Tuesday, October 06, 2009

17 Again

Γ: "I've got my video!"

Φ: "Good, we can leave."

Γ: "What movie did you get?"

Φ: "17 Again. [Mimics tweener groupie] It's got Zac Efron!"

Γ [the HSM fangirl]: "Whatever!"

So Mrs. Φ and I watched the movie by ourselves. We were delighted. The movie was masterfully executed. Notwithstanding that I will soon use the its implausible as an occasion for scathing social commentary, I can't remember having seen a movie that we both enjoyed so thoroughly. It is probably more suitable for children older than nine, but I will align myself with Whiskey's opinion that the movie has a positive message for young women.

That said . . . onto the scathing:

A couple of minor points:

  • Mrs. Φ insisted that the daughter (Michele Tractenberg as Maggie) would not really have idly allowed anyone, including her obnoxious basketball-captain boyfriend (Hunter Parrish as Stan) to torment her little brother (Sterling Knight as Alex). And no doubt, Mrs. Φ would not have. But Maggie, who by the standards of Hollywood's version of high school is not especially attractive, relies for her status on Stan's romantic attention. Sticking up for her brother would be costly. But in any case, the movie deals with this problem by not dealing with it. Maggie and Alex have no interaction in the movie, which is kind of weird now that I think about it.

  • It's hard to believe that the dad (who has morphed from Matthew Perry playing Mike O'Donnell into Zac Efron playing Mark Gold, the alleged son of his nerdy cousin Ned) is unaware of his son's exceptional promise in basketball. Since Alex is not on the team, he could only have learned from his father. But it's also hard to believe that after only a few weeks of coaching from Mark, Alex could rise to the top of the second string.

But these are minor points. Now for the true scathing:

  • Wouldn't it be nice if high school bullies were all athletic team captains? But in reality, the skinny, self-effacing Alex would be picked on by the fat kid only a rung or two away on the ladder. People do that stuff only to their closest competitors; they don't reach from one end of the status hierarchy to the other. That's not to say that team captains are nice (or "nice") people, but they don't have the time to undertake a project like duct-taping a nobody to a toilet seat. But then, we the audience wouldn't have had the same thrill of seeing Mark socially eviscerate his son's tormentor if Stan was already a pathetic social loser. (But it was honest of the movie to give Stan the consolation prize of giving Mark a beating.)

  • While the moral message to young women of not letting their boyfriends pressure them into sex was a good one, by the time that the young woman is seriously making plans to shack up with her boyfriend, you can be pretty sure that that ship has already sailed. It was implausible in the extreme that Maggie would have escaped (or rather, been tossed from) her relationship with Stan with her virginity intact.

  • While it was fun watching cousin Ned ignite romantic sparks with the high school principal (Melora Hardin (of The Office) playing Jane) based on their mutual fluency in Elvish, in reality, nerd girls are still girls, and want the same qualities in a man as cheerleaders, i.e. not nerdiness. Anyway, that was my experience.

  • Mark lectures the promiscuous cheerleaders on their need to "respect themselves". The ineffectiveness of this line of argument is portrayed for comic effect, much in the way that Tucker Max happily posts videos of the feminists who show up to protest his movie. Mark achieves somewhat more resonance with this audience when he describes the joy he felt holding his infant daughter. I don't know if that would work in real life, but the irony is hard to miss.

Cousin Ned, the former high school geek, has, sans romance, amassed tremendous wealth as a software developer, which wealth he uses to decorate his house with a vast collection of Star Wars and LOTR memorabilia. This is obviously exaggerated for dramatic purposes, but in the popular (grown-up) imagination, high school geeks outperform jocks once the artificially created status hierarchy of high school passes away. I'm partial to this narrative myself, for obvious reasons, but is it, you know, actually true in the aggregate? Obviously, professional athletes do alright, but even at the level at which high school athletes compete for college scholarships, participation in sports would seem to require significant discipline, teamwork, and leadership ability. Are those character traits fungible? Do they serve jocks in post-high-school life as well as, say, the ability to take AP calculus serves the geeks?

But perhaps high school athletic participation is governed less by these traits than by the genetic luck of developing early. Some children get strong earlier than others. In my case, I didn't "fill out" my upper body until my early twenties. Perhaps high school athletes are simply kids that got that kind of strength in their early teens, and that such physical discipline as they exhibit is simply the ordinary capitalization on their comparative advantage? A corollary to this, hardly original with me, is that these "early developers" learn the habits of social dominanance for this reason, and maintain this skill even after their peers catch up physically. Is social dominance fungible?

Somebody should try to study this question. To the extent that my 20-plus-year bitch against high school status hierarchies is more than just sour grapes, it is based on my belief in its artificiality. Excelling at sports wins you the attention of females in high school, but doesn't translate into anything except the management track at Home Depot. (Come to think of it, a whole list of outright maladaptive behavior seems to win the attention of females.) Meanwhile, excelling at academics wins you the indifference of females in high school but translates into an engineering degree and a shot at an upper-middle-class life. Doesn't this incongruity qualify as some kind of market failure?

UPDATED: here we are:

students who participate in sports during high school do spend more time doing homework and less time watching TV, are less likely to drop out of high school, are more likely to attend college, and earn 3 to 11 percent more as an adult.

So the athletic virtues are fungible to some extent. But my question is slightly different: I want to compare the top X% of students on measures of athleticism to the top X% of students to measures of academicism. (Is that really a word?) Evidently, we can expect some overlap between these groups.


Kirt33 said...

in the popular (grown-up) imagination, high school geeks outperform jocks once the artificially created status hierarchy of high school passes away. I'm partial to this narrative myself, for obvious reasons, but is it, you know, actually true in the aggregate?

Very good question. I'm partial to it, too, for the same reason as you. Here's what Dr. Helen had on it a while ago:

"How can we live in a world where the losers in high school are, well, losers for life?"

So asks Cliff Mason at CNBC after reflecting on a new study written about by Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, which says that popular kids make more money in life:

I emphatically agree with the title of that post - how can we live in that world? But, I'm not convinced it's true anyway - certainly not from that one study. There are too many variables and the definitions of terms ('success'; who was a 'geek'; who was 'popular'; etc.) seem highly contrived.

I think part of the problem with investigating this question is that people are people; they're complex, not labels. If you're a nerd, then 'nerd' isn't the sum of your personality; likewise for jocks, et al. Therefore, to say that 'nerds tend to end up with this lifestyle', and 'jocks tend to end up with this lifestyle' is just, well - human lives aren't that one-dimensional.

Without extensive research into the question, what I'm willing to hypothesize is: in the aggregate, ex-nerds and ex-popular kids end up making approximately the same amount of money, but the ex-nerds enjoy their jobs and family lives slightly more.

Φ said...

For many of the kids that were in the top social tier in high school, the rest of their lives is inevitably going to be a big let-down, regardless of absolute measures of well-being.

"Popular" and "nerd" are elusive concepts. But we can use more objectively defined criteria like "varsity letter-winner" vs "national honor society". Or "athletic scholarship awardee" vs "National Merit Scholarship finalist". Whatever comparison yields approximately equal sample sizes. We could then compare economic outcomes, say, ten years later.

Kirt33 said...

For many of the kids that were in the top social tier in high school, the rest of their lives is inevitably going to be a big let-down, regardless of absolute measures of well-being.

I'll say. I remember one time in high school, a recruiter for something-or-other came by the school recruiting (naturally enough). As a final piece of personal, worldly wisdom after the presentation, he told us something like, 'Now you kids make sure you enjoy these high school years - they're the best years of your life, whether you know it or not.'

Now, I've said it before, and I'll say it again, and I don't think the special emphasis is unwarranted: If high school was the best time of your life, you've got one bloody helluva &*@&!@y life, mate.

It's not just that popular kids' lives have to get less exciting. It's that if you're a smart, ambitious geek, you can quite plausibly get yourself a career and a lifestyle that is really fairly exciting, or at least routinely interesting. (Another reason, by the bye, that I think it's misguided to focus on money as the sole criterion for 'success' later in life. I'd be much happier pursuing interesting scientific research at a mediocre academic's salary than schmoozing with Wall Street bankers, or what have you.)

But we can use more objectively defined criteria... We could then compare economic outcomes, say, ten years later.

Well, yeah, and it would be interesting. I've been pondering the question since I initially posted. I still can't help thinking that fewer ex-geeks end up in dead-end jobs than do ex-popular kids. And, I mean, we all know about anecdotes... but seriously, my friends who were reasonably popular and athletic in high school have mostly become fat and boring, and while they've got jobs, they're pretty middling jobs. My ex- (or current!) geek friends are pursuing interesting degrees or are otherwise employed in, well, in jobs that they like, dangit.

Which leads me to the final point that occurs to me before I have to get to school reading: I wouldn't use criteria like "athletic scholarship awardee" vs "National Merit Scholarship finalist", because in those cases you're comparing the very top percentile of kids, and I can believe that both of those could reasonably go on to achieve highly. When I contemplate the issue, I think I'm imagining us talking about more like the kids who were in the top 20th percentile of popularity vs. those in the top 20th percentile of geekiness. Maybe that isn't what you're envisioning.

Trumwill said...

Your update addresses what I was going to say, which is that a lot of discussions regarding jocks and nerds relies on the false assumption that the jocks are dumb and the nerds are social rejects. Further, there is the false assumption that intelligence inversely correlates with popularity. That may be true once you pass a certain IQ threshold, but I would expect an overall positive correlation.

Except for the jocks that are so immensely talented that there is no end to the excuses that will be made for them or they go to school where little is expected of any of the kids, the bad kids and the bullies and the flunkers get flushed out. In my junior high (junior high!) there was a kid that was something like 6'6" or 6'8" with a killer 3-point shot and even he was cut loose somewhere in high school.

Regarding the fungibility, I think that it is there. My adopted brother Ollie was a gifted athlete (one that fits your criteria of being an early developer to a tea) and a popular jock. He burned out academically in college, but he's had inexplicable career success in the field that I went to college to study (and that he didn't) and has a hot wife despite being short (well, average height, but short for a Truman), balding, and pudgy. And he's actually something of a natural introvert (a thought that never occurred to us when he always had dates and friends). But he's easy to get along with and he was popular enough in school that he has the expectation of being liked. I think that can take one a long way.

Trumwill said...

in reality, nerd girls are still girls, and want the same qualities in a man as cheerleaders, i.e. not nerdiness. Anyway, that was my experience.

Not mine. At least not past high school. It may be possible that all other things being equal they would prefer someone conventionally popular and attractive, but as soon as they have to start making concessions (as we all do) they tend to go with nerds and geeks because they can get a better quality nerd or geek than they can get in a normal. The example that always pops to mind is the chubby or not-particularly-attractive anime chick who nonetheless manages to snag a trim and less socially retarded anime dude.

Girls that are fixated on cheerleader-selection status tend not to become interested in geeky things in the first place. Those that do become interested in broadly low-status things tend to be more tolerant (sometimes by virtue of necessity, sometimes not) of unconventional status markers.

One thing I'm surprised that you didn't mention was that girls like that rarely date guys like the jock in that movie. Or perhaps it's that jocks like that rarely marry girls with black nail polish and raccoon makeup. Girls like her are much more likely to pursue a pretentious musician or somesuch. Guys like that don't have to dip down the conventional totem pole to girls like her.

Trumwill said...

I should add that I have not actually watched the movie in question. Not in the conventional way, at least. It was playing on an airplane trip I took recently. I never listened to it cause I was too cheap to buy the headset, but ended up watching a lot of it. So there could be plot points that I'm missing.

ironrailsironweights said...

in reality, nerd girls are still girls, and want the same qualities in a man as cheerleaders, i.e. not nerdiness

As can be seen with respect to Renaissance Faires. Betas often flock to renfairs because these events attract many women, albeit women who often are on the chunky side. What the Betas don't realize is that the women who attend renfairs aren't much interested in dating the sort of undesirable men (i.e. Betas) who attend renfairs.


Φ said...

I'm reading a study that classifies students into three categories: "jocks", "nerds", and "burnouts". This last category includes those students that are neither athletic nor studious, so they create their own social groups independent of the officially sanctioned ones. "Anime", whatever its merits, may fall in this category unless it is conspicuously adopted by members of the other two.

Perhaps we are using "nerd" to mean different things? By nerd, I mean primarily "academically competitive", not necessarily "socially maladroit", although as I have said I suspect that there is substantial overlap in these categories among male students, perhaps less so among female students.

I guess I should say that even academically competitive girls do not themselves put any particular value on the academic accomplishments of guys. They may admire those accomplishments, but they would much rather date athletes given the opportunity. (I should say, in fairness, that the same is at least as true for guys: however much we may admire a woman's accomplishments, beauty is the single most important attribute we desire, followed by amiability. Accomplishment runs a distant third.)

And in fairness, athleticism may be confounded with social skill. The theory (yours, I think, or maybe bobvis') is that physical dominance puts students in a positive feedback loop wherein they enjoy some popularity, have positive social experiences as a result, develop social skills from those experiences, and become more popular, etc. This path is not as open to nerds to the same extent.

But as a sociological matter, I don't know any way of independently measuring social skill, even if I know it when I see it. And I hate the popular kids anyway.

Good call about the racoon makeup. Yeah, Maggie's relationship with Stan was over-contrived. I should do an update . . . .

Trumwill said...


I've never been to a RenFair, but if they're anything like anime conventions, I could half-see that. Females who attend anime conventions tend to come in one of two varieties: Those who like some of the cartoons and like to play dress-up and those that get fired up by the perpetual dub-sub debate. Those in the former category are going to have pretty much the same tastes as anyone else. Those in the latter categories would put some premium on common interests, though not necessarily enough to counter other factors.

A guy who goes to either under the hope that his relationship market liabilities will suddenly disappear in the ocean of geekery are likely to be disappointed. What he perceives to be his advantage (common interests) applies to all the guys there.

Trumwill said...


Yeah, I was contemplating the socially maladroits in regards to the elvish-fluency.

In regards to what you're talking about, I think it depends on the girls we're talking about.

I guess there are girls that were smart but didn't put much of any premium on smartness and there were guys that did the same, but truth be told, few of my peers wasted much time pining over cheerleaders or drill team. If anything, we were a bit contemptuous. They seemed to fall into one of a couple categories: those that were dumb and those that made good grades but still acted dumb. I would guess that those in the latter group (not limited to cheerleaders) are the ones you're thinking of.

There were exceptions, though. One girl that I had a crush on my Freshman year turned out to be a cheerleader (it probably says something about me that had I known she was a cheerleader I never would have been interested). She was smart and classy and dated this real oaf her senior year. That was frustrating to watch.

There was another case of a girl that I developed a mild interest in who was on drill team and knowing that she was on drill team didn't change that (except for preventing me from asking her out). But the guy she ended up dating was pretty smart (he and I were in a class together in college).

And a last case that I've mentioned here before. A girl that seemed to be looking at me, though it might have been a result of the desk arrangement. Anyway, we were in an advanced-track elective together, so I assume that she was smart. I didn't know the guy that she went to prom with, but boy did he just look dumb.

But walking past memory lane for a moment and getting back to your point... I certainly agree with the notion that being accomplished in and of itself gets you nowhere. To counter, though, I would say that in the world of high school being a good athlete is in itself an accomplishment. That was certainly the case at my school, but at my school there were 4,000 students and making the team meant something. When I was on the team in the 7th and 8th grade (both were walk-on), it meant precisely squat.

Φ said...

Success at organized sports, indeed, is an accomplishment. As is making the cheerleading squad, come to think of it. My point about cheerleaders was not that guys desired them by virtue of their cheerleading, except insofar as cheerleaders tend toward physical attractiveness. My point was that "smart" girls, when picking boyfriends, exhibited the same preference for athletic accomplishment over academic accomplishment that the other girls did.

Taking my own trip down memory lane, I should acknowledge first that my high school experience was probably atypical. The school was small, Christian, and "3rd culture". There were very few recognized romantic relationships among us. But that said, here are the data points: I can think of two "smart" girls who went on to marry classmates that excelled in sports (one of whom set track and field records that are probably still standing) but that (how can I put this) were not known to be especially academic. I can think of another that married a classmate who was smart but was also athletic. I can think of yet another that dated a guy in high school that was . . . well, actually, I don't know on what basis she picked him, considering that she could have picked anybody. (This girl grew up to become, and marry, a physician.)

As for the guys: the only two of my male classmates that were in relationships (with underclassmen) were both pretty smart, but also accomplished athletes. (They didn't marry these girls, and one of the girls did go on to marry a nerd. A heavy nerd that snored like chainsaw. (I know this because we shared a room at a high school reunion back when they were engaged.) I mean, damn!)

And then there was . . . me. By the standards of the school, I was something of an academic superstar, especially in math and science. But my athletic accomplishments were essentially nil. (I carved out a niche in cross-country running, by which I mean I was the only student that did it. But since we didn't have a team, there was no recognition for this.) Now, looking back, I suppose that I may have been oblivious to some bona-fide romantic opportunities, but that is only speculative. The fact is, every time I screwed up the nerve to approach a girl, I was turned away, and I graduated high school without ever having had any romantic attachments at all.

Lest this comes across as wallowing in self-pity, let me state for the record that I was happy in high school, and probably didn't have time for a girlfriend anyway. Just sayin'.

Φ said...

One more thing: I share your impression of cheerleader-types (my school didn't actually have a formal cheerleader squad), but I also have to admit that I was never going to compete in that league. So my contemptuous attitude toward them was . . . not entirely in good faith.

ironrailsironweights said...

A guy who goes to either [anime conventions or renfairs] under the hope that his relationship market liabilities will suddenly disappear in the ocean of geekery are likely to be disappointed.

Undoubtedly much more the case with respect to anime conventions than with renfairs. I've never been to one of the former, but it's my understanding that they're predominately male. Renfairs are closer to 50-50 and sometimes actually have more women than men. They also attract many families with children, a demographic that's probably uncommon at anime events.

As for school sports, even many years after graduating I'm still bitterly resentful and frustrated that I wasn't able to participate. During my high school and college years I was far too out of shape to even think of playing sports or doing anything physically active. Today I physically could participate in sports, unfortunately adult team sports opportunities are few and far between. There are a handful of adult basketball and softball leagues, but in this context "adult" really means "a few years out of high school." I'd be able to keep up physically but would be out of place socially. It seems to be the rule in our society that if you're a man over 35, your sole physical activity should be limited to a weekly round of cartball.


Φ said...

It seems to be the rule in our society that if you're a man over 35, your sole physical activity should be limited to a weekly round of cartball.

If team sports are your thing, church leagues recruit a fairly broad age range, especially in smaller churches that can't field a team otherwise.

Judging by the facebook pictures of the former high school jocks I know, yeah, it seems that most of them pretty much let themselves go after college. They were in it for the status, after all, and couldn't see much point after they got married. But more broadly, isn't staying in reasonable shape a class marker?

Trumwill said...


We obviously had different high school experiences and that's probably coloring our perspectives. For instance, the honors programs in my high school kept a certain amount of segregation between the smarter and less smart kids. That could account for some of what I have seen that you have not seem as much of.

Be that as it may, my experience in high school and beyond is thus: People tend to partner up along status lines (including appearance in with status). However, within these status clumps, like tends to attract like. So I agree, more or less, that smart and attractive girls are not going to go out of their social class to date a smart but unattractive or unpopular individual. What I think puts me on-edge about what you're saying is that it seems to minimize the importance of intelligence and accomplishment when, within a social strata, such things are actually somewhat important.

I think the Big Enemy I fight day in and day out in this corner of Blogland is resignation on the part of guys. I am so glad that this beta talk wasn't around when I was younger because I might have bought into it and I wouldn't have done what I did to make the most of my situation. Making the most of my situation didn't get me an endless supply of bedmates, but it did get me a wonderful wife and a romantic history that may not be something to brag about but at least provides fodder to write, think, and talk about.

Regarding cheerleaders, sour grapes factored in with me as well, though I think less so than lack of exposure. When you don't know any cheerleaders very well, they are to you whomever you decide they are. A number of them were dumb and they still seemed to act dumb when they weren't (cheerleaders moreso than drill team members). But my mind probably conflates "acting dumb" with "acting like popular people act". Hard to say for sure.

Trumwill said...


Even with a 50/50 split, the same rules apply. For a guy's social liabilities to cease to be a factor, the odds have to be deeply in his favor. Otherwise, it's a lot like school. Yeah, sure, you have something important in common with these young ladies, but so does every guy there. You don't gain any sort of competitive advantage for having a desirable quality that everybody else has. So people are going to gravitate towards those that have fewer social liabilities.

Similarly, having a job where you make $55,000 a year may be advantageous may help you if you're dating in circles where such salaries are uncommon. But if you live and socialize in the kind of place where that sort of salary is the norm, you have to make your impression some other way.