Friday, March 1, 2013

The Teenage Guide To Popularity

Popularity has been the Holy Grail of teenagers everywhere for as long as there have been teenagers. While we like to think the world has moved on socially (at least a little bit) since the time of bobby socks and poodle skirts for all, I personally think that when it comes to social interaction teenagers are being sold the same garbage they were 70 years ago. It can more or less be summarised like so;

Above all, dress “nicely” and be visually appealing.
Be confident, but don’t draw attention to yourself.
Be nice, be pleasant, all the time. Boys don't like "moody" girls.
Never, never do anything anyone could interpret as slutty or scandalous.

Any of this sound familiar? I’d be shocked if you’d never heard any of this advice before.

I want to use this topic to introduce you to one of my favourite underrated sites on the net - The Prelinger Archives – there is hours and hours of fascinating (largely hilarious) footage to be found within it’s poorly coded shell. It’s part of the broader Internet Archive, a project that is attempting to archive as much media as possible in one location, presumably for future generations. The Prelinger Archives are specifically “educational” films that date from the early 30’s to the early 70’s, and cover an astonishing variety of topics. There is one that shows an actual unsimulated birth that I am particularly fond of (it’s called “Sudden Birth!” and the birth sure is sudden) but the one I want to talk about today is simply titled. “Are You Popular?” Because all the material on the Prelinger Archives is public domain (or creative commons licensed) a lot of the videos have been copied over to YouTube and the likes. However I'm going to link you to the original source because I think it's an awesome project. Before we go on with our discussion of teenage popularity through the ages, take five minutes or so to sit down and let this gem soak right in.

This film opens with the dramatic narration that is very typical of these educational films, and the overly serious tone cracks me up every time. “Popularity,” the narrator booms. “What is it made of? Let’s watch and see what makes people like one person, and not another.” Interestingly, there is very little advice on what makes boys or girls likeable to friends of the same gender – almost all the advice given specifically revolves around dating. This emphasis is still quite evident in modern magazines like Dolly, the Australian equivalent of Seventeen Magazine. In the issue I picked up, of approximately 6,500 words devoted to advice on social interactions, 2,640 were about dating and a measly 950 were about friendship. So what we're REALLY talking about when we talk about teenage popularity is why boys like one girl, and not another.

Guess which one this is? Look at that lipstick! And that
headband! It's OBVIOUSLY the tramp.
In "Are You Popular?", we are first introduced to the Bad Girl of the piece, one Jenny, who is referred to as one of the “weird characters in this place” by one of the boys. What’s wrong with Jenny, you might ask? Why are the boys and girls both ignoring her attempts to strike up a conversation and sit with them? Because she has been…*dramatic pause* “parking in cars with the boys at night”!! Heavens, I don’t know about you but this had me clutching my pearls. The really astonishing thing is that the film then goes on to explain that it is entirely Jenny’s fault that she is getting shunned, and that the boys making out with her at night and then bitching behind her back are entirely in the right. While I couldn’t find any specific advice columns to back up my perception that this attitude is still prevalent, there is plenty of anecdata floating around. Just check out Harlot Overdrive’s heartbreaking story of being told off for letting a boy kiss her on the cheek in kindergarten.

Look at those soft, subtle features and demure blouse! This must
be the Good Girl.
Now we’ve all had our jimmies thoroughly rustled by the incorrigible Bad Girl, it’s time to introduce the Good Girl, one Caroline. The boys discuss why they think Caroline is so awesome, despite admitting they don’t actually know her. The first observation? “Well, she always looks nice to start with.” There you are girls – look nice, and people will like you. But how do we define “nice”? This was probably simpler back in the 50’s when fashion was relatively limited. It's obvious Caroline is the good girl because her makeup is softer, her hair more perfectly placed, and her blouse nice and buttoned up. But with the variety of fashion available to the modern teenager, more specific advice is needed. It’s alright, Seventeen magazine is here to help, because 70 years on the number one sure-fire boyfriend repeller is apparently still looking trampy.

So, look attractive, but not like you want to be attractive. That's not really the clearest advice in the world. Maybe the Dolly online edition can shed some more light; this is from their enlightening "10 Steps to Getting a Boyfriend" article.

So, no short skirts because they are "obvious" ie. bad. Wearing makeup is good, necessary even, but only the kind where he can't TELL you're wearing makeup, because if you look like you've put makeup on, you're once again being "obvious". These snippets of advice all feel like a repeated mantra of "look like everyone else" to me. Wear what the other girls wear. Wear what we show you in magazines. That's the "right" thing to wear. And let's face it girls, how you look is the most important thing about you!

I expected this kind of "appearance is everything" mantra from a film of this era. The joys of being attractive are touched on in just about every film Coronet ever made. I was surprised to note that this emphasis on appearance is still just as prevalent in modern media. Flicking through the paper edition of Dolly I noted that out of 160 pages, 70 were specifically devoted to either advice or advertorial encouraging the readers to look attractive. Given that 20 of the remaining 90 pages were posters, this is not a great percentage. 

The emphasis on appearance in both this film and the modern media I looked at also comes with an implied threat, should you choose to disregard their advice.There is a definite overtone that if you wear short skirts, or too much makeup, or are too "obvious", or "park in cars" that all you deserve are the "wrong" boys, the ones who will snigger at you behind your back, or worse. Jenny's behavior is condemned in the film as making the boys she sees "feel less important", and this is apparently justification enough for them to be total assholes to her. Dolly's suggestion that you will get a "classier guy" with the right sort of attractiveness implies that if you end up in a relationship with an asshole, you can really only blame yourself for looking like a tramp. What a wonderful idea to have kept up for so long! I'm sure it's done young women everywhere no end of good.

Honestly, I could spend all day pulling apart the advice in this film, and in modern magazines, but I'd probably give myself an aneurism from excessive sarcasm.  There is some actual honest to goodness useful advice in this film - calling a girl at the last minute to make plans is ALWAYS a crappy idea, and does indeed make her feel like a last resort. But there is one line in the later part of the film that jumps out at me every time I watch it. Good Girl Caroline and her Good Boy Beau Wally are heading out for a Good Kids Date, and her mother suggests they come home after their date for home made brownies and milk. The narrator remarks, "Caroline and her mother have found one way a girl can repay a boy for entertaining her. A bite to eat at her house will save him money." The word that jumps out at me here is "repay" - I don't care for the idea that you owe someone anything just because they went on a date with you, but it's something that I know I heard a lot as a teenager. I remember my mother drilling into my head that I didn't owe a boy anything, no matter what we were doing, and that if I wanted to stop I should stop, but unfortunately she was one voice against a sea of anecdata collected from my friends. It took me a long time to realise she had actually been right all along, and I could have saved myself a lot of icky situations if I'd just listened to her in the first place. But I heard the idea that I owed boys repayment for their attention SO often from my peers - you can't leave him with "blue balls", you can't be a "tease", you can't "lead him on."

It's easy to dismiss films like "Are You Popular?", and the magazines that form it's modern equivalent as irrelevant, something to simply be ignored or laughed at. But I wasn't that interested in mainstream media as a teenager, and I know it still seeped through to me, so I can only imagine how it affected girls more interested in being normal than I was. The things we hear when our brains are soft and squishy with hormones and oh-so-malleable stick with us. Well, they certainly did for me anyway.

I didn't have an awesome time as a teenager - I was perpetually "outside", a nerdy loser weirdo who would die rather than admit how much she desperately wanted to be popular. I read magazines like Dolly every now and then to see if I could actually figure out how this popularity thing worked, and was always crushed when I realised I had none of the tools needed to be the kind of girl the magazines said people liked. I wonder how different I would have been if I had been exposed to different messages. I wonder if I would be more confident in the way I dress, and if I would find it easier to be daring and risk drawing attention with my fashion choices. Would I have taken less crap from boys I dated earlier on if I didn't feel like I owed them something for their attention? Would I have been more insistent that no, I really do not feel like this right now, thank you. I like to think I would have. I like to think it would have taken me less time to struggle out of my shell if I hadn't been so firmly squished into it as a teenager. Maybe I'm wrong - maybe I would have turned out exactly the same no matter what. But observing how little the advice given to teenage girls has changed in 70 years, I'm starting to wonder if we will ever find out what girls who DON'T grow up with this bullshit even look like.


  1. Thanks for sharing the video and your thought on this topic. While it was laughable now - the brownie, the phone conversation...etc, I was a nerdy wannabe gorging on teenage magazines too.
    I wish my daughter will be wiser (only a baby now, geez!), but it'll be me against the world unless there's serious change in society value. Rants on girl!
    x Ann

  2. This is a fun article for those of us outsider teenagers: :)

    To be fair, Dolly and co are centred on "beauty, fashion and relationship advice", and the content distribution isn't all that dissimilar to their adult equivalents (Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmo (special blergh)), which arguably also have the main theme of "wear these trends, look like everyone else, attract a man, token career article". And while the rationale for why not to wear uncomfortable clothes isn't the best, there is a subtle undercurrent of don't put on clothes/makeup to hide yourself/confidence is key which sneaks in there (which I'm actually quite impressed by, since that wasn't there when I was a teenager, from what I remember).

    So all in all, I don't think the message of conformity changes from print media aimed at teenagers to those aimed at adults - we just gradually learn to interpret them less literally. I don't think anyone could disagree that teen magazines should re-examine what messages they're sending, but tbh I think hormone-laden teenagers will simply skip over the deep-and-meaningfuls in favour of the "how to get a date" articles, and continue to buy the magazine with the most "useful" (i.e. straightforward, "wear this lipstick" >> "work on your personality") boy/popularity-related content. IMO, the best way to transmit better messages is to embed them in forms of media where you can't just skip the page - TV or movies, or example.

    1. You're right, in that Dolly is a LOT more self confidence friendly now than when I used to read it. They have introduced whole sections of allegedly unretouched photos, which is good to see - even better, I saw an honest to goodness chubby girl in one of them! You would NEVER have seen that in MY day.And you're also right that they wear their focus on their sleeve - I guess I would have less of a problem with their focus if there were alternatives as widely available for girls in that age range. When we grow up (if we grow up) there are things like Frankie that offer an alternative viewpoint - where is Frankie Jr?

  3. Arrived here bc youtube thought my search for Sneaker Pimps' 6 Underground merited a Sneaker Pimps 6 Underground youtube mix---which led me thru a playlist including Nada Surf's Popular, which tempted me to read the comments where I found a factoid stating it was played "every hour on MTV in 1996." I read on. Another claimed the spoken parts during the song were pulled verbatim from a 1964 book entitled The Teenage Guide to Popularity. Googling that proved unfruitful but brought me here.


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