Thinking back to The Breakfast Club some more, or Heathers, or Fast Times, or any other classic teen movie, it seems like the social groups that young people belonged to used to have a lot stronger of a cultural group identity. ("When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way.")
For one thing, all sorts of stereotypes pop into your head when you think of a certain group from back then. If they had a mushy, incoherent group character, nothing much would leap out at you. You don't see those strong, instantly recognizable stereotypes in portrayals of young people anymore. You do see personality and physical-type differences highlighted -- an awkward individual, a talkative individual, a whiner, a clown, a hottie, a beanpole -- but they don't stand out as representatives of a larger cultural group type.
I haven't seen every new teen or teen-starring movie, but I pick this up even more strongly in real life. I used to work at a tutoring center and did private tutoring during the mid-2000s, and I've been surrounded by college kids since then.
In the '80s, there used to be the jock, the nerd, the stoner / burnout, the surfer dude, the Valley girl, the prep, the metalhead, the etc etc etc. If you're around young people today, you don't feel like their groups are so well defined. No pack behavior. Not just that they are as distinctive as they used to be, only you are no longer aware of what those groups are these days -- rather, that they don't have a strong group vs. group vs. group identity. As far as social group membership goes, most of the individuals seem pretty interchangeable.
The list of high school cliques in Mean Girls (2004) seems to focus more on individual personality and physical traits more than social group membership ("unfriendly black hotties," "girls who eat their feelings"). The inclusion of "burnouts" and "sexually active band geeks" is a clueless projection of the '80s culture onto the present. Even in 2004, there was no burnout / stoner clique in the typical American high school. Ditto the sexually active part of the band geek description.
In fact, they missed one of the most recognizable youth groups of the 21st century -- the skater dudes. They are one of the few who are part of a clear type, a larger group or culture that isn't about individual traits in personality or body type. Jocks don't have much cohesiveness these days either, not outside of the sport itself. If they're part of a college team, they do hang out more together, but at the high school level where most young people are participating, it's more like something to pad their college application, or an outlet for their desire to do something athletic, but not necessarily to carve themselves apart as a pack.
A major sign of the lack of distinctiveness is how similar the slang words are among young people. In the '80s, each group had its own unique slang -- the metalheads, the Valley girls, the preps, the frat boys, the cheerleaders, and so on. You could close your eyes when watching Fast Times and identify the group membership of most of the characters from their speech patterns and vocabulary alone. Again the skater dudes seem to be the only exception -- they and those near them seem way more likely to use "sick," for example. They're the only group with a distinctive inflection; it sounds vaguely like a descendant of the surfer dude speak of the '80s.
Clothing styles all look pretty interchangeable as well, again with the exception of the skater dudes who are more likely to wear multiple bright colors, when everyone else (especially males) looks so dark, desaturated, and monochromatic. Basically all girls wear dark leggings with slouchy boots or Ugg boots. Everyone has the same hairstyle-- short for guys, maybe pushed forward, and medium-length and straightened for girls. Skaters have longer and bushier hair, again one of the few who stand out as a group. Metalheads do not as a rule have long hair anymore; it seems to be more of an individual stylistic choice, whether they grow it out or not. They've really come undone as a recognizable group.
The metal / goth / emo people still wear all black, but that's about all there is to them. It's not as though they're a cohesive group, and all-black is their uniform. It's an attempt to build groupiness from merely dressing alike, rather than identical dress being an outward reflection of their groupiness.
That seems to be the general pattern these days -- to the extent that you can pick out somewhat distinctive groups, it's minor differences in clothing, and taste in movies / music ( / video games?). They've mistaken the external markers for the solidarity itself.
How could they build up a strong sense of group membership when they hardly interact with each other in real life, let alone go through any kind of ordeal together? The quasi-jocks have some of it from their experiences on the field, and the skater dudes have it from taking risks together, and in public spaces. But the preppies don't have their own distinctive hang-out spots, where they do their distinctively preppie activities. The nerds don't get together and play D&D. The emos don't hang out in the 7-11 parking lot and blast their music, risking harassment from The Man, like the metalheads used to.
So here again we see flimsy group membership attempting to be based on shared personality traits -- what type of individual you are if you prefer Katy Perry over Linkin Park, if you prefer hoodies rather than cardigans. Social grouping is more egocentric these days, in the sense of individuals detecting their closest identical twins, not dampening down their individual identity in order to fit into a larger group.
Once more skaters appear to be the exception, where they seem to come from a wider variety of personality and physical-type backgrounds. Some are overly cautious, some are more daredevils. Some are tall and some short, some anorexic and some beefed up. Some flirt with girls, others find them boring. But they're willing to set those differences aside in order to join in the larger skater dude Way of Life, to speak its shibboleths and display its tribal markers.
In the next post, I'll try to generalize these differences over time into two different types of conformity, and try to explain why one type predominates in some periods and the other type in the other periods.