Peer pressure has dissipated since its ’90s heyday, but the adolescent flat world is harder to navigate
There used to be order. Not being cool in a certain way meant rejection by the pack. The flock. No one took a shot at the popular kids. When someone did try to mock teenage royalty, everyone else laughed at them. “Peer pressure no longer exists because peers no longer exist” a 15-year-old girl told me recently. She wasn’t trying to make some pithy adolescent statement about how there isn’t any “meaning” in “anything”—no nihilistic or solipsistic or ironic tendencies intended—she meant it literally.
Peers are now just media filters, she said. Collectors. Separated from their physical forms. Social pressure no longer comes from groups made up of singular individuals confined to the unforgiving collective architecture of a specific school. Instead, the adoption of aesthetics, identities, and behaviors are filtered through countless nodes on various networks, digital manifestations of humans and nonhumans alike.
Advertising executives are your older siblings. Aging hipsters twice your age are your friends. The affectations of generations past are yours. Your music can be their music and their music can be your music. You have access to any set of tastes or styles and the theoretical ability to acquire and adopt them, to dress, listen, fuck, and/or ingest whatever you want. You no longer need a patient zero in your classroom. You don’t need the older kids to show you how to roll a joint. You can be the first and only to stop eating or the first to smoke up, or a few years later the first to decide not to smoke up and write black X’s on your hands and listen to hardcore. You can now discover straight edge on your browser and start a tumblr full of pictures of Ian Mackaye and bemoan how you didn’t grow up in the late ’80s. And you wouldn’t be alone. And yes, your “peers” trolling the hallways and cell towers might make fun of you for this or that. But they’ll go after you either way.
Now, unlike in the ’90s, being the dreamiest basketball player or having the right halter top from the mall pays no dividends; everyone is a target. Fair game for hatred in the schoolyard and ridicule on the wireless networks. No one is safe. The hierarchies still exist, and status still exists, but it’s almost taken the life of a game. An ingrained biological response to the harsh conditions of scholastic pseudo-imprisonment.
In 2011, UC Davis sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Femlee completed an authoritative study of the social network of a single North Carolina school. They tracked the social status and interactions of every single student over an entire semester, exhaustively cataloging every single instance of abuse and harassment. While the entire study is worth reading in its own right, its most interesting conclusions were:
• Singular students were often both targets and perpetrators, bully and victim.
• That social station increased the likelihood of belligerence and harassment.
Faris put it to CNN like this:
Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status … It’s really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school’s social life. It’s the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things … often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors. When kids increase in their status, on average, they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of becoming aggressive.
Now that social rejection is a defining characteristic of teenage life, the threat just is not what it once was. And it used to be everything. Before, high school popularity (or the lack of it) meant something more than rote rank. It meant safety. The quest to be accepted, or even better, “popular,” was rooted in normalized concepts of attractiveness, fashion, and sociocultural identity, creating a class apart, so often described using the language of royalty. The privileged found themselves insulated from mockery, bullying, virginity, gossip, hatred, and reproach as they dominated the lower classes. It’s not that these monarchs weren’t resented or even hated, it’s that they were safe. There was no way to get at them, the structure itself so powerful that fighting against it with any effectiveness was solely the purview of teen films and novels. The heartwarming social breakdown of The Breakfast Club or the glorious revenge against the popular elite in Heathers were fantasies, fictions, and dreams.
The greatest unfiltered high school documentary of that era, 1986’s All American High, presents a starkly different picture. The narrative of a Finnish exchange student at Torrance High School portrays an absolutely rigid structure of social status and popularity that would challenge any Hollywood cliché, but without any narrative of upheaval, no ugly-duckling loser magically becoming prom queen. The outsiders are so marginalized and dispersed, they are barely depicted, mentioned in passing through hushed sidelong glances as the uncomplicated caste system is explored through parties and social events.
The greatest benefit to being one of them, to fitting into their values (and not being one of the “punkers”), was, in a sense, security. It was good to be king and it was good to be queen, and good to be just like the king and queen. But it really wasn’t about them, and it wasn’t really a monarchy, the starting quarterback homecoming king and the beautiful it-girl were not powerful, the system was, and any insurgent was helpless against it.
But over the next 15 years that system crumbled. The unified mass-culture started to fray. There could be multiple hierarchies at the same time. Where previously there had been single othered individuals, there grew identifiable packs of the outliers. Tribes of punks and druggies and sluts and fags and blacks and whites and goths and disturbed kids that your mom is afraid might just shoot up the whole fucking place.
The 1996 short documentary Dirty Girls, which depicts a group of grungy pseudo-riot-grrrl 8th graders, shows how far the degeneration of the traditional social structure had come in a decade. The have-nots were not only multiplying, but they had formed their own independent architectures of order, conformity, and aggression. And most strikingly of all, they were engaged in open combat and competition with the entire social system. In Dirty Girls, everyone in the school knows sisters Amber and Harper, the leaders of the faction. They are not the faceless nameless roving “punkers” in All American High. They are royalty in their own right, and even if they are reviled by many, they revile back in turn.
As subcultures and possible group identities swelled in membership and variety, peer pressure became the go-to explanation for any parent concerned about the emergence of youth subcultures. My kid is smoking pot because of those kids in his school. He’s having sex not because he wants to, but because if he doesn’t his friends will make fun of him for being a prude or gay and that’s just the worst.
The circa-1998 peer pressure educational video that was repeatedly screened in my middle school was saturated with regressive racial coding and cultural paranoia. The “drug” scenario consisted of a cluster of mostly black boys pressuring a smaller bespectacled white freshman into “smoking dope” in a graffiti covered alley while a hip-hop instrumental track that sounded like an elevator music ripoff of Public Enemy’s “Security of the First World” blared in the background. The ‘drunk driving’ scenario featured a short-haired female guitar player and an effeminate male painter trying to goad a dimpled blonde girl into “joyriding” with them. Most comically of all, the “academic cheating” scenario featured two raven-haired seniors dressed in all black at computers wearing sunglasses—what the B-movie producers clearly intended to signify as hackers—imploring a poor nerd to join them in stealing the answers for the test. The clique of self-assured girls haranguing their peer to start having sex all had large books on politics or history in front of them. The gyno-, techno-, homo-, and xenophobia culminated in a scene on “gangs” and the pressure of “gang initiation” so openly racist it must be the reason the video is unfindable on the Internet today.
This propaganda campaign against peer pressure, which peaked sometime in those late ’90s, represented nothing more than a vain attempt to harness already-existing nonconformity and direct it toward whichever moral panic dominated the psychic landscape that week.
Peer pressure, even among adults, no longer works as well as it did. The urge to be part of the pack lurks alongside the yearning to be different. To be set apart. And in this, the children of America have become true masters, iconoclastic heathens willing to claim anything or knock down any idol.
One of the multiple narratives that make up the 2011 documentary Bully centers on Kelby, an openly lesbian 16-year-old growing up in Tuttle, Oklahoma. She experiences a level of hate and ostracism so extreme, not just from her peers but from the entire town, that her (wonderful) parents at one point offer to move the entire family to more friendly blue-state territory. But lost in the incredible hostility that comes with living in one of the most bigoted and antagonistic spheres in red-state America is the remarkable discovery that she is not alone. The film shows her with her cadre of friends, an assembly of LBGT kids and straight allies, existing together in her high school despite the extraordinary pressure. Their open presence in this environment demonstrates resilience in the face of not only the pressures of their peers, but of their mothers, fathers, community leaders, and teachers.
Parents have mostly given up on peer pressure as a paradigm defining element of molding their teenagers in favor of freaking out about bullying/bystanding/not-killing-yourself. Adults now do not believe in peer pressure so much as media pressure (“Miley Cyrus made my daughter a pot-smoking slut” instead of “Peer pressure made my daughter a pot-smoking slut”) or technological pressure (“My son doesn’t get any sleep because he stays up all night texting his friends”), fully embracing the awful politics of moral panics that dominated generational relations for the entire second half of the 20th century. Comic books, movies, malls, feminism, Doom, gay-straight alliances, Tibetan Freedom Concerts, Woodstock, Woodstock ’99, Grand Theft Auto, Netflix, sex education, Joan Jett, Livejournal, Jack Kerouac, Harry Potter, football, Facebook, Elvis, soccer, Nirvana, Cypress Hill, grinding, Miley Cyrus, World of Warcraft, computers, cellphones, smartphones, Jay-Z, soda, candy, sugary cereal, Minecraft, Ray Bradbury, Beyoncé, vegetarianism, Marilyn Manson, Dance Dance Revolution, the Beatles, 2Pac, skateboarding, and teaching evolution have all at one point or another supposedly so threatened the total destruction of American youth to the degree that they warranted national media coverage.
But what parents and educators so often labeled as peer pressure was actually the disease-like spread of ideas. It’s a degree of symbolic freedom and movement that made adults uncomfortable. The truly horrible things that happen to teenage lives are more the result of socioeconomic reality (gang violence), the failure of the mental health state (drugs, alcohol, shooting up the school), the horrific patriarchy of larger adult society (rape), or the all-around idiotic idea of the “school” as we construct it than they ever are the sole province of a teens en masse fearing social rejection.
Serious explorations of peer pressure as a primary subject, whether works of fiction or social science, almost never involve high school. Christopher R. Browning’s Ordinary Men, a history of Reserve Police Battalion 101’s participation in the Holocaust, intimately explores the role peer pressure played in turning an assembly of “middle-aged, mostly working class” men into genocidal killers who massacred the entire populations of towns under the orders of certain quotas. They later shot captured Jews that could not fit on the train cars destined for the death camps. The men’s superiors gave them the option of not participating in such acts without shame or consequence, yet almost all of them did in a mind-boggling psychological confluence of obedience and groupthink. Many claimed they simply did not want to see their peers have to commit such acts alone.
To the extent to which it still lingers in contemporary parentdom, the primary parental target of the peer pressure propaganda campaign is drugs and alcohol. It remains a tool to make your teen feel safe just saying no! like Nancy Reagan kindly told them to two decades before they were even born. Leaving aside the absurd hypocrisy of the modern American adult having any credibility when it comes to alcohol abuse, we have reached the point where parents, teachers, and psychiatrists are force-feeding their children prescription drugs at a rate no “everybody’s doing it” culture could possibly match with weed, meth, and cocaine. Not to mention the behavioral message that is sent when according to Comfortably Numb author Charles Barber somewhere more than 200 million antidepressant prescriptions are distributed to adults every year.
The constant economic and political warfare of the so-called adult world is impossible to separate from teenage life, yielding a landscape of volatility no adolescent culture of social rejection could produce. Peer pressures pale in comparison to these forces from above, so it’s no wonder teens cluster in their own defense. Over a generation, being the outsider itself has been commodified. By the time Hot Topic started trading on the NASDAQ, the image of the outcast that the teens of the 1980s and 1990s worked so hard to create was formally rid of its primal appeal, and if there was any classical peer pressure left, it was pushing in and out in too many contradictory directions to count.
With a whole catalog of alt archetypes, it’s easier than ever to be insufficient. The top-down pressure system is gone, replaced by a turbulent field of peer friction in which every identity is always vulnerable. The 15-year-old girl who told me “peer pressure no longer exists” also made it very clear in no way did that result in the perfect adolescent paradigm defined by love and respect. “They’re all annoying,” she said. “I hate them for trying so hard to be part of the group. And I hate them for trying so hard to be different and special.”