Because I write YA, the characters I write about are almost all in high school. So it's important to me that my high school setting feels realistic, like it could actually exist. This morning, I read a post by Choco on her blog In Which A Girl Reads where she talks about how her experience of high school seems very different to her from the high schools she reads about in YA literature. It's a really good entry, and all YA writer should read it just to avoid the cliches it's so easy to fall into, but Choco's experience (just like my experience, just like your experience) is not universal. Let's take one example of that: popularity.
Choco makes a great point about how popularity is portrayed in YA books and movies. In a lot of them, there is some sort of "ruling clique" that determines the lives of the other students. But here's how she describes her high school:
And another thing: I don't know if my high school is just the odd-one out, but I can barely tell who's popular and who's not. I'm kind of wary of using the word "popular", even though I have been. Popularity is such a weird term, anyhow. There is most definitely no queen bee that I'm aware of. There's no "in" group, in which the nerds and every other person is aspiring to be part of.
It was at this point that I realized that Choco's experience of high school and my experience of high school were very different. Because at my high school, there was an "in group" and everyone knew who they were. It was extraordinarily easy to know who was "popular" and who wasn't. They made it very obvious. And they were all the typical people -- cheerleaders, football players, star athletes.
But that doesn't mean that my high school experience was a cliche, either, because at my high school, the "unpopular" outnumbered the "popular" by a ratio of at least 3:1. And most of the "unpopular" could not have cared less about being in the "popular crowd" or doing what they did. It was more like the popular crowd was the crowd that all the rest of us knew about, like they were minor league celebrities, whose lives all of us unpopular people shared in common. On a given day, I couldn't tell you who in the stoner group was dating or not dating, but I knew that about the head cheerleader, not because I cared, but because the head cheerleader's life was broadcast on the high school grapevine in ways that the stoner kids' lives were not.
Also not a cliche was the fact that my crowd -- the choir/band/theatre crowd -- was a lot (A LOT) bigger than the popular crowd. I went to a large high school, the a cappella choir alone had more than 100 kids in it, and that didn't include the show choir (although, of course there was some overlap), the madrigal choir, or the junior varsity choir (yes, there was a jv choir). And it didn't include the orchestra or the band (two separate groups, although again there was some overlap). And it didn't include the theatre kids who didn't sing (I believe they are called "actors"). All told, my "crowd" had over 500 kids in it.
But that doesn't mean that popularity doesn't exist in high schools, even in ones where the out crowd could kick the in crowd's ass in a rumble.* When I was a senior, there was this boy who was interested in me. He was younger--a junior maybe--and a jock. Football, I think. And I was between boyfriends at the time and he was cute and I had never dated a jock before, so when he asked for my number, I gave it to him. And when he called, he asked me the question that is the title of this post -- "who do you run with?"
He was wondering whether I was popular enough to go out with. He himself was very popular, in the traditional sense of the word,** and dating someone who wasn't apparently mattered to him, because after I told him (he said "oh. cool," in a way that meant "oh. dammit.") we talked a few more times on the phone and then he tried to bootycall me a couple times (it didn't work), but we never actually went out. I wasn't popular enough. Being part of the in crowd wasn't a huge deal to me and the in crowd didn't run my life, but it certainly ran his, and, in that way, it affected me.
But Choco's point remains the same -- you don't see portrayals of popularity like this in YA books a lot. Most of them stick to cheerleader=popular=awful*** and that's as far as it goes. And that's lame. And boring. And, as Choco points out, not very realistic.
* I'm so S.E. Hinton, I kill myself. :)
** Which is sort of another question -- if the "unpopular" are legion and also don't like the popular people, then what the hell does "popular" mean in high school, anyways? How is it defined?
** And seriously, can we step away from that a little, please? I just read a book in which the head cheerleader was so over-the-top bitchy and mean that I couldn't believe that anyone could ever be that way. They were plenty of bitchy cheerleaders at my school, don't get me wrong, but even they had days where they just couldn't be bothered. Characters need dimensions, people.