Popularity has become something of a paradox. In pop culture, it is overwhelmingly used to mean a crowd that, secretly, nobody likes. So where does the corruption of the term ‘popular’ stem from?
Perhaps I should renege on that definition. In media, none of the girls like the popular clique. In fact, the whole trope seems centered around young girls- playing into the stereotypes of catty, underhand drama and hormonal girls not managing to ‘control their emotions’. Sure, there are some narratives involving male bullies in popular culture, but their powers typically derive from physical prowess and manifest in blunt violence.
However, consumers tend to gravitate towards more psychological stories of ‘girl drama’ for the complex schemes and emotional investments. Take High School Musical: if Sharpay Evans had just decked Gabriella Montez instead of sneakily rescheduling callbacks to clash with the scholastic decathlon in masterful villainy, it would be over in about five minutes. We’re predictable watchers… which is why the plotline to every movie about high school drama is essentially the same. Let’s look at some formative works of my development as a person (our, surely? I’m pretty certain most of us have delved into these at some point): High School Musical, Dork Diaries, Mean Girls, and The DUFF. I hate to say it, but the characters in these are carbon copies of each other: The likeable smart girl, the rich queen bee, her sidekick(s), the boy they both like, and probably some uncool-but-quirky hanger-on friends of the protagonist.
None of the girls like the popular clique… but all the boys do. In narratives centered around girls, where boys are often 2D prizes in a tug-of-war between the evil popular princess and the loveably geeky protagonist, admiration of boys counts for next to nothing- they’re barely characters in the story. And their feelings can be attributed to one thing: obviously, the popular girls are super hot, so, excusably, the boys are oblivious to all her other characteristics. ‘How superficial! Can’t they see through her falsity?’, questions the wronged narrator as she drools over the love interest who somehow has his shirt off in every scene. Male bullies derive power through strength and brute force; female bullies through… looking attractive? bewitching the only relevant boy into liking her somehow? Though please note it’s absolutely impossible to be attractive if you gain weight and don’t fit into sizes one three and five. (You could try sears). Whoever heard of a beautiful woman not built like a stick insect?
Whilst I absolutely want to call out this genre of media for being objectively trashy (but they’re so enjoyable… don’t judge me.), I will concede that their antagonists are pretty awful. Cyberbullying, relationship-ruining, burn-book-writing, diary-stealing, generally manipulation and backstabbing are common themes. But we are very quick to project these Hollywood exaggerations onto anyone perceived as popular. Certainly, some people in the ‘popular’ crowd might be overdramatic or spiteful. And so might people in the group of nerds, or jocks (do we even say jocks in England? I’ve been brainwashed by American films), or theatre kids, or skater dudes. I’m trying really hard to remember the other cliques in ‘stick to the status quo’ here. My point is, unsavoury personalities will pop up in any social group. As will really kind people. Friendship groups are not established by some kind of sorting hat that puts you in Slytherin if you’re too pretty (girls), strong (boys), or rich (gender-neutral).
How many times have you judged another girl for wearing makeup or putting effort into her appearance? ‘Materialistic! Superficial!’ we exclaim, outraged. Or called a girl a slut because boys like her and she spends time with them? Or slandered her privately to your friends about how she’s ‘always talking behind other people’s backs’? Pop culture has made us quick to cast our own acquaintances as characters in those hackneyed, samey roles I mentioned. Just make sure that you don’t end up being consistently unkind to- you know, bullying- the people you were sure were the bullies.