January 11, 2012

Getting attention vs. being popular

One of the most striking changes over the past 20 years is how little importance young people attach to being popular anymore, part of the general shift toward cocooning.

It wasn't an overnight switch. In the mid-'90s, the pretty girls in my middle and high school still made some effort to mingle with a wide variety of people, to be more broadly liked and accepted, and so did the athletic guys. The central teenagers on My So-Called Life didn't belong to the in-crowd, but they totally wished they did. Clueless was probably the last charitable portrayal of the popular kids.

Still, Nirvana lyrics like "I'd rather be dead than cool" resonated with a lot of adolescents, as did the snarky-ironic song "Popular" by Nada Surf. Unlike Revenge of the Nerds or Weird Science, where the outcasts wanted to be accepted by normal people, by the time American Pie came out, it was OK to be total losers.

Since then there hasn't even been the residue of the desire for popularity that was around in the '90s. Harold & Kumar and Superbad only strengthened the message that it's cool to be sheltered dorks for life, while Mean Girls joined the pile-on against the in-crowd, and without the humanized view of them that made Heathers so enjoyable. The off-putting "it's all about me" attitude in pop music has gotten even worse. And you obviously aren't trying to gain other people's sympathy and acceptance by making a kabuki face in all your pictures. The only exception was that MTV show Made, where high schoolers worked to improve themselves in some way, typically with the goal of fitting in better at school.

Even in these leave-me-alone times, we're still a social species and crave some form of recognition from other people in order to feel good about who we are. But since people have cut themselves off from each other, they have no interactions to use to find out who is likeable, and no one winds up feeling well-liked. The only recognition they can get is looks alone, so that cocooning leads to attention-whoring as the main way to feel approved of by others.

This link between cocooning and attention-whoring (as opposed to popularity-seeking) showed up in the past two periods of falling crime rates, when people isolate themselves. Here's an excerpt from a complaint about how lacking in femininity and affability English women had become by the mid-Victorian era:

The Girl of the Period is a creature who dyes her hair and paints her face as the first articles of her personal religion — a creature whose sole idea of life is fun; whose sole aim is unbounded luxury; and whose dress is the chief object of such thought and intellect as she possesses. Her main endeavour is to outvie her neighbours in the extravagance of fashion. No matter if, in the time of crinolines, she sacrifices decency; in the time of trains, cleanliness; in the time of tied-back skirts, modesty; no matter either, if she makes herself a nuisance and an inconvenience to every one she meets; — the Girl of the Period has done away with such moral muffishness as consideration for others or regard for counsel and rebuke. It was all very well in old-fashioned times, when fathers and mothers had some authority and were treated with respect, to be tutored and made to obey, but she is far too fast and flourishing to be stopped in mid-career by these slow old morals; and as she lives to please herself, she does not care if she displeases every one else.

That's from 1868, and it only got worse with the egocentric "New Woman" of the later Victorian era. Unless we've looked into it, we tend to treat all of history before 1960 as the same, but it wasn't at all. The self-focused, attention-craving, yet behaviorally prudish woman of Victorian times isn't so different from her counterpart of the past 20 years. And both are worlds away from the women in Jane Austen's world, who strove to be well-liked, and who therefore had to socialize with a range of others. But that was during the more outgoing and rising-crime Romantic-Gothic period.

Earlier I looked at the attention-whore culture of the mid-century, as shown in Time Magazine's original 1951 ethnography on the Silent Generation. Here's an excerpt, which reads exactly like a scene from today's Girls Gone Wild culture, right down to the abstinence from actual sexual activity:

Says a Minneapolis priest: "The young American male is increasingly bewildered and confused by the aggressive, coarse, dominant attitudes and behavior of his women. I believe it is one of the most serious social traits of our time-and one that is certain to have most serious social consequences."

The shrieking blonde ripped the big tackle's shirt from his shoulder and Charlestoned off through the crowded room, fan-dancing with a ragged sleeve. In her wake, shirts fell in shreds on the floor, until half the male guests roared around bare to the waist. Shouts and laughs rose above the full-volume records from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The party, celebrating the departure of a University of Texas coed who had flunked out, had begun in midafternoon some three hours earlier. In one corner, four tipsily serious coeds tried to revive a passed-out couple with more salty dog (a mixture of gin, grapefruit juice and salt). About 10 p.m., a brunette bounded on to the coffee table, in a limited striptease. At 2 a.m., when the party broke up, one carload of youngsters decided to take off on a two-day drive into Mexico (they got there all right, and sent back picture postcards to the folks).

Just as the Victorian woman was worlds apart from a Jane Austen heroine, the woman of the falling-crime mid-century would have been unrecognizable to a young woman of the rising-crime Jazz Age. Several of Fitzgerald's short stories center around a debutante or similar girl making the rounds during parties, mingling and dancing with many young men, and feeling fulfilled for being so widely well-liked and appreciated. One even emphasizes that this necessarily involves self-sacrifice, as she must talk about all sorts of topics that don't really interest her, dance with men who don't smell or look perfect, and so on. But how else can you expect to appeal to a broad group of others?

During the most recent wave of violence, when everyone came out of their cocoons, we were also near or at our peak for patriotism, so this type of popular adolescent got a special name -- All-American. So likable and approaching toward others that they could fit in and be liked no matter where in the country they went. I can't remember the last time I heard anyone described as an All-American girl or a real All-American kinda guy. Kelly Kapowski, perhaps, in the early '90s. Since then we've become a lot less likable and a lot more avoidant of other people, putting our guard up even when we do approach others.

The larger take-home message is that we are almost entirely ignorant of what price we pay to enjoy a falling crime rate. The main price is that we must cocoon, draining the pool of potential victims in public spaces. But it doesn't end there, since cocooning entails all sorts of other corrosive behaviors like attention-whoring as the main way that people seek validation, instead of socializing in order to be more popular. That in turn deprives people of years of opportunities for developing their social skills, turning the population in a more autistic direction instead.


  1. The TV series Popular and the movie The Faculty seem humanizing to the in crowd, but still relatively more so to the out group, and humanize the in group through linking them to the outgroup or have them take on some of their traits. Same with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the film Election, Legally Blonde (more of an outlier in terms of being relatively pro-popular) and so on.

    I don't really know about all those High School Musical and Glee things, but I get the impression that's the recent trend - the central ingroup socialisers are portrayed as sympathetic, but driven by insecurity, need for face for self esteem, are not really the interesting people, and are made fully human by association with the peripheral outgroup.

  2. what happened to suburban archaeology ..was looking forward to that

  3. "The central teenagers on My So-Called Life didn't belong to the in-crowd, but they totally wished they did"

    But the question coould be: the "unpopular kid wanting to be popular" was a realistic description, or simply the result of being more easily to make a funny and interesting movie (or TV Show) with an "asperger-like" character (wanting to be popular but with difficulties in that) instead of with a "schizoid-like" character (don't wanting to be popular)?

    After all, in the first case you have room to character development, to the hero suffering in the beggining and finally be accepted in the end, to a rich sequence of events portraing his attempts to becoming "popular", etc.

    In the second case (a solitary person uninterested from social life), the movie will be, or boring (what the main character will do during 120 minutes or an entire season?), or totally stupid (protraing the character doing silly things as the only way to entertain the viewer).

    Btw, I am not sure if, in "Revenge of the Nerds", the heroes really wanted to be accepted - if I remember the movie well, they only wanted don't being harassed by the others (they wanted to be accepted by the "greek system" - or something like that - but only as a way to benefit from the protection that this will gave to them).

  4. I didn't see Popular, and only an episode here and there of Buffy. I remember the Buffy characters being portrayed as attractive, hip, etc., but were they socializing with lots of other people in the school?

    I seem to recall it being focused on how set apart they were from the mainstream, being called to fight evil, etc.

    Legally blonde was like that too, where it was more about an individual female empowering herself, perhaps with a little help from a couple people, proving the naysayers wrong about ditzy blonde stereotypes, etc.

    In Clueless the Valley girl spends a lot of time socializing and matchmaking, not really advancing her own empowerment. And she's willing to take up interests that aren't that interesting to her, in order to appeal to others, like when she tries watching the news and fundraising for charity so that her liberal crush will pay more attention to her.

    I haven't watched High School Musical or Glee either, but from other people's reactions they seem to enjoy it more as a show about fabulous drama queens shining in the spotlight, especially the gay-influenced Glee. So again, more about getting attention than interacting with others to get them to like you.

  5. "In the second case (a solitary person uninterested from social life), the movie will be, or boring (what the main character will do during 120 minutes or an entire season?), or totally stupid (protraing the character doing silly things as the only way to entertain the viewer)."

    That describes American Pie movies, the Harold & Kumar movies, and Superbad. Young people want movies with outcast characters who act silly, stupid, and unchanged throughout the movie. They're really dreadful to watch.

    The best movie about a cooky, somewhat nerdy group of outcasts who reach out to the broader society and prove themselves worthy of recognition -- is Ghostbusters. By the end they're very popular, with crowds cheering them on, wearing their t-shirts, and so on.


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