A deep dive into high school cliques and popularity

Open scene. You're the new girl, stepping into a big, noisy cafeteria. Your student guide (and potential first friend) mutters in your ear the exact ways the school is divided. There are different cliques, they say—geeks, jocks and goths, oh my!

Over there in the back are the theater kids, to their left are the math nerds and to their front are the bookworms, quiet kids who barely have any space to breathe because look—that's the rowdy football team right next to them, and then, *oh.* That table in the middle, those are school royalty. The popular girls. The mean girls.

Right...what's a clique?

A clique is ultimately a friend group, but not all friend groups are cliques. In fact, it's probably better to avoid labeling yourself as a clique. Like friend groups, cliques are small groups of people with common shared interests or something else connecting them.

However, a key facet of cliques is that they're exclusive and specific, which in turn limits the people inside them. There are specific things you have to be or do to be included in a clique, and a lot of those things fall under an umbrella of stereotypes placed on the general public's oversimplified view of that group and the qualities they possess. There's always a danger of the clique becoming a little too similar; a group of people who are literal carbon copies of each other. 

But are high school cliques an *actual* thing, or are they some concocted drama booster thrown in teen movies? The answer isn't so simple.

Mean Girls vs. Real girls

There are countless teen movies about cliques, popularity and the high school hierarchy, some of which are smart and well-informed, some of which are shallow and clichéd. Either way, right or wrong, they can give us insight into high school society.

Heathers (1988)

Movie girls: Heathers is all about power and social hierarchy in Westerburg High. The popular, mean-girl clique is made of the 3 Heathers—Heather Chandler, Heather Duke and Heather McNamara. Veronica Sawyer is in with the clique but finds them pretty frustrating, instead seeking solace in the school rebel, JD. In a stunt-gone-wrong, Veronica and JD accidentally end up killing bossy queen bee Heather Chandler, which leaves a trail of deadly disaster in its wake. 

Real girls: Taking the meaning of killer cliques to a whole other level, Heathers explores the exclusivity and danger of cliques and their relation to peer pressure. What makes the Heathers clique so appealing to the rest of the school is that it's super exclusive—only the prettiest, richest and best girls can get the coveted position. In a way, the popular girls are the least-liked people, because they're the subject of everyone's envy and greed.

The edge and the bite of this movie may not be on the same level as real life, but the principles are the same. By seeking out power or popularity in high school, you're forgoing actual likeability and connections. With great influence comes great responsibility, and Heathers truly reveals how that influence can sour. 

Jawbreaker (1999)

Movie girls: Yes, the absolutely iconic slo-mo down the hallway walk was popularized by this cult classic. Inspired by Heathers's dark take on killer cliques, Jawbreaker details the chaos that ensues after a group of four school royals turns into three after a morbid prank-gone-wrong. Liz, the previous queen bee before her death, was kind, pretty and extremely popular. Julie, her best friend, is beautiful and naive. Foxy is an airheaded wingwoman to new queen bee Courtney, who is equal parts cold-blooded and ruthless. She not only acknowledges the "cruel politics of high school" but revels in it, proudly taking her spot as the sun in the solar system of Reagan High.

Jawbreaker enforces the idea that popularity is not always necessarily being well-liked but rather feared. In fact, characters directly call Courtney evil, or "Satan in heels." Despite this, nobody dares to go against her even when she's being objectively cruel—she rules the school and she knows it. School nobody Fern finds herself thrust in the mean girl clique, given a massive makeover courtesy of Courtney and christened Vylette, becoming a creation and therefore property of the queen bee.

Real girls: Just like the stunning costumes, the power dynamics and personalities of the girls in Jawbreaker are dramatic, campy and unrealistic to real high school girls, and the movie never tries to make itself to be. There will always be mean girls in high school, but they for sure won't rival Courtney's murderous intensity. More than anything, this movie reveals how fickle popularity is.

By the end, Fern realizes that her chase for popularity chipped away at her identity and made her do horrible things she never would've done otherwise. After Courtney's downfall, the school she supposedly rules turns on her. Their true loyalties lied in the queen they elected to the throne, the one who treated them well—Liz. Manipulation and fear will only take you so far, even for calculating minds like Courtney, whereas kindness and genuineness will *always* prevail.

Mean Girls (2004)

Movie girls: Even if you've been living under a rock and haven't watched this movie, you've *def* heard of it before. The Plastics—"that is the ugliest effing skirt I've ever seen" queen bee Regina George, "so fetch" gossip master Gretchen Wieners and "wanna go to Taco Bell" bimbo Karen—are the top of the North Shore High food chain, where popularity is calculated through holiday grams, provocative talent show choreography and the prom queen tiara.

The cafeteria voiceover scene with all the cliques is our first of many introductions to the toxicity of Mean Girl high school society. It's a clear-cut social hierarchy, and the rich, pretty and popular girls are on top.


Real girls: In an arc similar to Fern's in Jawbreaker, Cady starts as an ordinary girl, gets sucked into the Plastics, becomes the type of person she had previously despised and finally escapes the situation with a newfound understanding of popularity and high school culture while remaining true to herself. So what *does* she learn?

Well for starters, hate gets you nowhere. See: the iconic Burn Book—completely destructive and harmful to every single person involved—including the creators. As Cady puts it in her moment of clarity at the state math competition:

Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George's life definitely didn't make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.

The Plastics are tied together by their popularity and nothing much else, so when that's taken away from them, they split up to find their own people. Instead of chasing popularity and power, it'll be far more beneficial to find meaningful connections and relationships that'll push and support you. You don't need the entire school to admire or fear you to just be somebody. Regarding cliques, there will always be groups of people brought together by their similarities, but there's no need to limit you to people who have the exact same interests, or even to only one. 

The bottom line

So are cliques real? Well, yes, but not how the movies make it out to be. There will be popular girls, influential girls and mean girls, but they are much more complex than their labels let on, just like their clique and all the other cliques they're surrounded with. There will always be different groups but that doesn't necessarily mean they are or should be cliques.

And the thing with popularity is that it's an endless chase. It feels great to be admired, powerful and influential, but ultimately it stirs up way too much drama than is healthy or enjoyable—even the biggest gossips get tired of talking at some point. The best thing to do is to not stress out about it and take comfort in the knowledge that everybody else has worried about the whole popularity and clique thing at least once or twice.

At the end of the day, everybody just wants to feel appreciated by people they care about, so don't isolate yourself from other people because of the stereotypes you think they or yourself fall into. Build real connections and go into the school year finding those people that make you feel like everything is 100% worth it. We believe in you bb!

What's your fave teen clique movie? Tell us on Instagram @girlslifemag!

All GIFs via GIPHY | Jawbreaker GIF via Gfycat | Slider via TriStar Pictures 

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by Sophia Zhang | 9/29/2021