H.A.G.S.: High School, Yearbooks, and Your Mind on Feminist Theory

Okay, I’m just gonna start off here by stating for the record: I didn’t like high school when I was in high school. Like, at all. I was a super messy teenager who fought with her mom all the time and had crazy intense crushes and fell asleep during study hall. Yet, somehow, it’s all I think about now. In the spring of 2018, I found some senior photos I’d buried in my old email account; maybe that planted the seed. Seeing myself all scrawny and dolled up was an intense and endlessly cringy flashback.

The author at seventeen, just doing the absolute most.

I’ve been reading a lot of feminist theory and sociology, a lot of books about fractured communication and relationships between genders, a lot about what it means to be a “woman.” (Many of these resources are from the Second Wave and are therefore pretty trans-exclusionary, so here I’m referring to cis “womanhood”, although I personally respect and celebrate all gender identities.) The one I’m currently on, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher, PhD, has forced me to think much more critically about the role of high school in teenage girls’ lives.

High school is both a passive transitionary space between childhood and adulthood and a very well-orchestrated incubator for the implementation of toxic patriarchal norms. Girls are thrust into an environment in which they must learn to perform womanhood, and upon doing so, are pigeonholed into their particular flavor of it: slut, prude, ice queen, wannabe. I remember doing my makeup in the handicap-accessible bathroom before class so no one would have to know I didn’t wake up beautiful. I remember the boys at the bus stop poking at my birthmark and demanding to know whose hickey that was.

Our society treats high school like a sexual laboratory (ever seen Riverdale?), a living meet-cute. I challenge you to name one teen movie or television show set in a high school that focuses on the students actually going to class. That’s not reality; it’s just stupid adults projecting their sexual politics onto a nostalgic, “neutral” framework. But life imitates art, and those imagined high schools we grow up seeing on the page or the screen are acted out on the stage of actual high schools in America. Enter: my interest in yearbooks, which provide an authentic (if idealized) look into the high school experience.

A spread in my sketchbook about a yearbook I found at an antique store.

The yearbooks with which I have interacted (mine, those of my relatives, those of total strangers) compile a hodge-podge of images and real-life testimonials to the realities of high school, both by co-mission (“Thanks for suffering through Spanish with me!”) and omission (everybody mentions parties but nobody talks about what goes down at them). They also create a snapshot of someone through the eyes of others. The first yearbook I bought at an antique store was full of signatures from girls who exclusively used glitter gel pens and hearted every i, so it was easy to assume that this Justin guy was quite the babe magnet.

Oddly enough, I was never actually interested in Justin himself; I found the girls with which he surrounded himself far more complex and substantiative as subjects. That might explain the hesitance I expressed when offered the idea of a research or fiction project regarding the yearbook’s owner. Plus, cornering a now-police officer with “Hey I found your yearbook from 2002 and it looks like you had some really questionable friendships with underage girls” sounds amazing and cathartic, but it doesn’t sound like a job I’d want to take on.

So where does this leave me? It’s tough to say. I have so much emotional investment in the topic of adolescent womanhood (believe it or not, I was one of those!) and how it intersects with our cultural narrative surrounding high school. But god, that’s such an expansive topic! My first step is buying more yearbooks. I’ve already bought five this week, and plan to invest in more in the near future. I’m not sure if these yearbooks with be the centerpiece of my Capstone project, or just one piece of research in a broader discussion of female identity in high school culture.

What a long, strange trip this is going to be…

5 thoughts to “H.A.G.S.: High School, Yearbooks, and Your Mind on Feminist Theory”

  1. For one thing, this title made me laugh. For another, I love this idea of exploring female identity in high school!! I coach a group of high school girls who are in the color guard and I was just talking to my coworker about the crazy things that high schoolers think are important. Granted, it wasn’t too long ago that I was in high school and placing such emphasis on what my hair looked like (clearly not a priority for me anymore), balancing getting good grades and being “popular,” knowing who was dating who, and deciding whose house my friends and I would go to that weekend. In that aspect, life is so much easier now! If you need a good case study, I’m happy to ask my kids your questions! Meanwhile, I’m anxious to see what information your yearbooks bring you. This idea is so unique!

  2. YES!! Honestly, being a female in high school is so complex and with social media, even worse now. I really like your connection with the yearbooks and I think maybe something you can use is the yearbook notes written by girls? For me, these notes point out potentially meaningful relationships and things that people want to remember so that can definitely help you identify some relationships and values. Maybe through this exploration you will be able to create a springboard for yourself to dive deeper into specific dimensions of the female identity as you will have some more specific focus areas. This is just an idea to tie the two together and I support whatever you decide is best to do! If you want to talk more about it do not hesitate to reach out 🙂

  3. First of all, my senior pictures have a remarkably similar vibe (my mom insists on keeping a few hung up in our living room right next to my younger sister’s pictures, which are lovely and timeless, so that’s fun).

    Props to you for delving back into all those overwhelming high school narratives. I did it once for a creative nonfiction piece last year, and it’ll be a while before I try that again. We all know how awful it was, why are we still romanticizing it? But yeah, what a huge topic that is. In your yearbook search, maybe keep an eye out for someone who could represent your ideas surrounding adolescent womanhood and think about doing a case study that incorporates all of these things you’re interested in. That person might even turn out to be less scary than this Justin character.

    Best of luck.

  4. You should read some stuff from Luce Irigaray! Specifically (and this is the only thing I’ve read from her) “Speculum of the Other Woman.” She’s a feminist theorist from the mid-seventies, who fights Freud a lot. I don’t know if you’d like her or not, but if you’re looking for some more feminist theory to support this project, try checkin her out!

  5. Brooks,

    I think that no matter what you end up doing with the yearbooks (using them in your actual project or just as research), your project is going to be so unique/nothing like anything done before in the MIW Capstone. I absolutely love the idea of the focus being on the yearbooks, but I think that you could do a lot more with just focusing on female identity in high school culture. You could even take it into the community and see how other people felt about their female identity in high school. I’m excited to see where you take this.

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