Children’s literature is at the vanguard of change; ‘children are the future’ and all that. For children, ‘popular’ means something different.

A NEW DEFINITION OF POPULAR

My daughter is a Sims fan. As I ambled past the PC she announced that she’d discovered how to become popular on Sims 3. Since she’s a little too young to be playing Sims without occasional parental input, I ask, “What does that mean?”

“Well, it means you get to do things like change the names of shops and you can fire people and stuff like that.”

For more on what popular means in the Sims world, it’s all on their Wiki:

Sims with the Popularity Aspiration desire flocks of friends and killer parties, so if they aren’t on the phone, practicing politics, or dancin’ the night away, they probably should be. Their Aspiration Meters will fill with every friend, fair-weather or not, and allow them to live long and famous lives.

“Hmm,” I say. “Sounds like popular people are not nice people.” (See what I did there?)

“Yeah,” she agreed.

Before walking off, I asked my nine-year-old to tell me what she thinks ‘popular’ means. She thought for a moment and gave me a great, denotative definition: “Lots of people know you.” Given the state of politics right now, and who has been elected to make big decisions, I’d say this definition is the better one.

I mean in contrast with the Google definition: ‘liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group.’ Young people know — partly through the stories we tell them, I’m sure — that ‘popular’ has nothing to do with being liked or admired.  The warm connotations of nice and good and admired have been lost, and the dictionaries are yet to catch up.

In children’s stories, the opposite message is by far more common: Popular people are horrible. Again and again, the popular kids are depicted as:

  • underhanded
  • cliquey
  • unaware of their privilege
  • shallow
  • judgemental
  • self-serving

These attributes are in line with the Mean Girls definition of popularity.

Mean Girls popular

THE FUNCTION OF POPULAR KIDS IN A CHARACTER WEB

In the character web of a high school story, the popular group are most often pitted against the geeky group. It is rare to get a story from the point of view of someone inside the popular group, though in the case of Mean Girls we do have someone coming in briefly from the outside, soon to leave. Most stories with popular cliques are commenting on them from the outside. However, we do have very popular (haha) series about cliques of popular girls, most notably the Gossip Girl series and Pretty Little Liars. Even the titles (gossip and liars) clue readers in on how we should feel about these characters. They are great for fiction however, as they are interesting.

‘Feeling like an outsider’ is so common in coming-of-age stories, it can probably be considered a universal emotion of adolescence. The existence of the popular group serves another good function, apart from one of pure opposition — the very existence of a Popular Group makes all of us feel like we will never really fit in, because of who we inherently are.

The morals of the popular group are frowned upon, which also offers opportunity to everyone else to evaluate where their own morals are.

Fictional popular kids are therefore stock characters — to be feared, yes, but also to be laughed at.

(In real life, the genuinely popular kids have completely different attributes. They are friendly, easy to get along with, co-operative and socially mature for their age.)