I’m writing a young adult novel at present and have been devouring YA literature to gain some perspective about this age group. I think part of my mentality is permanently caught in my high school experience, which is why I thought I could undertake such a project. However, when my 10th reunion rolled around, I realized how disconnected I really am from the life teens today lead.
So, when I saw that WE TV was debuting High School Confidential, a documentary-style reality program that follows the lives of a handful of girls throughout their four years in high school (2002-2006), I thought the show would be a good source for research. To a certain extent, it was.
What initially drew me to this program was its novelty. Camera crews followed these girls for four years, spoke with parents and friends, to give a rounded view of what these teens face day-to-day. Take Cate’s story (seventh episode). She’s living in the ultimate blended family, with a twin she couldn’t be more different from and two stepsisters who are more friends than anything else. Just as she is starting to adjust to her father’s remarriage only a few months after the death of her mother, Cate is in the center of a rapidly deteriorating home life that eventually leads to divorce. To cope, she turns to cutting herself and anorexia. The series follows the whole story from beginning to end, how she got through it, what she learned and how it changed her.
But like most reality shows, the editing process shapes experience into stories. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I thought that setting up each girl’s story to fall into one category or another detracted from the overall mission of the series.
For example, Lauren G. was the first girl to be profiled. She was young, beautiful, and popular. Then she found out she had a brain tumor and it seemed that that defined her whole story. The same with Sara N., who is Persian and expected to marry a man of her own ethnicity, but instead marries (at 18, no less) her high school boyfriend who is Italian. The backstory shows how her perspective on this topic changes from freshman to senior years, but not much else.
So the question I find myself asking at the end of the series is, does this accurately portray the experience of the teenage girl? While most episodes were interesting in that you were drawn into different aspects of the lives these girls led, some fell flat, as there was not much going on in the featured girl’s life other than the normal trying to get into college. I think these examples led me to believe that there is a mixture of reality and edited storytelling going on here, which is the best you can expect, even with a documentary.
The themes throughout these girls’ experiences are universal: health crises, drinking, drugs, depression, eating disorders, not fitting in, race/ethnicity issues, religion, family crises, death, joy, achievement. I think the series was great in that it portrayed a variety of perspectives that outsiders can view the teenage experience, giving those who may generalize teens in negative terms a different look at the lives they lead.
In all, High School Confidential was an interesting series that I think was very important in the scope of docureality TV. It was as close as you could get to being real on television. If you missed any of the episodes, you can download them through iTunes. Check out the show's official site for more info.