New Breakfast Club: Modern American high schools still ‘jocks’ ‘princess’ trope geeks anime/manga

High school remains a cruel place for many teenagers – but some things do change, including the divisions and differences that teens use to define themselves and their peers.

While many of the popular high school cliques at the top of the modern social hierarchy remain the same, those at the bottom have shifted considerably compared to prior generations, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin.

The top of the social pyramid still includes groups labeled as the ‘populars,’ ‘jocks,’ ‘floaters’ and ‘good-ats,’ according to the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research.

In the middle, researchers found the ‘fine arts’ kids, who have risen in popularity compared with past studies, as well as the ‘brains,’ ‘normals’ and ‘druggies/stoners.’

At the bottom of the social hierarchy are ’emo/goths,’ ‘anime/manga’ fans and ‘loners.’

While loners have always been around, the emo/goth and particularly ‘anime/manga’ crowds are newer additions to the crowd.

‘We see those as evolutions of prior groups,’ lead researcher Rachel Gordon told ‘The anime/manga (group) is similar to our past geeks, really geeking out on something they love.’

She attributes those and other shifts to overall changes in demographics, cultural influences and the increasing number of students heading to college.

Researchers also found that the high social status cliques persevered over the generations, while groups with low social status tended to adapt to modern times – hence the steadfast ‘populars’ and ‘jocks’ versus the newer ‘anime/manga’ crowd.

In addition, students tended to attribute positive characteristics (like getting good grades and participating in extracurricular activities) to the populars and jocks, despite viewing those groups negatively for their tendencies to party and bully others.

Technology has also played a role. For example, popular students were viewed as those who have the most Instagram followers, while the counterculture groups of ’emo/goths’ and ‘anime/mangas’ tended to use the internet to more deeply immerse themselves in modern oppositional music and art.

The ‘good-ats’ crowd was also an evolution of what was known as the college-bound crowd in the 1950s and 1960s – the group of students who tend to excel across multiple subjects and areas of interest.

The ‘fine arts’ crowd has been elevated to the middle of the social hierarchy, relative to previous studies. Gordon attributes this at least in part to the rise of participation in music and art in pop culture through television shows like ‘Glee’ and movies like ‘Pitch Perfect.’

Researchers also found that racial and ethnic stereotypes tended to prevail – particularly among white students.

‘White participants tended to use racially coded language when describing other ethnic peer crowds,’ Gordon said, ‘and this was particularly salient when compared to how black or Latino students described their experiences.’

People of color were more likely to perceive racial or ethnic crowds as more fluid – and encompassing many different types of students who overlap with other cliques, she said.

‘They talked about the variety of groups within their racial ethnic group and really see their racial ethnic group as a home base that they could move in and out of,’ Gordon said. 

Another major observation: the rise of academic anxiety, with researchers noting that stress over meeting parental expectations was ‘particularly novel’ – especially among the students known as ‘brains.’ 

All of these findings matter, Gordon says, because early social groups can help predict lifelong outcomes for students – and inform adults on how to engage youth in early intervention on things like drug use and smoking.

‘Adolescent peer crowds play an important role in determining short-term and long-term life trajectories on social, educational and psychological fronts,’ Gordon said. ‘Understanding how adolescents navigate their environments and perceive themselves and others can help us advance research in many areas.’

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