out of nowhere. But for all its quirky energy, unusual cast of characters, and virtuosic, joyful musicality, Glee is in fact the next logical step in an argument that teen movies have been making about high school life for the last ten years.

In the now-distant world of 1980s teen movies, stark barriers were the order of the day. The teenagers in The Breakfast Club, the classic that embodied ‘80s teen angst, were locked into rigid cliques defined by class.  Those groups might be temporarily permeable during a Saturday detention session, or for an exceptionally pretty girl, but the essential barriers were understood to be rigid and permanent.  The next generation of teen classics, starting in 1999 with 10 Things I Hate About You and culminating with Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, refuted this assumption, and instead assigned the responsibility for the formation of cliques to the teenagers themselves. In an era when, for many, after-school activities were evolving into virtual full-time jobs (especially for those trying to impress colleges), these movies placed a new emphasis on the bonds formed by mutual talents and interests – even among students who were otherwise very unalike. 

The ‘80s Caste System

In Breakfast Club, John Hughes contrasted the poise and self-assurance of Claire Standish, the rich, popular girl played by Molly Ringwald, with the awkwardness of nerdy Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), and the disaffection of rebellious John Bender (Judd Nelson), who both came from impoverished families.  While the movie made the case that wealth and poverty alike could make life difficult for teenagers, it didn’t make a convincing case that Claire would ever abandon the privileges of popularity to pursue a real romance with Bender, or that Brian would actually be able to escape the stigma conferred on him by his outsize intellect.  On this single, out-of-the-ordinary day, the students may have found the gumption to tell off a teacher who's overly eager to pigeonhole them, but there’s little indication that they’re willing to go further and buck the parents who pressure and misunderstand them.   

In Pretty In Pink, another Hughes classic, poverty-stricken but creative Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) wins the love of a rich, popular boy with her looks and integrity. Yet it’s clear that this development isn’t intended to imply that the caste system isn’t so rigid after all: at the end of the movie, Andie’s best friend Duckie remains an outcast. 

Other ‘80s directors were even more insistent on this point. In Michael Lehmann’s black comedy Heathers, the clique system can only be dismantled by murder.

The Rise of the Band Geek

While the social stakes are still high, the next generation of classic teen flicks has taken a decidedly more relaxed attitude toward cliques.  In 10 Things I Hate About You, a 1999 riff on Taming of the Shrew, the movie’s creators suggest that cliques are artificial, rather than the natural order, by making them out to be absurd: instead of jocks and cheerleaders, the movie’s peripheral characters sort themselves into esoteric groups like the Cowboys, the Coffee Kids, the White Rastas, and the Future MBAs. Mean Girls, too, offered an absurd litany of cliques—listed at one point by a supporting character as, “ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, Varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks.” 

These movies don’t deny that groups are important to the self-image of the characters. But the groups in question clearly aren’t predetermined—you aren’t automatically sorted into one of them based on your parents’ jobs. Rather, the new groupings are largely a matter of choice, and there’s not a clear divide between acceptable and mortifyingly unacceptable categories.  Being a sexually active band geek might not make you popular, but it does mean you’re getting laid. 

There’s also a newfound emphasis on social groups based on after-school activities, and a new measure of respect for those who are good at and committed to something– whatever it might be. In Mean Girls, one appealing character treats math meets like prize fights, raps about his sexual prowess at a school talent show, and hands out business cards that describe him as a “Math Enthusiast—Bad-Ass M.C.”  Another character finds true happiness only upon giving up tormenting others and learning to take out her aggression on the lacrosse field.  Even the otherwise lackluster She’s All That (1999) makes the case that a jock can find a home in the avant-garde performance art community.

Activities like cheerleading, which have traditionally been code for a certain level of popularity, are up for redefinition these days as well.  Bring It On, the cheerleading movie that spawned a franchise of straight-to-video sequels, spoofed the idea of the cheerleader as a breed apart with a dream sequence in which a cheerleading team chants: “I'm sexy, I'm cute, I'm popular to boot…. Hate us cause we're beautiful? / Well, we don't like you either! We're cheerleaders!”  The movie depicts them as popular, but it also humanizes them as dedicated, creative athletes. And when their captain falls for a punk rocker, there’s none of the censure or agonizing that would have marked such a cross-clique pairing in an earlier movie.

The Next Generation

Glee takes the notion that cliques are malleable still further than any of the teen classics that have preceded it.  The show presents a set of archetypes—a jock, a fashion-obsessed gay guy, a black diva, a female Asian nerd, a disabled dude, and a striver—and commits them to each other not just for a single Saturday, but for a long-term project.  And while the athletes and cheerleaders try to stand in the glee club’s way, and are unambiguously portrayed as villains, the only character on the show depicted as truly weighed down by class anxiety is the glee club’s new supervisor, who contemplates throwing over his teaching job for something more lucrative in order to fulfill his wife’s material demands.

In Glee’s world (unlike in the bland High School Musical movies, which set up pale imitations of clique barriers), the archetypes embodied in The Breakfast Club so many years ago—the brain, the athlete, the basket case, and the princess – still exist.  But what’s most relevant here is not their divisions, but what they want in common.  “Being great at something is going to change it,” Rachel, the striver, says of her hopes that singing will win her friends.  “Being a part of something special makes you special, right?” On Wednesday nights at 9 pm on Fox, at least, it’s true.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive. She blogs about pop culture at alyssarosenberg.blogspot.com
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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