I thought that it was more or less universally known that no high school cafeteria was like the typical one shown on TV (separate tables for jocks, cheerleaders, mathaletes, etc.) until I went to a summer camp in Ireland the summer before 9th grade. My American, public high school friends and I had always joked about the absurdity of the cafeteria trope in relation to our real-life experiences. It was understood that, though television is mimetic, no high school is actually like the ones shown on TV. In Ireland, though, one of the first questions my new camp friends asked me was what category of lunch table I sat at, and if the lunch situation in America was really like how it’s portrayed on American TV shows. I responded to the questions by saying that I usually just sat with my friends–a range of athletes, artists, and obsessive study-ers–and that that was how most kids approached the lunch table, i.e. by camaraderie, which was often more a product of friendships between families, rather than by a boxed-in high school hobby. Now, having watched British teen shows (Skins) as well as American ones (Gossip Girl, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Facts of Life), it’s easy to see where this cultural confusion may have come from. Irish state schools resemble American private schools more than they do American public schools, and the way that lunch is depicted in the American public and private school settings is vastly different.
Cultural expectations dictate that public schools will deal with a larger cast. Because there are, necessarily, more students in a public school than an exclusive, admissions-based private school, the TV writers of a teen show set in a public school must organize large numbers of kids. The easiest way to do this is, of course, through stereotyping. Each student is organized by hobby–football, soccer, painting, baking, singing–and the organization is depicted through cafeteria scenes. Where the student sits is meant to provide insight into who they are as a person without the television writers needing to provide the viewer with a lengthy back-story for each character.
An example of how organizing students by hobby plays out in the cafeteria comes in Episode 7 of Freaks & Geeks. Throughout “Carded and Discarded,” three “geeks” try to make the new girl from Florida part of their clique. The new girl is attractive and looks like she could be potentially popular, so the gang comes up with a plan to keep her at their relatively unpopular lunch table, a tactic that is explained in 6:18-6:53 of this clip:
They decide that they must be with her at all times and not allow her to talk to other types of students (namely, Vicky, a cheerleader). Of course, since in TV high school everyone must sit with their own “kind,” the geek table loses the new girl to the cheerleader table in 5:20-7:30 of the same episode:
The geeks know that losing the new girl to the cheerleader table once (a table that is way more prestigious in the high school hierarchy) means that she is gone forever, as evidenced by the geek’s good bye speech. But, in exchange for a cheerleader-to-be, another geek comes to sit at the geek table, replacing the new girl. Cafeteria organization is, thus, restored.
Private schools, which are (by standard TV format, at least) more exclusive, have fewer students. They also have fewer rules; the privileged students, in TV land, have more privileges. This allows TV writers greater flexibility in organizing groups of characters. Yet group organization still tends to take place during lunch.
Private schoolers like fancy foods, traveling, drinking, and VIP parties; it’s rare to see a TV character from an elite private school who wants to be a professional singer or athlete, for example. As such, television writers on these shows generally don’t revert to dividing students into lunch groups that reflect standard public school extracurriculars. Lunch scenes in private schools, therefore, don’t have to take place in a grid-like, divided cafeteria. The popular girls on the CW show Gossip Girl, for example, don’t even deign to sit in a high school cafeteria. The television audience, therefore, does not have to see them in relation to other students, so the story arcs can be more streamlined. The relationships between single characters often get more airtime than scenes that show group dynamics. Still, there are social roles and group rules. The “Queens” of the Upper East Side schools, for instance, eat lunch on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While it’s rare that other students (with the exception of those in the core cast) sit alongside Constance Billard’s Queen and her subjects on the steps, it is understood that–if they do–they will sit below the Queen. This is demonstrated in the following clip:
Here, Serena and Blair (the blonde and brunette) are the Queens of the school. They, therefore, sit highest on the Met steps. Dan, Serena’s boyfriend (who was a nobody nicknamed “Lonely Boy” before Serena decided to date him), is seemingly innately clued into this hierarchy, and seamlessly takes a seat below the two girls on the steps. When the three students take their rightful seats on the stairs, the camera emphasizes their placement through the use of angles. The point of view oscillates between looking down on Dan and up to Serena and Blair, just as the viewer is supposed to emotionally do.It is important to note here that Serena and Blair are rarely challenged as Queens of the school. They have a tight reign, and their lunch seats are safe because of it.
The next Queen of Constance, in contrast, is rags-to-riches Jenny Humphrey. Jenny had a bumpy ride to the top, and feels that she has to keep a tight grip on her fellow students in order for them to respect her and her place in the school’s hierarchy. When Eric, Jenny’s step-brother, tries to sit above Jenny and her posse on the Met stairs, for example, trouble ensues:
Here, Jenny politely asks Eric and his boyfriend to sit below her on the steps but, when the boys won’t move, Jenny unhesitatingly orders (through no verbal communication, mind you, only body language and social expectations) one of her minions to dump a yogurt parfait on Eric’s head. This single act revolutionizes Jenny and Eric’s relationship. Once friends, the two remain in a constant battle the entire season largely catalyst by that lunch-hierarchy snafu. As the clip shows, it’s not that Jenny doesn’t want to still be friends with Eric–she just only wants to be friends with Eric outside of school, when she can step out of her Queen role. Eric, understandably, does not want a relationship with Jenny if it’s not consistent. And consistent would include Eric being able to sit at lunch with (or even above) Jenny.
In conclusion, the high school cafeteria setting is one of the most widely used tropes in the teen show genre. At lunch, students are free of their teachers and are able to socialize according to their own whims. In the cafeteria, the viewer is able to get the most rounded picture of the student as a person and, yet, because of this, many students are flat stereotypes. Shows set in public and private schools have different ways of showing social hierarchy–but the hierarchy is typically still demonstrated during high school lunch.