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Why Are We So Obsessed With High School?

During one of my morning twitter scrolls last week, I came across this tweet that said: “did tv producers forget that not everyone is in high school still?” I have obviously been watching more movies and television lately (as one does during a pandemic) and as I catalogue my recent, and all-time favorite, movies and shows, a ridiculous amount are staged in high school. There are the obvious examples like Glee (which my roommate and I watch a shameful amount of), Freaks and Geeks, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, Grease and Euphoria, to name a few. Even Stephen King’s Carrie is set in a high school. As I watch, and rewatch, these programs at different points of my life, specifically as a child before high school and now as a college student, it makes me wonder how they shaped my perception of high school and my teenage experience as a whole. 

Photo by aj_aaaab on Unsplash

The fact that basically every single Disney Channel movie I watched as a young kid was centered around high school set my expectations HIGH. Our generation in particular grew up with High School Musical and Hannah Montana, stories that paint high school as a character-forming experience where people dance on tables and everyone has a hot boyfriend. Then, watching these shows as an adult, you can’t help but compare fantasy to the reality you lived. Retrospectively, there is the tendency to try to fit your high school experience into one of the boxes we are force-fed through these TV shows and movies. Was I more of a popular girl or the nerd? Am I a Serena or a Blair? What we see in these iconic TV shows gives us a shared model for what high school “should be,” and we tend to use these characters, cliques and scenarios to describe our time in high school, even when we don’t really fit into these categories. 


So why are television and film so obsessed with high school? Cinema is a form of escapism, but what about teenagers takes us out of our regular lives as adults? Specifically, as a college student in a pandemic, I have a lot to escape: the need to make an actual decision about my post-grad plans, classwork, the suffocating but necessary covid restrictions at school to name a few. While a program about high school is entertaining and distracting by the very fact that it is an age different from my own, it puts college viewers in a strange spot. We can get a sense of jealousy from some shows like Gossip Girl. These teenagers are living fabulous lives at an age where you get the most freedom with the smallest amount of responsibility. For some it is a way to re-live a much simpler time and laugh at the fact that everything seemed like the end of the world. In another, more twisted way, we feel better about ourselves when we watch teenagers growing up too fast in Euphoria or singing losers in Glee. At least we didn’t have it that bad, right?

woman wearing black shirt eating popcorn
Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels

Despite our complicated relationship with shows about high school, they’re not going anywhere. At least I will not be giving up Glee anytime soon. So how is this affecting us in the long term? I don’t think any other country in the world is quite as obsessed with high school as Americans are. Although I haven’t traveled much, the fear of peaking in high school seems relatively unique to our society, and this creates an unnecessary pressure to both enjoy our teenage years and not enjoy them so much that the rest of our lives are downhill. I also think this obsession with high school in the media diminishes the equally important and arguably more complex years that follow. Where’s our television show about young women in undergrad trying to figure out what the heck they are doing with their lives? Whether a show like this already exists or not, I think shifting a bit of the attention away from our American teenagers would go a long way. 

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Caroline Pitts

Notre Dame '22

Caroline is a South Bend native and junior Biology and English major on the Pre-Med track. When she is not in class or lab, you can find her heading to spin class, listening to True Crime podcasts, or having The Bachelor viewing parties with her roommates. She loves writing and can’t wait to share some of her thoughts with you all!
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