What’s With Our Cultural Obsession With High School?

Have you ever noticed how popular the movies and TV shows set in high school are? More importantly, have you noticed how ridiculous and inaccurate they usually are?

By Meghan Dillon3 min read
What’s With Our Cultural Obsession With High School?

Some of the first teen and high school movies came in the 1950s and 1960s, but Grease changed the game in 1978, setting up the ‘80s to have some of the most beloved teen movies of all time. The majority of classic ‘80s teen movies were directed by John Hughes like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink. Early high school movies focused on themes relating to coming of age, and most of these movies were comedic.

The trend continued in the ‘90s with teen comedies like Dazed and Confused, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Clueless, and some of the most famous teen movies in the 2000s like Mean Girls, She’s the Man, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, and Superbad followed suit. 

High school movies were less popular in the 2010s, but we still had some great ones like Easy A, The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, and Book Smart. Teen movies in the 2010s in general focused less on high school and more on themes like dystopia (The Hunger Games, Divergent) and complex social and personal issues (The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Hate U Give).

The rise of TV shows came in the 1990s due to the popularity of comedies like Saved by the Bell and dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210. Other popular shows from this decade include comedies like Freaks and Geeks (I’ll never understand how this incredible show only got one season) and Boy Meets World, as well as dramas like Dawson’s Creek, My So Called Life, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Comedies died down (mainly reserved for movies and the Disney Channel) in the 2000s, which is known as the golden age of teen dramas with shows like Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, The OC, and Gossip Girl. The early 2010s brought similar shows like Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries, and Teen Wolf.  

The genre died down for a few years before Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why premiered in 2017. This was followed up with the gritty HBO drama, Euphoria, which premiered in 2019.

TV shows based in and around high school often focus on similar themes to their big-screen counterparts, but have the time to go more in-depth with the themes and characters. Similar to movies, teen shows have gotten darker over the past few years, but does that make them more realistic?

Are These Movies and Shows Actually Realistic?

Many Are Too Glamorous

Though movies like Mean Girls accurately portray the absurdity of high school clique culture, the glamorous nature of the movie makes it unrealistic, and many high school TV shows tend to fall into this trap too. Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars are beloved for how absurdly unrealistic and glamorous they are.

A Visible Lack of Parents

Modern teen dramas like 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria are often praised for being more realistic than their predecessors and for portraying real-life teen issues, but they miss the mark by the fact that there are very few parents in these shows. I understand that there are some bad and/or absent parents out there, but this isn’t the norm in real life. 

Serious issues like suicide, mental health problems, bullying, drugs, sexuality, and sexual assault should be talked about in teen shows and movies because they’re real teen issues, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a little more realism and parents to the mix.

If we want to explore stories related to partying and sex, why not make shows and movies about college life? This would be much more realistic because more people party in college (could have something to do with having no parents around...). Research also shows that only half of American teenagers are sexually active before turning 18, but these shows and movies make it look like everyone is doing it.

Most Accurate

As a big fan of high school movies and shows, I’m a firm believer that Superbad is one of the most realistic high school movies out there, and not (okay, partially) because it never fails to make me laugh. 

Some classics like The Breakfast Club and modern hits like The Edge of Seventeen are pretty accurate, but nothing captures the truly awkward nature of high school like Superbad. The 2007 flick stars Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as two awkward and nerdy high school seniors about to graduate and go to separate colleges. Though both boys desperately want to get drunk at their last high school party and lose their virginities before going to college, their awkward personalities make this goal next to impossible, and hilarity ensues.

The accurate portrayal of American teenage life is what makes the movie so funny. Both characters are foul-mouthed and immature, portraying the crass way that many high schoolers actually speak and behave. It doesn’t pretend to be glamorous and it doesn’t show a bunch of kids getting drunk and having sex; rather the entertainment comes from the accuracy of the characters and the hijinks that ensue.

So, Why Are We Obsessed with High School?

One word: nostalgia. This can be seen in the popularity of the newest hit teen drama Outer Banks which premiered on Netflix in 2020. Despite being apart from my friends in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing that kept us all in touch was talking about how much we loved bingeing Outer Banks and wanted to watch it again. The majority of us agreed that the best part of the show was the handsome protagonist John B, who reminded us of the kind of guy we all wanted to date as teenagers.

Though our high school years are often awkward and cringey, we tend to get nostalgic about them because they were a simpler time. While watching Outer Banks, my friends and I subconsciously went back in time to where life was simpler and we had fewer responsibilities. We forgot about the day-to-day awkwardness and remembered the most fun parts of high school, like hanging out with your friends and figuring out who you are. It’s no mistake that many high school movies and shows revolve around these themes — nostalgia is powerful, even high school nostalgia.

Closing Thoughts

We tend to laugh at movies like Mean Girls for showing the absurdity of high school cliques and cringe (often while laughing hysterically) at the awkward characters in Superbad because they remind us of our teen years. Though some tend to roll their eyes at high school movies and TV shows, they’re living proof that we love nostalgia, whether it’s good or bad. 

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