In the pilot episode of the late, lamented My So-Called Life, Angela Chase’s English teacher sits her down during lunch to talk about what’s been going on with her lately. Her appearance has changed and she quit yearbook (much to her teacher’s chagrin because she’s the yearbook adviser). Angela’s response in her typical half-engaged fashion, is:
It just seems like, you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it’s even you? And, I mean, this whole thing with yearbook – it’s like, everybody’s in this big hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting book. You know, in my humble opinion.
For the past ten years, I was a high school yearbook adviser and I had that quote on the wall of my classroom, partially because MSCL is one of my all-time favorite television shows and partially because I’ve always thought there was a certain amount of truth to it. While quite a number of high school yearbooks are afforded the chance to show the school, students and teachers for what they are, most are simply glorified PR pieces that students can have signed and eventually show off.
So I guess that begs the question: if you made a book of what really happened, would it be a really upsetting book?
Of course, I’m going to hedge here and say that it depends on what your reaction to such a book would be. Some people would find the reality of high school depressing while others might find it refreshing to get more than just the slickness and sheen of a yearbook. A number of people might find it boring. Still, what would it look like?
Well, while I’m sure there is more than one book out there (Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that was the source for the film Mean Girls springs to mind), this has been answered more than once in television and film. Which shouldn’t sound weird to anyone who has seen any of the offerings from MTV in the last twenty years or so, from True Life, which premiered in 1998; to shows such as Made, 16 and Pregnant, and Teen Mom, which have all tried to present the lives of its subjects for what they were (although all but True Life stretched the concept of “reality” pretty far). But the idea of a film or television crew taking a group of teenagers and filming their lives, while having gained popularity since the turn of the century, is actually quite older.
While the concept of “reality television” has its genesis in the 1970s with shows such as An American Family but my first encounter with it was in the spring of 1991 when Fox aired a new show called Yearbook. Produced by Hank O’Karma, written by Louis H. Gorfain, and Directed by Charles Bagert and Hank O’Karma, a production team that worked on several similar productions throughout the Nineties, Yearbook followed the lives of several students at Glenbard West High School in the Chicago suburbs (a note of trivia: the show’s music was by Michael Bacon, brother of Kevin Bacon). The show only had nine episodes, all of which aired between March 7 and May 4, 1991, and fell into obscurity quickly thereafter while Fox discovered that it had a bona fide hit in another series about teenagers, Beverly Hills 90210, which by May 4, 1991 was pulling in about 10-15 million viewers per episode.
I was one of the few people who watched the show on a consistent basis, having been intrigued by both commercials I saw and by the description of the show provided by TV Guide. It was as it promised: a look at the lives of several students at the high school as they happened throughout the year.
This ten-minute clip is only one of two examples of what exists of Yearbook on the Internet (or at least as far as I could get while doing research). The other example is most of the episode “War and Peace,” or at least the parts of that episode that focus on Todd Myra, a student who was set to start with the Marines when he graduated in 1991.
If you’re watching Yearbook and it looks like something out of a John Hughes movie, it’s because it kind of is–after all, Hughes set most of his important teen movies in suburban Chicago–and this helped the students in the series look pretty familiar, especially if they had been watching those movies on video or if they had been watching another Fox show about teenagers, 21 Jump Street. Reality television’s evolution to the point where the audience is constantly questioning the veracity of what they see on the screen wouldn’t be fully realized for at least another decade. At the time this was something unique, as The Real World was at least a year away, and Yearbook was the closest thing we had to a documentary and I honestly wonder if the producers’ original intent was to make a documentary but Fox television provided the better deal.
Looking at these two quick glances for the first time in nearly 25 years, I was struck by how dated the series looked, but then reminded myself that it’s a slice of life piece from the early 1990s, so my amusement at the clothes and hair of the time as well as the title sequence at the narration (which is done by Ken Dashow, who was then a deejay at WNEW-FM in New York City, although he sounds like he’s narrating a video I would have watched in health class) got set aside for a look at the people and the situations for what they were as opposed to how ridiculous everyone looked. The show does become very after-school special at times, but with less of the melodrama from after-school specials, and that’s definitely one of its enduring strengths: we can see these people for who they are (or were at the time).
I was drawn to this because I was fourteen years old at the time and thought it was a great idea for a show–after all, I’d been ensconsed in Degrassi at that point–and while I don’t remember if I watched all nine episodes, some of the episodes I watched stuck with me as well as did some of their moments. Centering the first episode around hoemcoming seemed to be a pretty good idea since it’s a universal high school experience. Granted, not everyone gets all “rah rah” about homecoming, everyone in the audience could at least relate, and it also provides a nice bookend to the graduation that concludes the series. Of course, my biggest takeaway was the memory of watching the episode with my parents and when the Homecoming Queen is crowned, my father started bitching at the television that she’s going to have to get up in front of everyone with “all of that hat hair.” Because, you know, that’s the most important part.
But as you go past the first episode and get deeper and deeper into the lives of these people it becomes less like a show and more like the documentary that the creators will obviously go for, serving as a look at a particular sliver of our culture but also as a time capsule for both those involved and those watching. “war and Peace,” the episode about Todd Myra, is one of the best examples of that because Operation Desert Storm happens right in the middle of the episode and he worries about how his life will be affected by this moment in history (of course, being that this was Desert Storm in 1991, his life wasn’t really affected because the war was over incredibly quickly), a worry that is juxtaposed by the heartbreaking story of his foster brother having to possibly go live with his birth parents (seriously, even I was feeling sad when the kid started wailing in his mother’s arms about how he didn’t want to go away).
The gangs episode was also of its time. Not that gangs aren’t still a problem now, but back in 1991, there was this fear among people in America’s suburbs–especially those like mine that were overwhelmingly white–that gangs were this enormous threat to their children. It went along with the trepidation every parent had about rap music and “black” movies. If you paid attention to the news at any given time for a couple of years, the fact that Ice-T wrote a song called “Cop Killer,” there was a fight that broke out at a screening of New Jack City, and gangs existed, every white middle class teenager was walking into some sort of apocalyptic hell every time they went out on a Friday night. At the time, I never could truly figure out why adults seemed so up in arms about these things, although I eventually realized that it was part of an implicit racism that exists in many of those types of communities (and let’s face it, some of those communities have explicit racism) as well as worrying about “the big black rap and gang monster” provided a distraction from the drinking and sex kids were doing and adults could do something about.
But getting involved with gangs is a very serious thing, and though there isn’t very much in the clip, getting out of a gang is very dangerous, and the producers seemed to be doing there best to show it in a way that the audience could learn something from it, the same way that the episode “A Mother’s Story” focuses on the struggle that Mark Palicki deals with in his life because his mother has leukemia and is having a bone marrow transplant. This was one of the most memorable episodes when I first watched it, as my having been very sheltered up until that point hadn’t seen anyone as sick as his mom was in that episode. For what it was, this was intelligent and I find it ironic that Fox, of all networks, gave us not one, but two high-concept, very honest looks at teenagers, when they were responsible for some of the trashiest, lowbrow reality programming of the late 1990s and early 2000s: Temptation Island, Paradise Hotel, Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire?, and The Swan, to name a few.
The other high-concept reality program they released lasted even shorter than Yearbook’s nine episodes, and that was American High, which aired in August 2000 and lasted for only four episodes; however, PBS picked up the show and aired all thirteen of its episodes in 2000. Created by R.J. Cutler, who has also directed the acclaimed documentaries The War Room and The September Issue (which is a must-see), American High won an Emmy in 2001 for Outstanding Reality Program and uses the same concept as Yearbook, but with some modifications. Instead of claiming to follow the whole class of a high school, the intro tells us that the show is taking a look at fourteen students in Highland Park, Illinois, which is also a suburb of Chicago and not only were hours upon hours of documentary footage shot, but the students were given cameras themselves in order to keep video diaries. This makes sense, of course, as we were now nearly a decade into The Real World, which brought us the reality show confessional.
Much like Yearbook, not much of American High exists online. The website for the show that PBS set up in the early 2000s when it was running all thirteen episodes is still live, but the videos on the site use a Real Player plugin that I’m not sure actually exists. Thankfully, through the wonder of YouTube, I was able to watch one episode, “Boogie Nights,” which was the third episode overall.
The previouslies are important for the episode, as American High had overarching stories (as opposed to Yearbook whose stories were more self-contained) and in the previous episode, Brad, who is a major player in “Boogie Nights,” came out to his friends. Apparently, this went very well as Brad’s now being out at school is not the center of the episode, but rather his determination to put together an awesome dance routine for the school’s dance program. While I found myself impressed by–and admittedly jealous of–the school’s performing arts facilities as well as its openness to forms of dancing that the rather conservative community in which I teach would be utterly scandalized by, I also noticed that the producers had decided to focus on the type of problems that are definitely suburban high school problems yet can be easily understood by those outside of high school as well.
Brad, for instance, is dealing with the pressure he’s putting on himself for making the dancing perfect, which is very nicely juxtaposed to the pressure Suzy is putting on herself regarding her personal body image issues, and he has to deal with Morgan, who is the epitome of the late 1990s/early 2000s teenage boy that Frontline once called “the mook,” a perpetually immature boy whose behavior often gets in the way of his accomplishing anything. I found myself rolling my eyes when he talked about how he knew he could learn the moves for the routine was deliberately slacking off because there were hot girls and their having to constantly reteach him the moves meant that he got to dance with them longer. He’s so much like a number of students I’ve taught, but even though he annoyed me I didn’t see him as a villain in the episode, which is what tends to happen in current-day reality shows. Instead, I found myself mesmerized by the dance routine and whether or not they’d pull it off (or if there would be controversy as a result). The format was a little less clinical than Yearbook’s tended to be, as the students’ video diaries made the show feel more up to date.
Then again, by the time American High aired, the footage/confessional format was routine, so the students were obviously comfortable with all of it on the same level, and by then quite a number of studies, articles, and even television specials were being produced about how Generation Y (as it was known at the time) was one of the most marketed-to generations in history. Frontline’s piece on this, “The Merchants of Cool,” took a look at this through the various people who made a career out of trying to sell to teens and tweens and those people described all of the various “types” within that generation with astounding accuracy.
The follow up to “The Merchants of Cool,” “Generation Like,” did the same for the current generation of teenagers, a group of which (or at least the older end of that generation) comprises the cast of the 2008 documentary American Teen. Filmmaker Nanette Burstein takes a look at five teenagers at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana. Colin, a star basketball player, wants nothing more than to play college basketball. Megan is the queen bee, Jake is the dork who is shown constantly trying to find a girlfriend, Mitch is Colin’s friend and the attractive “heartthrob” guy, and Hannah is the artsy girl who wants nothing more than to get out of Warsaw and go to film school in San Francisco.
Out of the three depictions of teenage culture that I’m covering here, American Teen is the most accessible, as it’s been available on DVD since 2008 and while it purports to present a fairly accurate look at the senior year for these five students, there were some questions about its accuracy. I know that critics of the film as a documentary and not a docudrama were nitpicking Burstein’s ability to have both sides of a telephone conversation on screen, but I think that the criticisms come more from the fact that she edited the film to have a discernible plot for four of the five characters (honestly, Mitch is more of a supporting player, as he’s introduced later in the movie and his biggest story arc seems to be the fact that he starts to date Hannah and then winds up breaking up with her with a text message) and that there were good guys and bad guys in the film.
Megan, the queen bee, comes off as an obvious villain throughout much of the movie, especially when she gets a hold of topless pictures that her friend Erica sent to her friend Jake and then emails them to as many people in the school’s email directory that she can think of, and spray paints a penis and the word “FAG” on the junior class president’s window (while her friends teepee the house) because he changed the prom theme without her consent. The ensuing discipline meeting with the principal is very typical–since she hasn’t gotten into much trouble before (and let’s face it, is the queen bee), she gets off with a slap on the wrist of some community service hours and a revocation of some activities privileges.
Now, she could be a real-life Regina George or Heather Chandler if it wasn’t for the fact that Burstein allows us to see her as deeper than just the villain that she would have been portrayed as if this were a trashy reality show. At one point, Megan gets in a fight with her friend Ali and we later realize that it was not because of anything Ali particularly did, but because Megan is dealing with the stress of trying to get into Notre Dame as well as it being the anniversary of her older sister’s suicide.
On the flip side, Hannah, who is set up to be the free-spirited hero of the film, the girl who you want to see escape the trap of Warsaw that girls like Megan rule (after all, people hate the way Molly Ringwald made over Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club). But the free spirit hides a struggle with anxiety and depression that hits hard after her boyfriend Joel breaks up with her. Hannah crawls into herself and spends the next three weeks away from school, to the point where there are times that she has full-on panic attacks as she drives up to school and attempts to attend for the day. Her relationship with Mitch ends with that text, but we see growth, as she manages to finish out the school year and finds arguing with her parents over San Franscisco more important.
Colin’s story is that of the crushing reality that comes with being good at sports in a small pond like Warsaw but maybe not what the big pond wants. He struggles through his senior season to try and impress recruiters, so much that his performance suffers and the team’s record suffers. Of course, he turns it around by the end and he winds up going to Indiana Tech on a scholarship and gets the winning shot in the sectional championship.
Jake basically spends the entire movie being socially awkward and trying to get a girlfriend and it’s cute at times, uncomfortable at others, and the point is belabored quite a bit, if I’m being honest. But it fits right in with a lot of the other situations presented in the film in that while the kids may be mugging for the camera at times, there are other times where they’re being honest and you can tell that any statement they may have about how they didn’t notice the camera was there is probably true. The film, which I’ve now seen twice, doesn’t necessarily hold up to rewatches, but there are moments that sucked me in both times that I watched it. Hannah’s depression both times had me really hoping that she gets herself back together and I found myself siding with her at the end of the movie when she’s arguing with her parents about her wanting to go to San Francisco after high school because while her mom talked about how all of the rapes and murders that happen to girls like her in the scary city, I knew that moving to California was the only way that Hannah was ever going to get out and not wind up living a miserable life in Warsaw.
Conversely, I was hoping that Megan would get more consequences than she did, although I will say that by the end of the film, when she has gotten into Notre Dame and is showing signs of being sick of the town and the school herself (something I think we all do as seniors), I believe the note in the epilogue where she says that she’s matured a lot since starting college.
In a sense, when you take these three pieces as a whole, they represent a beginning, middle, and end of teen culture, with the first part being in 1991 with the tail end of Generation X and then the Generation Y in 1999 and then the Millennials in 2008. This is three generations of kids (mainly because at least two of these groups are on the cusp of the labels that were assigned to their respective generations. There is a sense of universality among all of these stories. It’s 2015 and when I look back on both shows and the film and see the same issues, the same problems, and even the same attitudes as students I currently teach, even as far back as 25 years ago before I even started high school, I see that while so much as changed yet so much has not.
The problem with American culture is that we have this weird collective ADD when it comes to popular culture and on some level I think that comes from the fact that pop culture is ephemeral and by its nature has a tendency to be ephemeral. So we don’t necessarily remember things as well or for as long as we should. Oh sure, there are things that have staying power, but there are those things that are gone in a blink and provide examples of why obscurity exists in the first place. For instance, Yearbook, American High, and American Teen. never made enough impact on our culture for us to not realize “this has been done before” when the latest iteration of the high school documentary came about.
Education can be the same way. The talking heads/thought leaders/pundits in education seem to constantly tout how the current generation of students is unlike no other, as if they are a new make or model of car that we’re going to have to learn how to drive. I’ve heard people wax on about how students learn differently these days and while that may be true, it’s also unnecessarily untrue because when you go back to shows such as Yearbook and see how people have looked at teenagers as an anthropological/sociological study (as opposed to the more common usage for in-depth looks at teenagers lately, which is marketing), it’s important to note the universality of that experience. Furthermore, if you can look at something for what it is as opposed to what’s in front of you, you’ll start to reach a more thorough understanding of what’s going on.