Everything we were preemptively taught about high school is a lie. A lot of unsuspecting middle-schoolers got their information from Blair Waldorf and Cher Horowitz. Top shows like Gossip Girl, practically a celebration of exclusivity, centers around the idea that high school is a battlefield of impenetrable social order. Television led us to believe that hallways were always dominated by a handful of Cool Kids who commanded reverence daily.
That belief has spurred countless variations of the same idea on television. The only differential is which end of the social pyramid the perspective comes from. Bottom up, the outcasts often believe that they are wholly authentic while presenting the popular crowd as fake. It’s the very basis of Daria, Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life. On the other hand, when the Cool Kids drive the narrative, they position themselves as misunderstood and complex, while still occupying every archetypal trope of a simpleton. Whether you identify with them or loathe their existences, One Tree Hill’s Peyton Sawyer and The O.C’s Marissa Cooper gave backbone to the typical Popular Girl. This doesn’t make them fit any less into the Manic Pixie Popular Dream Girl archetype that continues to dominate teen-targeted shows and movies. People have proven to like a little edge to their plastic.
Formulaic devices work; those are two of my favourite characters on two of my favourite adolescent shows. But, this dichotomous world where the Cool Kids reign and the geeks always remain on the outside doesn’t actually exist in most high schools. There are cliques, people who you definitely know but who only sort of know you, claimed hangout spots and inevitably, the kids counting down the days until graduation, dreaming of better days in college. But, when you’re in high school, nothing is unchangeable. We all know that one girl who became hot overnight and shot straight up into the inner circle. The one best friend group that broke up. The popular kid who became a social pariah. It’s the natural order of the adolescent universe.
In fact, the only place where the televised static of adolescence actually exists is in Hollywood, among a group of once-unsuspecting, simple folk who just wanted to pursue their art. Otherwise known as the A-list, Tinsel town elite.
Hollywood, the ultimate Cool Kid’s Club, is made up of a select group of what is promised to be the most beautiful, talented and incredibly lucky of all humans. There is arguably no group whose social membership is more exclusive.
Of course, there will inevitably be a few anomalies that happen to slip in from time to time but not unlike Saved by the Bell’s vanishing character Tori Scott, they are usually destined to be temporary and disappear without even deserving a Where Are They Now? episode.
Though the structure of the inner circle is mirrored almost identically in Hollywood and fictional high schools, there lies a key difference. On TV, the Cool Kids control everything and everyone. But in Hollywood, we, the common folk, the street plebs, the consumers of this neo-intrusive culture we’ve created, so incredibly on the outside, have become the dictators of the Ultimate Cool Kids. This is not to say that celebrity culture has no hold on us. They may govern our behaviours, obsessions, inspirations, idealizations and essentially how we consume humans as products, but we tell them how to dress, what roles to take, what parts of their lives are fabricated (and what fabrications we indulge in), how much of their lives are actually theirs, not to mention who is popular when. While some may argue that there is something wrong with this relationship, most have indulged too much to have any footing in an anti-celebrity culture debate.
We do ask a lot of celebrities. We ask that they be “on” all the time; that they be versions of themselves we’ve pushed onto them. We ask them to make performing a round-the-clock career. Their sound bites, interviews, characters, scandals, tabloid headlines, tweets and instagrams give us bits and pieces of people that we’ve convinced ourselves we know. We’re very enthralled with these small glimpses, mistaking them for the whole thing.
Essentially, we’ve required them to behave like fictitious characters while still demanding that they portray an “authentic” self to allow the aforementioned plebs – us – an opportunity to identify. But when they actually do derive from banality, offering us a version of themselves that isn’t solely manufactured by public relations agents or anyone controlling their image, we question them, reject them, demonize them or hyper-consume their idiosyncrasies in anticipation of a mental illness.
We’re making constructs out of people and hoping that they fit into those nice little boxes we’ve mapped out for them. While the idea of celebrity and the individuals themselves may differ in meaning to different people, there is an inarguable grand importance to the way we interact with Hollywood. We are obsessed with both our disdain and our admiration.
The goal of celebrity is to be liked. People make entire careers on the bet that they will be liked by a mass amount of people for a number of years through many different projects. We’ve turned an art into a business where the currency is acceptance.
This, coupled with the high school-esque structure of Hollywood, has positioned the celebrities with the most mass appeal similarly to the head cheerleaders of the TV hallways. For celebrity to work, you need to want to be them, whether outwardly or subconsciously.
We’ve placed a moratorium on authenticity where, not entirely of their own fault, celebrities are required to adopt these personas that give them the best chance for longevity of being liked.
The easiest formula for this is to emulate the structure that has continuously proven itself, at least on TV. Celebrities well over 30 play high school teenagers, and we let them, because they are so used to adopting that persona in the first place. No one is presented as more admired than the typical TV head cheerleader.
When celebrities stray from this persona, it makes it hard for us to believe that this is really them. This is true of all oddball celebrities (or child star-turned pizza enthusiasts) like Macaulay Culkin, Shia LaBeouf, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Cera, Kristen Stewart and other Hollywood weirdos who fail to perform the singular trope of celebrity we’ve craftily created.
It’s not hard to imagine that these weirdo celebrities were once weirdo high school kids with awkward smiles and big dreams. While I’m not arguing that Kristen Stewart is the Urkle of Hollywood, there does exist a handful of celebrities who remind us more of One Tree Hill’s Marvin “Mouth” McFadden than Beverly Hills, 90210’s Brandon Walsh. They represent the same sentiment reproduced in shows, the idea that life does get better after high school. The season three One Tree Hill quote from *that* episode even says that “the artists, and the scientists, and the poets…none of them fit in at seventeen. You’re supposed to get past it.”
It’s not hard to imagine that most of Hollywood ruled the hallways with an iron fist, or at least were not without a date on Friday nights. The popular kids became popular celebrities. This has made our version of Hollywood look a singular way. We keep recreating this idea of the Hollywood celebrity. Usually white, usually fit, always gorgeous. We position them similarly to the high school narrative: blonde, complex women or dark, brooding men.
If Hollywood is high school, the awards shows are prom. In the rarity that an off-brand Hollywood celebrity manages to squeak through to nomination, we coin them the “underdog,” like with Jesse Eisenberg’s 2011 nom for The Social Network.
The “underdogs” are mostly celebrities that give us the most candid snippets of who they really are. An awkward interview here, self-depreciating joke there, and instantly, they undermine everything we know about the Hollywood structure.
Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for us to believe that Michael Cera is a jerk, Kristen Stewart is being fake when she’s awkward or Shia Labeouf is trying too hard. Sure, they actually might be those things, but it’s much easier for us to assume that they are or that they’re playing a part because they belong to a social class they were never supposed to. But sometimes, kids who eat paste just become well-adjusted albeit still awkward adults who used to eat paste. Weird kids grow up to have families, full-time jobs, responsibilities, and sometimes, celebrity.
The weirdo celebrities fit in almost neatly into television’s, and also film’s, idea of the outcast. They are awkward, off-beat and sometimes just really strange. If Kristen Stewart was the star of a 90s high school movie, she would constantly teeter on the edge of tripping in front of her crush and the glasses-off-hair-down makeover that would alert the entire high school body that weird girls, can indeed, be pretty. But instead, they are heroines and main characters, attending red carpet events and getting (or trying to get) the girl/guy/goal in every project.
This trend has resulted in a reverence for inauthenticity and “spin.” This doesn’t mean that celebrities are being fake all the time; rather, that they are always conscious of what their brand has to be.
Brad Pitt might be more marketable than Joaquin Phoenix and Shailene Woodley might have talked about homemade deodorant one too many times but the freaks, geeks, weirdos, nerds and dorks are needed in order to achieve equilibrium. They may be the most authentic part of Hollywood, even if our initial reaction is to doubt this. The slight Tinsel Town outliers are a nod to the impermanence of social status. They remind us that celebrities, They’re Just Like Us.