How Have the Cool Kids Fallen?

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We all recall Anthony Michael Hall’s classic voiceover in “The Breakfast Club,” abashing the detention teacher for suggesting they might not be more than an athlete, a princess, a brain, basket case, or criminal. Twenty years later, “Mean Girls” broadened the clique pool slightly to include different races (and subgroups like “cool Asians” versus “Asian nerds”), but the basics remained the same.

The stereotypical cliques (jocks, nerds, stoners, etc.) that dominated movies in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s do exist today, but they are more fluid than these depictions suggest. Such groups are an increasingly superficial and transient sorting mechanism compared to the true definers: race and class.

There has always been a natural tendency to sort ourselves according to traits like race, class, and recreational interests, according to Daniel McFarland, professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford University.

In a 2014 study, McFarland and researchers found that larger schools equated to students having more say in choosing their social groups, which, instead of creating a large pool of diverse interactions, “tends to exacerbate natural tendencies among people to form hierarchies, cliques, and same-attribute relationships,” as McFarland tells BTRtoday.

The cliques of John Hughes and his ilk were never really an accurate portrayal of America, because although they portrayed class differences they were also thoroughly whitewashed; they depicted none of the racial tensions that existed, and which still play a central role in the American educational system.

Such stratification has increased in the past decade because of the tracking system, which makes class and racial segregations, along with the subsequent cliques, far more prevalent.

Educational tracking is essential in sorting students according to their previous academic performances and resultant expectations of their future performance. Straight-A students go with other As, while students consistently getting Cs are put together, and so on. This perpetuates in-school segmentation that inevitably falls along racial and economic lines.

Tracking solidifies these groups (race and class) in a way that the more stereotypical groups don’t, making them more obvious and more influential on a student’s social and academic life.

This is borne out in the experiences of high school teachers’ observations. Daniel Robinette, a teacher of physics and chemistry for 28 years, notices it in the cafeteria of his large (roughly 2,400) suburban Oregon high school.

“There seems to be a general self-grouping of school minorities, such as Asian or Latino students,” he tells BTRtoday. He is quick to remind us that, “these groups are fluid and there are many students that flow in and out of other groups,” but that “a quick survey of the cafeteria at lunch shows a distinct grouping along these lines.”

Such racial divides were not always as prevalent in his experience. When he first began teaching a few decades ago, the school was about half the size it is now, and mostly white. Back then, he reports, the cliques were more stereotypical (athletes, nerds, and whatnot). He concurs with McFarland’s thesis that any large group yields the “natural tendency to subgroup for comfort.”

Those subgroups changed as the school grew and diversified in terms of race and economics. Robinette began noticing a simultaneous increase in the number of subgroups but also a rise in the ability to move between lunch tables.

“If one can belong to many diverse groups,” he asks, “are you really stuck in any one group?”

Today, he still sees cliques that form around interests–like the drama students and the athletes who “seem to hang out pretty consistently.” But again, these lines are more blurry than they were when the school was mostly white and affluent.

“It seems like many kids move around between groups,” he says, and he doesn’t see “explicit exclusion of kids who wander up and join a group,” though he admits he might not notice the unspoken messages since he is an adult and not trying to join the cool kids table.

Lauren Dandridge, who teaches chemistry, anatomy, and physiology in Washington, sees a similar pattern. The John Hughes cliques and social groups are apparent, she says, “but the stereotypes in movies do tend to be just that–stereotypes.”

Cliques that form over shared interests, she says, do form organically but they are “more fluid than we might give students credit for.”

She echoes McFarland and Robinette’s observations that race and socioeconomic status play a “significant role” in student self-sorting.

Unlike the fluid boundaries of shared interests, students have less control over the hierarchies of race and economics. This is particularly relevant, because the cyclical nature of tracking means that less affluent students are trapped in a system where they don’t have the help they need nor the resources to take part in extracurricular activities that would put them closer in the “cool” crowds.

Jocks, nerds, theater kids, music geeks–these all still play a role, but racial and economic divides relegate such cliques to a secondary role. They also highlight a constant subgroup that appears to have transcended the decades, which is the outcast group. It’s the group that doesn’t belong to any clique, whether via self-segregation or group rejection.

Robinette has observed such a group for his entire career and experienced it during his own teenage years. Recalling his words about the flexibility of students to move between recreational cliques, Robinette hastens to assure us that things aren’t so “rosy or comforting.”

Hypothesizing on the reasons for this constant subgroup, Robinette has several theories. Some students, he believes, simply choose not to sort themselves. Most, however, don’t seem to have a choice. They are automatically sorted out of the other subgroups because of poverty, “or being ashamed of their poverty,” language barriers (usually necessarily tied to race), health issues, and psychological issues.

“It isn’t strictly a middle class vs. poor kid division,” he admits, “but it certainly can be, and it perhaps initiates one of the divisions that sticks with us and our society, even after high school.”

Cliques still exist, as they always have. John Hughes never made documentaries, but the increase in income inequality means that his brand of storytelling is even less realistic today. McFarland rather halfheartedly suggests that a rural township might fit the bill, with a socioeconomic range from “farming migrant-types” to wealthier local families and a racial range of precisely zero, with everybody being white.

“Footloose,” in other words, might still be a thing.

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