High school—that rich trove of hormones and anxiety—has always had a kinship with television. It’s the microcosm of life, it seems, since everything is compared to it, and television eagerly exploits and glorifies this idea. Truthfully, however, most high-school themed shows are nothing like real life—even the ones considered more in vein with reality are dramaticized, with intense highs and crackling lows.
WE tonight aired the first episode of an eight-week documentary series that followed twelve girls for all of their high school years. Now I know when these girls were selected nobody knew the storylines, but how accurate can they reflect real concerns of teenagers when one quarter of them become pregnant? One girl even gets married. Come on. The teen pregnancy rate isn't that high! Where are the worries about grades, the cliques simultaneously forming and falling apart, the wondering why the girl who sits across from you hates you so much? What about the competition for the lead in the school play, the band politics, the vindictive teacher? SATs, college essays, the motivating coach? From what I’ve read about the show, it seems that the series is just one big pile of issues these girls face. Neither I nor anyone I know in high school dealt with an abortion, and all the sex talk seems like an executive’s idea of what the storyline should focus on.
At first I wondered if the fact that the kids lived in Kansas had anything to do with it; after all, the culture in a given place dictates attitudes and behavior. I assume that growing up in Southern California is quite different from suburban Colorado from rural Massachusetts, but hey, maybe that’s just my TV telling lies. Seriously, though, once people go to college or move to an area outside of one they grew up in, they realize that attitudes, tastes, and just life varies tremendously based upon the culture of the geographical region they are inhabiting. Obviously the differences vary to a degree, and a good portion of that is grounded in the individual’s own personality and interests.
I mentioned a few of my reservations to this show regarding its authenticity to real teen girls to some young female coworkers, and they retorted I’m too far removed from high school to know (and I'm the youngest). I took umbrage at this—apparently it’s way harder now to get into college, so I image all the bickering about grades and worries over extracurriculars to be magnified, not lessened. Social networking hadn't happened when I was in high school, so I'm not even including the MySpace and texting that is the virus that afflicts teenagers now. I’m also not discounting suicide, depression, or the usual mopey-teen afflictions, but a constant focus on these big stories misses the whole experience, and makes it less about a group of normal high schoolers than just a pastiche of teen problems.
Truthfully, American High did this story better back in 2000, and that series had boys. The PBS doc (the executive producer later went on to 30 Days) covered a cross-section of kids from different backgrounds and different grade levels in one high school for one year. It was absorbing, and showed the kids in action, but also their hopes and fears, their troubles, and how even though they were in the same school their lives were very different. I don’t remember anything particularly “dramatic” happening to those kids, only that I was very attached to many of them by the series’ end, and wished they weren’t so many years older than me.
High School Confidential is edited as a series of interviews of each girl over time, intercut with some footage of them trying out for a dance team or pictures of them at different ages. We rarely see any actual action. We are just told what’s happening, and the only other people to speak are the girls’ parents and boyfriends. No siblings or friends, which makes the narrative incomplete. The storylines feel far removed from actual teenage life, and that’s only highlighted by the editing choices made.
What feels most real is how young the girls look, especially comparing their ninth-grade selves with their slick hair and bangs three years later. The styles look the same, but some things don’t: Cappie goes on length about the distinction between the haves and the have-nots in terms of cars, but nowadays many young teenagers cannot or will not drive. I’m unfamiliar with Kansas, and I know the car conundrum is as old as high school itself, but the show did not bother to present any other argument, any sort of conflict regarding this decision, and this is huge for a teenager.
It's that same problem that runs throughout the episode: We don't see the struggles, the choices not made, the agonizing decisions that truly affect them. Things happen, they report. Their lives are not news. Maybe that's why things like pregnancy surface--because that's always news, that's always a shocker, even when it shouldn't be. These girls’ stories are allegedly true, but they do not ring true. If you want real drama, stick with the fictional kind.