Teenaged Freaks & Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Hopefully That Includes Homogays

If you’re interested in the highly specific genre of sort-of investigatory nonfiction around controversial topics in education, you may have already read some of Alexandra Robbins’ work. Her previous books, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, have clearly struck a chord with a diverse population of readers. But her new book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, promises to speak to a very specific demographic: the freaks, geeks, outsiders, nerds, Glee club members, and other ‘losers’ of high school. The premise is simple: being popular in high school isn’t as great as it’s made out to be, and the same traits that make you uncool in high school can turn out to work for you later in life.

Robbins followed six students in six different schools identified as outsiders – “a loner, a gamer, a band geek, a new girl who was also foreign, a nerd, a weird girl” – and one popular girl, and determined that while the quality of life for these high schoolers was largely defined by the labels they were assigned (you may remember John Hughes making this point circa 1985), those labels dissipated after high school, and the individual characteristics of the outsider students could allow them to excel and succeed now that they weren’t hindered by an overt requirement to conform.

“Nonconformity is a wonderful trait, and it’s going to be valued in adulthood. If you’re different in school, that makes you an outsider. If you’re different as an adult, that makes you interesting, fun and often successful.”

If this sounds like a story you’ve heard before, it may be because there’s a good chance that this was something you did or still do identify with – as Robbins observes, there are many fewer popular kids than unpopular ones. It also sounds a lot like a well-known viral video campaign – Robbins even acknowledges the similarity of her conclusions and Dan Savage’s in the It Gets Better Project. “The book does say that it gets better, but for all outsiders, including and not limited to LGBT kids. It gets better because school is part of the reason there is a social hierarchy in the first place.”

Is it really such a neat comparison, though? Although the message of the It Gets Better Project can’t be encapsulated neatly – its entire purpose is to be hundreds of individual messages, to and from individual people – it doesn’t seem to promise that the things about you that invite the worst treatment from others in high school will suddenly bring you approval and success. It does seem to agree with Robbins in that “in high school, popularity is more important than anywhere else,” but it doesn’t imply that popularity or social acceptance will seek to be important in ‘the real world’ – more that it will be hopefully be easier to attain, and every day less likely to be a constant struggle.

In reality, most out gay people still do find themselves navigating a clearly defined social hierarchy out in the real world – one less concrete than in high school, where the whole world could come down to a letter jacket or designer jeans – but a real one nonetheless. And one where we all find ourselves quite a few rungs lower than we would be if we had simply been born straight. Many of us identified as outsiders in high school – possibly because we were more than a little freaky and geeky aside from being queer – but are we guaranteed the brighter future that Robbins talks about in her newest book? Or do queer people, even adult ones, feel that pressure to conform at a real-world lunch table as well?

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1077 articles for us.

52 Comments

  1. John Hughes failed miserably at making his point with “The Breakfast Club”. In the end, the way that the one character who was truly quirky (Ally Sheedy’s) ended up “getting the guy” by changing every cool thing about herself, like restyling her lesbysexy hair.
    Fuck the patriarchy, etc

  2. “Or do queer people, even adult ones, feel that pressure to conform at a real-world lunch table as well?”

    At my last job there actually were different lunch tables, or at least groups of co-workers who regularly sat or ate together. One was the all-boys-club and another was these three kinda b*tchy white ladies and then there was the group with the gay guys and the Asian and black co-workers. It was bizarrely Mean Girls-ish.

      • In middle school I would sit and sneakily eat lunch in the library or the orchestra room (I was an orchestra dork all through middle and high school, and it was the class right after lunch) when there was nowhere for me to sit in the lunchroom, which was often. The only table I had were a bunch of fake friends (friend-beards as I now call them) who I only stuck around with so I wouldn’t be a complete loner, and they were really mean and some days I just couldn’t put up with their shit.

  3. I actually went to a really nerdy high school, as it was an all-IB diploma school. That wasn’t to say it didn’t have its own form of popularity, though. I was still weird as hell there, with very few friends, and I still remember asking myself constantly what the hell was wrong with me if I couldn’t even fit in at a NERD school. But looking back on the types of things they prized there, I am now incredibly glad I never fit in there.

    Anyway, I have my own theories as to why the outcasts tend to succeed more than the popular kids. What I saw both at my school and others is that the people who really enjoyed high school were really loathe to leave it behind. I knew plenty of people who got into great colleges or other opportunities who turned it down to stay in the area with their friends or boyfriend/girlfriend and basically continue the life they had had for the next four years. Which, you know, is fulfilling when you’re 17-18 but not necessarily 5, 10 years down the road – but by then, you might be stuck.

    Meanwhile, people like me who had a lousy time in high school were anxious to get the hell out of there. I only applied to one in-state school because I was so desperate to get as far away from my hometown as possible.

    • My other theory is that people who aren’t so consumed with the social side of high school have more energy to put into other things – grades, other passions outside of classes, whatever. What does everyone else think about this?

      • Cool! I kind of regret it, though. I wish I had just taken AP classes at the local high school so I would have had more time for my musical activities. But I got into a good music school anyway, why am I complaining?

        • Although I hated my Grade 12 year so much, I’m so glad I went into IB. I received a great education; university was easy and achievable; and I’m still best friends with my group of Beakers from high school =)

          • Yeah, see, my school didn’t do it right, and I really wasn’t any better off education-wise (and definitely not credit-wise) than I would have been with APs. Oh well!

      • good luck! 🙂

        on one of my IB biology papers (i can’t remember which one) i somehow missed the bold and italic print that said answer TWO questions from section 2…didn’t realize it until i had already handed in the test and was halfway down the hallway. thank goodness my IB grades didn’t determine whether or not i got into college!

        • Thank you!
          ..but now I’m seriously freaking out. Grades are the only thing getting you into the courses you want here. My predicted is 42, but there is no fucking way I’ll get that.
          I’m now drifting into nightmare inducing sleep.

          • Oh wow, good luck! The top of our class my year got 42 =) Plus a bajillion scholarships, etc etc. I think I ended up with a 39 overall which was awesome!

          • your teachers wouldn’t predict you higher than they think you’re capable of. take deep breaths and eat a balanced breakfast (protein!) before your exams and i’m sure you’ll do great! 🙂

          • Good luck!

            Just don’t fall asleep in the middle of paper 1 of history exam like I did… that’s how I turned a guaranteed 7 into a 6! Still pretty mad about that.

          • Thank you! It actually went surprisingly well! Just nine more to go (eight of them during the five day span of next week)!
            @paper0flowers I would be super happy with a 39! We just had a girl have a 45. Some people are superhumans.
            @pips I totally had a ham omelet for breakfast.
            @erda but you still managed a 6 (sidenote: how is that even possible? It’s one hour.)!

          • Yeah, there was a girl the year before with a 45. She sold all her labs and papers to the grades younger than us lol

            Man, this brings back so many memories… From one Paper IB to the other, good luck, my friend! 😉

    • I DID IB TOO! AUTOSTRADDLE IB PARTY? OBVIOUSLY IF WE ENDED UP HERE WE’VE ALREADY FULFILLED THAT COOLNESS QUOTIENT. 🙂

      But yeah, I went to a partial-IB school in Texas and the popular non-IBers all went to really bad colleges and just didn’t fare so well after high school. The weirdos went to funky liberal arts places and are doing awesome things. I think it’s like being Stargirl – if you’re comfortable with your weirdness and brave enough to indulge in it in an environment like high school, it breeds a certain “can do” attitude in college that really fares quite well for you.

      Oh and….the IB diploma. They actually say things like “excellent” if you scored well and “mediocre” if you didn’t…you get to take 4 years of IB for a piece of paper to snidely judge you haha

      • Yeah, I know, I loved those grade descriptions!

        Omg we should be totally IB fabulous and start asking which subjects everyone took! HL English, history and music and SL French, bio and math studies here! (I wanted to take four HLs with French as my fourth one but my school wouldn’t let me.)

          • HL English, History, Biology
            SL Spanish, Physics, Math

            At my school we didn’t have a choice, you either did regular public school stuff or did the full diploma. but I always thought full diploma was wonderful! it wasn’t especially tiring or anything like that, and the work was great.

        • I love geeking out! The IB is integrated into the public school here, so it’s all a great mix of people. We do get into high schools based on our grades form middle school, though (which we finish at 16), and the schools offer different things, so it’s a slightly more homogenous environment.
          HL: History, Norwegian A1, English AS
          SL: Math, Chemistry, Visual Arts
          (Also, I wrote a super gay extended essay: Catherine Opie and gender representation.)

  4. Although being gay might not be the thing that makes someone succeed as they grow older, being used to being different and standing up for yourself will.

    Another point, though, is that hierarchies are not usually simple and objective. They change depending on the viewpoint and the qualities the person doing the viewing values.

    • ^ yes. Also concern about placement in the hierarchy changes with how much you value being in it. I know that in high school the main hierarchy had a lot to do with brand name shit and how wealthy your parents were, but since I was completely out of that, the hierarchy I cared about climbing was the daredevil badass/philosophy geek hierarchy. Has served me much better as an adult re: extricating myself from any and all unfortunate situations, having actual thoughts, being able to live well on no money, getting into college and grad school (2x) by being interesting.

      So yeah. some people’s hierarchies are kinda bullshit in the long run and clawing up them does nothing in terms of actual intellectual growth or “character building.” Maybe that’s why popularity doesn’t predict real success? i.e. it doesn’t necessitate the development of real life skills?

  5. You know, I used to believe that when I graduated high school I would be appreciated for being an actual human and make some real actual human friends, but then I got to college and realized that the bullshit is still perpetuated throughout large institutions and I should probably do something completely ridiculously ~~~against the establishment~~~ with my life to try and avoid it
    BUT OH WAIT even among the “freaks, geeks and weirdos” there’s STILL often a hierarchy based on the group’s superficial perceptions of each other.

    But let me qualify my feelings by explaining they could very well have something to do with the three obnoxious frats I just walked by to get to work
    and the fact that even within my own “outsider” group, there’s needless pressure, arguments and judgment.
    It really makes me mad.

    I really hope (and i’m sure it’s true for some) that this is not necessarily everyone’s experience and many people do find the right situations for them once they’re out of high school. Because honestly, without that hope I would probably be wayyyy more miserable.

  6. To this: I had the exact same experience in college. Thought that by going to over the top liberal arts college I’d find like minded people.

    Well, some. but also a lot of really spoiled wealthy hypocritical ironic hipsters concerned with the environment and social justice but also with blowing coke and seeing who could out-weird each other now that they were all away from being the weirdos in their high schools….uh….contradiction.

    Anyway. I’ve found that in any situation there are usually a few people who have their merits that are totally different than mine and that instead of clawing anything I just have to take people where they’re at and enjoy them for who they are. And expect the same.

    This has worked for me and although I constantly bounce around from place to place and group of people to group of people I am always entertained.

    • Yeah, with that second bit, one of the things about my nerdy IB high school that really screwed me for college, social-wise, was that my high school, because it was so full of nerds, was very squeaky-clean and most of my friends and I were quite sheltered. I came to college as kind of a naive, judgmental prude and people didn’t like me the first year or so. As you said, I had to learn that just because people were different from me didn’t mean they didn’t have their merits. In fact, those people actually stuck with me while I lost some of my prudish high school friends as I grew and changed.

  7. I’d say popularity contests exist in every stage of life, and unfortunately charisma will always be the most “successful” trait to have. But I think it does help that after high school you’re exposed to different worlds and are able to stop caring as much about the popularity contests and be happy doing your own thing.

  8. if a person is truly an outsider, an outsider not in a group of outsiders, outside a community of outsiders, their futures probably won’t be as bright as non-conformists (knowingly or otherwise) – with a little social skill. you know?

  9. I used to think that it was just a matter of escaping to magical place [different high school/college/”real life”/summer/etc.] where people automatically liked weirdos, but now I realize that there is no pre-made place–I have to make it myself and that’s actually really fun.

    • This summarizes my internal “coming out and realizing I’m awesome” phase quite nicely. During my sophomore year, I used to think it was just my backwoods town that made me miserable, and then I realized I was a lesbian and blamed it on the fact that they were all homophobes, and then I realized that if I liked myself it didn’t matter, and that people would like me more if I acted like a badass, which was easier if I felt like one. This came only with accepting and embracing my eccentricities. Seems quite clear now, but I certainly wouldn’t have understood this concept in tenth grade.

  10. I must be nonconforming in a nonconformist way, because I’m turning 30 this year and I’m still waiting for it to get better. It’s never gotten better for me, it’s just gotten different. High School had hierarchies, college had heirarchies, grad school had hierarchies, work had heirarchies, and I was never anywhere near the top on any of them. I’ve always been too smart/nerdy/cynical/snarky/ugly or not the right kind of smart/nerdy/whatever.

    The only difference is that I’ve learned to live with it and I care less.

  11. Changing the subject a little bit– but did anyone else have a lousy middle school experience? It made my high school feel like marshmallow fluff.
    I was always an outsider until college. But middle school really hurt. I was almost constantly bullied by boys and girls alike, I had very few friends, and they actually gave me a horrible label that stayed with me until I moved away and entered high school.
    No, my high school experience was not perfect, but I can say that I was happy sometimes while I was in it. I just notice that most of these books and movies about cliques and their effects focus on high schools, when my experience was that middle school was 100 times worse because the kids thought that was how they were supposed to behave later in high school. They were practicing (some of my bullies even told me so).

    • Yep! Middle school was WAY worse for me, too. Mostly because the school I went to was this tiny private school for rich kids (I was on scholarship and my mom taught there) where half the class were cheerleaders and jocks who picked on the other half. I was in the latter group, which made things FUN. So yeah, going from there to a much larger, more diverse high school with accelerated/enriched classes and no bitchy cheerleaders was a godsend.

      Those middle school bullies were right about one thing, though: I *am* a dyke! Took me until college to even realize it, when they knew all along..

    • My high school wasn’t nearly as bad (though still bad) as my middle school experience. I got picked on for just about every stupid thing. I got picked on for things that I can’t imagine were ever seen as negative – like, the fact that I liked The Beatles and didn’t like Avril Lavigne.

      I remember that when I had my first crush on a girl at 13 and started to wonder if I might be bisexual (I had liked boys by this time, too), I considered it but knew I couldn’t admit it because liking boys was just about the only way in which I was normal. And the kids in my school were really mean to even 100% straight people who were the least bit gender-nonconforming in their hobbies or mannerisms. So I started this massive denial that didn’t abate until college.

  12. I felt like a freak all through my school years until I was 16 and moved to a performing arts high school, where everyone was a freak. It was lovely.
    Now I’m at a university full of private school types and sometimes I feel like a freak but also sometimes I don’t.
    I don’t really have a point other than that this article made me nostalgic.

  13. let me tell you, dressing funny, hating new jersey, studying/working too hard, being bookish and snooty, being really into crappy punk bands, a general distinterest in tanning beds and manicures, a serious attitude problem, and a mysterious-at-the-time lack of enthusiasm for boys made me basically the biggest loser ever in junior and high school, and then i went to college and moved to new york and what do you know! that shit all worked out really well!! and all the things people made fun of me for, like being really tall and dressing funny and reading too much — are now things that are definitely assets. i fucking LOVE going back to my hometown in new jersey and running into people, it’s basically the most gratifying thing for my self esteem ever.

    also the girls who made fun of me and called me a dyke when i cut all my hair off and then that time my bathing suit top fell off in front of the ENTIRE eighth grade yeah that was fun, now all of them are either unemployed+pregnant or also dykes now, REVENGEEEEEE

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