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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We were watching the BUFFY pilot for research (no, really!) and the question came up: where does the social structure of high school in TV come from? Because every show about TV has a Queen Bee character (along with her Court Attendants), and none of us has ever been to a high school with such a person. My high school was full of cliques that ignored each other. Have you been to a stereotypical high school? If not, where did this construct come from?


Thinking back through all of my favorite high school films and TV shows, there WAS always a Queen Bee. But my high school (private US) had the same make-up you describe - cliques with hard boundaries between them and no one really intermingled, let alone affected the social order of another.

That said, I just finished speccing "Gossip Girl", so it's extremely difficult for my mind to accept right now that the Queen Bee ISN'T a reality.

By Blogger whit, at 10:35 PM  

I went to a public school in Australia. There was a Queen Bee, but she wasnt a bitch. Primarily she was the most popular because she was nice to everyone, funny and pretty smart. We had groups, but they mingled slightly. Rarely had warfare between two groups. Kinda boring to be honest.

By Blogger Scott, at 10:43 PM  

We didn't have a queen bee, more like a group of dominant bees. They were annoying, but much more so in middle school than in high school, so I think it's worse if you go to a small school.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 11:02 PM  

It's drama! Social stratification and elaborate hierarchies are a lot more interesting than cliques of people who ignore each other. The "queen bee" stereotypes that we so often see are plentiful because it's the most obvious direction to take.

What I think is a more common experience is to have CONTEXTUAL hierarchies. The jocks are on top during gym class, but the nerds assert themselves during calculus and the band and theater kids assert themselves during, well, whatever band and theater kids did. If you were a jock in drama class you felt as worthless and alienated as nerds felt on the soccer field.

By Blogger Michael, at 12:25 AM  

I think when you're on the inside of the "Queen Bee" clique, the perception is that you're on top of the school. I'm not sure any other clique sees it this way (or even cares), but I feel like the kids who actually were the dominant "popular kids" in middle school still perceived themselves that way in high school, regardless of the reality.

By Blogger Sophia, at 12:37 AM  

I'm so happy you brought up Buffy. I'm re-watching the entire series because it seems like the right thing to do. I'm almost done first season and I'm on the episode "Out of Mind, Out of Sight". The episode is about a girl who becomes invisible because that's how she's treated. Cordelia is a main focus in this episode. (I'm pausing it right now so I can talk about.)

Though the idea of a "queen bee" doesn't fit in with normal high school social dynamics, I do think it serves a greater purpose character-wise.

Buffy: If you feel so alone why do you work so hard at being popular?

Cordelia: Well, it beats being alone all by yourself.

Being a queen bee may not compare to our high school experiences but loneliness does. That teenage feeling of feeling invisible and all the different ways different people feel invisible. (I've never repeated so many words in one sentence before. Kudos to me.)

Sometimes we have to leave natural structures for not only the sake of entertainment but the sake of revealing greater character themes. In this case, invisibility.

One of the big reasons Buffy was so popular is because of the way teenagers related to the show. I'm a forum geek and I've been browsing the Buffy boards lately. So many cyber people talk about which episodes, characters, quotes, etc, resonated with them.

Maybe I'm just looking too much into it. But, those are my thoughts. There they were.

As for my high school in the Utopia best known as Oshawa, Ontario, we didn't have any queen bees. The drama kids ran my school.

Thank God I was a drama kid.

By Blogger Clifford Myers, at 1:06 AM  

The most realistic portrayal of high school (for me) I recall seeing on film was Dazed and Confused. I never found the groups completely isolated, like they're portrayed on TV and in films. They mixed and mingled to a certain degree. I don't know if things have changed today, though.

And I knew several of the characters in Dazed and Confused. I remember a Wooderson especially. He certainly didn't look like Matthew McConaughey, though.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:55 AM  

I went to a public school in Germany and we definitely had a Queen Bee as well as those surrounding her. Interesting thing I found out: those who were at their best in high school didn't continue like that in real life. None of them has an outstanding career or did anything really special in their lives (at least not that I know of). I don't know if they realize this, but they are not of any importance to other people in the way they might have been or thought of themselves in high school. On the other hand, some of those who were in one of the other cliques did quite well. Does that phenomena appear on TV at all?

By Blogger Svenja, at 2:06 AM  

Perhaps this conception of the High School comes from the way TV writers wish they were at High School, a form of wish fulfillment? I sometimes catch myself using writing as a way to fulfill deep routed wishes.

Child therapists often have their patients draw pictures in order to get at these deep routed feeling. Writing as wish fulfillment is a bit freudian but also very satisfying.

By Blogger George, at 4:38 AM  

Well you're mixing in a lot of things here.

There are two main things that influence what you're talking about here:

type of school and population of school.

I think that the phenom of the cliques, the separateness of the cliques, and whether or not there was a queen bee is affected mightily by whether you're talking public or private high school. A public high school with a more heterogenuous student makeup is liable to have more diverse cliques that don't mix very much at all.

And the smaller the school, the more likely that there would be "a" queen bee.

I went to a public high school, student population about 1500, and there wasn't a queen bee per se, but there were definitely a few top cliques depending on where you sat.

The other high school in the area only had about 500 students. And I went to paries there and there was DEFINITELY a top of the strata royalty, and everyone knew who those people were.

So there you go.

By Blogger DMc, at 7:24 AM  

The Queen Bee is just a storytelling substitute for the school bully. If your main character is female, you can't really have a varsity linebacker threaten to beat the crap out of her. Also, a cheerleader threatening to beat the crap out of her would take a really good actor to make convincing.

School bullies are generally more enjoyable adversaries because you can make them irrational and still believable. Whereas, if the adversary is a parent or teacher you must tread a finer line or the viewer will wonder why lawyers, police, or social services haven't intervened.

By Blogger Gnasche, at 7:50 AM  

In my experience there's at least several queen bees and they do intermingle with one another. They're "besties" as they call themselves. Of course, when ever they break off from the whole they immediatly gossip and trash talk the others.

As far as the intermingling goes with other cliques, it was actually pretty wide and open and everyone talked to everyone. And then they talked about everyone behind their back and stirred up drama.

The only falsity I've found in stereotypical arch-types from high school is that the football team isn't made up of assholes.

That's the Hockey Team's job.

By Blogger Andrew Kosarko - Screenwriter, at 9:14 AM  

I attended two very different high schools. My first two years were spent at a typical large public high school in a large metropolitan area in the US. My second two years were spent at a slightly smaller magnet high school for the arts. These two experiences could not have been more different.

At the first high school, there was a clique of "popular" kids. They were mostly vehemently disliked by the rest of the school (calling into question the definition of 'popular'). There were plenty of girls in this group and most of them were mean, but I don't recall there being ONE girl in the 'Queen Bee' role.

At my second high school, it was an arts school, so popularity was based more on talent and was VERY contextual. There were no "typical" cliques of jocks, stoners, goths, etc... all of those types mingled freely with each other, but were more separated based on talent and art form. But still no Queen Bee.

Interesting post! I'd never thought of this before...

By Blogger Your Ill-fitting Overcoat, at 11:33 AM  

@ Tim W.: Ironically, "Dazed & Confused" features TWO Queen Bees - Parker Posey is the stereotypical dictator and Michelle Burke is the sweet, beautiful girl that every guy wants to date and every girl wants as a sister. Interesting seeing BOTH exist without conflict in essentially the same social circle.

@ Clifford Myers: I'll always see Charisma Carpenter was my generation's baseline Queen Bee. I actually remember her moving from that role on the cancelled "Malibu Shores" to "Buffy" - EW made her a "Winner of the Week" for it.

By Blogger whit, at 1:23 PM  

I agree with Clifford. If anything, it's a useful satire/story convention to exaggerate certain characters/themes for the genre or to create an easier to use plot device.

Even though I think it might be more of a middle school phenomenon in real life than a high school one. Something similar happened at my college in the social cliques, though, but that disappeared by my junior year. And while in college hanging out with friends still in high school, they complained about the "bunnies," essentially the "popular" yet asshole group.

By Blogger The_Lex, at 4:30 PM  

I think it comes out of necessity. You can't tell a high school story about the ENTIRE high school. It's too much, too many people. But in any group, there is conflict, leaders and followers, etc. So in reality there might be several groups with queen bees and alpha males leading, but you can't put all that into one show.

Also, we might have the stereotype of looking for a sexy person known by everyone to be Queen Bee, but there could be many queen bees that we don't see because they don't match our definition or we don't pay them enough mind.

By Blogger Monsterbeard, at 6:15 PM  

@Emily Blake: excellent point(s)! But who knew Joss Whedon might be guilty of sloppy outlining?

By Blogger blogward, at 2:42 AM  

Whit, you're right about the `queen bees'. I'd forgotten about that. We never had any of those in high school. Generally, the more popular kids would look out for the younger kids, so bullying for the most part was non-existent, as far as I knew. Looking back, I think my high school was fairly extraordinary in many respects. Even way back then, there was a gay kid who wanted to bring his boyfriend to the prom and most students didn't care. It was the staff who decided against it. The student council (of which I was on during this dispute), unanimously voted for the kid.

By Blogger Tim W., at 12:47 PM  

Buffy always struck me as a very simplistic example of how large high schools work, but I always put it down to being a California public high school in a well to-do small town (so more social homogeneous than the same size school in a bigger or more socially stratified town).

In my high school (and I think in many others), there were a bunch of different cliques, each with their top dogs. And then there was the 'popular clique', who existed by virtue of having wealthier parents, playing soccer and football, holding some of the more socially developed college prep kids, and similar. They had their own top dogs as well, and maybe a third of the rest of the school wanted to be popular like the 'popular kids', while everyone else just knew who they were but didn't care much about it.

Although I heard that, a year before I started school, there was a massive conflict between the punks and the football players over the most 'popular' girl in the school . . . (the lead punk had once been a popular kid, and knew her well, and things went on from there . . .).

My junior high was *much* worse - it was Catholic, so we had wealthy kids and lower-middle class kids from devout families. The lower-middle class ones almost all left for the public schools before high school, they were treated so poorly in the meantime.

I think Veronica Mars does a better job of mapping out a believable high school, partially because it was defined as a very specific, restricted social entity: ultra-wealthy versus ultra-poor, with some stragglers left out in the middle. And, in that circumstance, there were the top dogs of the popular kids, the top dogs of the disenfranchised, and Veronica who eventually became a top dog of everybody except the most popular ones.

By Blogger Rich Baldwin, at 2:42 PM  

My high school had a Queen Bees, the jocks, drama people, nerds, etc. It's just that the movies make these types larger than life.

p.s. I went to public school in America.

By Blogger SolShine7, at 2:42 PM  

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