By Cheong Wen Xuan
I was watching a Big Mouth episode on Netflix one evening (Season 1: Episode 4, to be exact), and was left deeply troubled by the representation of the mean, pretty, popular girl, Devin, versus that of the less popular, sarcastic, smart Jessi in all her plain-Jane glory. Connie, Jessi’s Hormone Monstress, aptly crooned as Devin and her beta sidekick strutted their stuff: “Popular girls, walkin’ down the hallway, flat-iron hair, calling the fuckin’ shots”. When Jessi said, “I don’t really want to be friends with the popular girls”, Connie shot back: “Of course you do. Everybody wants to be friends with Devin. She’s the queen bee.” Right on cue, Devin tossed her sleek, long hair over her shoulder, slight smile playing on her lips, haughty in the self-awareness of her beauty and the fact that the entire school worshipped the ground she walked on.
This quintessential and much overused trope of pretty=popular seemed to me to be such a fallacy, and unsettled me so much that it drove me to create an Instagram poll asking people if they thought that, in a Singaporean context, looks really did have a direct relation to popularity amongst one’s peers, i.e. the popular people were always necessarily the best looking kids in school, or at least, their looks added a significant boost to their popularity.
The results shocked me – a whopping 90 people voted yes, while 51 people voted no; that’s 64% yes, 36% no. I never expected so many youths in Singapore to feel this way.
Sure, based on the depiction in popular media (who can possibly forget Regina George’s iconic reign as queen bee in Mean Girls), this situation is much more prevalent in Western cultures. Typically, the ‘popular’ kids are always good looking, athletic, rich, and have a huge influence over the school; a hegemony, almost. They are well-known for sure – everyone knows of them, and they’re pseudo leaders of the student body. However, they are definitely not really well-liked. If anything, they are infamous and intimidating. Typically, they’ll be contrasted with an affable, down-to-earth, not-so-good-looking, but very lovable, counterpart.
The analysis of these two dichotomised caricatures led me to the theory that there are two different types of popularity – being well-known, and being well-liked. When I say ‘popular’, I’m referring to the latter, while many people have been misled by pop culture and social media to subscribe to the fallacy that being ‘popular’ actually refers to the former.
The Oxford Dictionary defines popular as “liked or admired by many people or by a particular person or group”. Key word, LIKED or ADMIRED. Not famous, or widely-recognised, or feared, but LIKED. Being eye-catching and superficially well-known is not the same as being likable and genuinely popular.
There are two different kinds of influence, and generations of youths have been striving for the wrong one! Many people aim to become well-known by using good looks, connections and intimidation, because status is easier to attain than likeability. Of course, the beautiful are eye-catching and head-turning, but even if the entire cohort knows their name, it doesn’t mean people actually like them. Being an A-lister does not equal to a ton of friends. Compare this with someone who might be conventionally lower on the rungs of the social ladder, but has a fantastic personality, can talk to anyone, make anyone laugh and feel comfortable, and has a sizeable amount of actual, dependable good friends (rather than myriads of acquaintances). I’ll take the latter any day!
As Maya Angelou famously quoted: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did (much less how you look), but they will remember how you made them feel.”
Galinda and Elphaba, characters from the hit musical ‘Wicked’, perfectly embody this binary. Galinda is blonde, bright, beautiful, sprightly, and bubbly, and hard not to love in all her pretty pink glory. Elphaba however, is dark, brooding, literally green, moody, glum, bad-tempered, reclusive and angsty. One cannot help but wonder if it’s their looks or personalities that take the front seat when it comes to their popularity (or lack of). The famous song from the musical, ‘Popular’, aptly touches on so many complex aspects of popularity – it’s not simply about “What shoes to wear / How to fix your hair”, but it’s about a “personality dialysis”. According to Galinda, “It’s not about aptitude / It’s the way you’re viewed”, and she thus encouraged Elphaba to shift away from “dreary who you were”, and from being a “depressing creature”.
Of course, there’s no denying that maybe, in an insidious way, looks actually provide a subtle, unassuming privilege to nurture the confidence required to bring out the best in your personality. It could be that, knowing since your formative years that you’re good looking and hard to ignore, you always had the sureness to be outgoing, to dare to speak out, to put yourself out there. Over the years, this would naturally develop into a personality that is so confident, self-assured, and magnetic that people cannot help but to be drawn to it.
The fact that we live in the age of social media doesn’t do much to help people’s fixation on the wrong kind of popularity. People become obsessed with collecting and obtaining numbers – the number of likes, followers, views, comments. However, someone with 30 followers might have all 30 of them as ride-or-die BFFs, while someone with 10k followers might have no one on earth to turn to in times of need. Who then, is popular?
Too many people criticise the system and sink into a hole of self-pitying, self-loathing, and self-despair. They blame the system, genetics, their parents, and cruel, cruel fate.
“It’s because I’m not blessed with good looks, that’s why I’m not popular.”
“Because I don’t have the money to wear the right clothes, that’s why I’ve no friends.”
While it’s easy to heap all the blame on factors that one has no control over, it might be pertinent to pause and re-evaluate one’s own personality. I’m sure all of us know people who haven’t been blessed with great looks, but who light up every room they walk into, are invited to every event, and are the life of the party; as well as some drop-dead gorgeous humans who don’t have many friends, aren’t very well-liked, and are generally avoided by their fearful peers (think Sharpay, Regina George).
Your attitude, the way you treat others, and the way you make people feel are all things you have control over, unlike your physical attributes. And lucky for us (and contrary to popular belief!), it’s actually one’s personality, not looks, that draws people in to truly like you, and makes you – wait for it… popular.