Lesson’s We’ve Learnt From Pop Culture
Jeremy and I wrote this for The Guardian Guide a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I’d stick it up here as well. It’s all about the films and TV that have made us who we are today. Kewl story bro.
1. Beware the bad girl (Reference point: Nancy in The Craft)
There’s one in every school. She snaps her gum, finds everything unutterably dull, and spends 95% of her time in the toilet, drawing rings round her eyes with kohl, a lit cigarette drooping from her red lips. To the quiet girl no one seems to notice, the bad girl is irresistible. You’d do anything to be in her clique: repress your high IQ, skip school so you can stand in the rain for eight hours pretending it’s fun, even have a candlelit seance where you pledge your allegiance to the devil. It’s not worth it. As Sarah discovers in The Craft, you risk entering a hell of magical trickery. Your ex-boyfriend will die after your best friend impersonates you and flies at him so fast he falls out the window, and you’ll believe your father is dead as the carpet in your house turns into a mass of writhing snakes. However, you will have the last laugh. While the bad girl is frogmarched off to a mental institution, you’ll retain your magical gifts. Everyone knows it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for.
2. Stick it to The Man with dance (Reference point: Footloose)
Like many of us, I used to think that the act of engaging in any sort of movement related to rock music was evil. I thought that it should be banned for all those under the age of 18, and that anyone who did partake should be heavily supervised. However, recently a young man called Ren – odd name I know, but that’s a whole different issue – spoke up in favour of “the rock music”. I didn’t listen then, not for a second, but oh boy, when I saw that kid dance! Suddenly all those resolutely unshakeable ideas I’d had for my entire adult life just flew out the window as I watched him gyrate rhythmically in a cropped grey sweatshirt. I’m not embarrassed to say I even looked down to see my own foot tapping. Forget love, music changes everything! See also: Grease, Dirty Dancing and The Breakfast Club.
3. Being popular can be deadly (Reference point: Heathers)
When you’re a teenager, you want to be part of something, you want to belong, to feel like people know you and respect you. Sometimes this can mean your friends don’t really feel like your friends, more like people you have to keep up with. It’s as if you work together and your job is being popular and stuff. So when one of those friends drags you to a college fraternity party and leaves you alone in a room with a mindless chump who has no idea what your name is, and then you accidentally throw up all over your friend’s shoes while arguing with her, you can feel like your life has ended. You may even feel like you want to go on a murder spree with your new emotionally unbalanced, trench-coated boyfriend, poisoning your besties with bleach, and shooting two jocks in the head in the middle of the woods. Don’t. Just lick it up baby, lick it up.
4. Your parents are probably OK (Reference point: My So-Called Life)
OK, so your parents suck. Your mother is a control freak who wants to be the master of every aspect of your life, from your grades to your party dress. You hate them! But when you sneak out of the big family gathering unseen to go to bad girl Rayanne’s birthday party, only to find her OD-ing, and her lame hippy new age mom awol, you’ll be glad your parents have it together. And sure, your dad might be unemployed, but he’s an amazing cook. And OK, maybe you think he might be cheating on your mother, but at least he doesn’t beat you up for being gay like Rickie Vasquez’s uncle does. All in all, your parents are pretty awesome. And when your crush Jordan Catalano sleeps with your best friend in a car outside a bar, you’ll be glad you’ve got them.
5. Anyone can be friends (Reference point: Freaks And Geeks)
Ah, Freaks And Geeks. That brilliant portrayal of the complicated, often spiky relationship between the two underclasses of the high school clique system: the hippy-leaning, music-loving, drug-taking Freaks, and the high-test-scoring, sunshine-eschewing Geeks. When ex-Geek Jean Weir buddies up to the Freaks (including James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel), it takes them a while to warm to her. But by the end of the season, Franco is playing Dungeons & Dragons with the AV Club in a dingy basement (his character is called Carlos the Dwarf). When Jean rejoins the Mathletes for one last contest and all the Freaks turn up to cheer her on, it proves one thing: truly, friendship can cross any boundary.
6. People may change after you ‘do it’ (Reference point: Buffy The Vampire Slayer)
Speaking of crossing boundaries, you might have thought it was pretty obvious that an affair between a schoolgirl of 17 with an occult mandate to destroy evil (Buffy) and a centuries-old vampire Gypsy cursed with a conscience (Angel) was never going to turn out perfectly. But, for a while there, it was good. They hunted evil vampires together, they made out in cemeteries, she gradually came to terms with the fact that before being cursed with goodness Buffy’s boyfriend killed hundreds of innocents. (Everyone’s got flaws!) But it all changed when they were swept up in their passion and went All The Way. Having finally experienced a moment of pure happiness, Angel’s curse is lifted and he goes back to being evil and killing people, before Buffy runs him through with a giant sword. We’ve all been there.
7. High school reunions are a geek’s moment of glory (Reference point: Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion)
It’s really not worth attempting to be cool, or pretty, or sporty at school, because if teen pop culture has taught us anything, it’s that kids who make it in their youth inevitably bomb after graduation. Their adult lives become an endless, depressing struggle to relive those glory days when they were taut, tanned and all their goals were achievable. Meanwhile the dorks who wore Doc Martens and black lace gloves had to look outside the school gates to find something they loved, and that loved them back. They got into bands, they wrote short stories, they disappeared into themselves, only to reappear 10 years later to discover that their wealth of geek knowledge has landed them a millionaire salary manufacturing rubber soles, or that their tendency to make their own clothes, embarrassing in high school, has resulted in their own fashion line. It’s far better to be a Romy, or a Daria, or even a Duckie (from Pretty In Pink) and wait it out so you can show all the haters at the reunion, than to bag a jock in freshman year and realise aged 18 that you’ve already experienced the best years of your life. And yes, this is a purely American tradition, but we think it can also apply to the UK. You just have to replace “high school reunion” with “Facebook photos where they look bad”.
8. Trust your mentor, no matter what (Reference point: The Karate Kid)
New to town and sick of getting beaten up by the local martial-arts jocks? (Every small town has karate jocks, right?) The Karate Kid – the tale of a young man seeking a mentor with a mysterious past to guide him through some sort of struggle, a story probably as old as Mr Miyagi himself – will look after you. Daniel-san enlists his building’s handyman to help him get really good at hitting people. Seems like an odd choice, but it works out, even though Mr Miyagi tricks his teenage charge into washing his fleet of classic cars and painting his fence. Daniel gets good at hitting people and wins the karate contest, to general jubilation. Oh, and of course he gets the girl. Learn from him.