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logoPopularity During the High School Years of 90210

Anna Brownell

            Every teenager who has attended high school can relate to the pressures that come from the desire to be popular.  It’s normal for teens to feel the need to be in the “in crowd” and to fit in with the “beautiful people.”  Television shows help contribute to this “need” to fit in.  One such show, Beverly Hills 90210, is based on beautiful teenage characters, most of whom are wealthy and, coincidentally, popular. 

            In today’s society there is a shared cultural belief that in order to be popular high school students must be wealthy and beautiful.  The show both challenges and reinforces this cultural belief by offering characters like Kelly Taylor, who is a beautiful, California blonde who seems to lead an ideal life.  She is one of the most popular girls at West Beverly High (partly because she was able to afford a nose job).  Beautiful people such as Steve Sanders--a wealthy, snobbish womanizer--constantly surround her.  A character who challenges this belief is Andrea Zuckerman, an intelligent, middle-class student who is more concerned about her grades than her appearance.  And there are also the twins from Minnesota, Brenda and Brandon Walsh, who are not instantly popular; rather, they use their personalities (and their good looks), not their wealth, to fit in.

On the outside Kelly, Steve, and even Brandon and Brenda seem to be happy because they are popular and because they lead fairly normal lives.  But the well-seasoned viewer knows that these are just transparent beliefs.  These beautiful teens do not lead perfect lives.  The show has some cultural significance:  seemingly superficial characters have complexities that are not obvious at a first glance. 

In fact, Kelly is ashamed of how she lost her virginity and the fact that her mother is an alcoholic.  She is unexpectedly conscientious; she was concerned about her SAT scores.  Kelly also proved to be a good friend to Brenda after she threw her a surprise going away party when the Walsh family was planning to move back to Minnesota.  Kelly seems so self-absorbed on the outside but at the same time she is constantly trying to help her friends overcome obstacles. 

Steve also contributed to the going away party.  He seemed very upset that he would be losing Brandon as a friend (they had become close friends over the years).  But Steve also has a wild streak, is very naïve, and has trouble facing reality.  On the subject of cars he once said, “Aren’t you supposed to toss the car when the oil’s dirty?”  He was given a brand new car on his 16th birthday and he was unappreciative.  He was mainly disappointed because he didn’t want any more material things; instead, he just wanted love and attention from his mother.  (Steve’s mother is a famous actress who starred in a popular television show.  He resents all the attention that she receives and doesn’t share with him.)   

Brenda and Brandon, because they are not as wealthy as some of the other characters and because they are from out of town, feel very pressured to “fit in” in Beverly Hills.  On their first day of school Brenda told Brandon, “Everyone here looks like they stepped out of a music video.  I don’t even have the right hair.”  She then proceeded to die her hair a hideous shade of blonde (thanks to Kelly’s advice).  The twins changed at least 5 times before they left for school that day.  They do not drive fancy cars like Kelly and Steve do; in fact, they drive an old nondescript car.  In one episode, snobbish Kelly informs Brandon that she is a “spring princess” and she won’t be going to the dance in a “Melvin, or whatever you're calling your car these days.”  Brenda, possibly because of her good looks, starts dating the rich and handsome Dylan McKay.  Dylan helps Brenda become one of the “popular” girls.   

On the other hand, Andrea does not feel as pressured to fit in.  She discreetly rides the city bus to school everyday because technically she does not live within the school district (her family cannot afford to live in Beverly Hills).  She attends West Beverly High and focuses on her studies because she is bound and determined to be successful.  In her mind she is “not cut out to be a little fish.”  She seems much less concerned with becoming popular, but even her character has its flaws.  Andrea falls for Brandon and becomes fast friends with Brenda.  Therefore, she has entered the popular circle.  During Brandon's and Brenda’s going away party she credits the twins for her success in finding a new circle of friends.  There is one thing that Andrea has in common with the other characters; she is very attractive, which allows her to easily fit into the group.   

The entire cast of 90210 is good looking.  This sends a cultural message to viewers, mostly young teenage women, that beautiful people are more easily accepted and are most likely to be popular.  Although the show challenges the cultural belief that wealth and beauty contribute to success in high school (e.g. popularity), it more strongly reinforces that belief.  In my opinion the show is very superficial, but it does present certain positive messages to young viewers; the episodes when the group of friends support each other and help one another overcome obstacles are beneficial to viewers.  That does not change the fact that the show is unrealistic and that the characters are seemingly perfect.  Therefore, I would not recommend this show to teenage girls for anything other than entertainment value.  A young audience would be more harmed by watching the show then positively influenced.

Because young audiences are susceptible to cultural messages, whether or not they are directly affected, viewers must be informed that what is on television is not the “norm.”  Beverly Hill 90210 is not just a flowery show about beautiful, rich teens.  Popularity is only one issue that the show deals addresses.  In most episodes the characters are always trying to do the right thing:  helping Kelly deal with her mom’s drinking problem, helping Dylan with his alcohol problem, and lying to help Andrea prove that she lives within the school district.  The show promotes good morals despite the mixed messages that it offers.

In my opinion, the characters' good intentions are overshadowed by their self-absorbed lifestyles and their spoiled tendencies.  It is obvious that money plays a very large role in the show.  This factor, along with the fact that the entire cast of 90210 is beautiful, reinforces the shared cultural belief that success, via popularity, is directly related to wealth and beauty. 

Beverly Hills 90210, although it was not aired only for entertainment reasons, should be viewed only for that purpose.  Wealth and beauty are predominant factors that shape the show’s message to viewers: the message is that in order to be popular you must be wealthy and beautiful.  This show reinforces this belief by presented gorgeous characters to its audience but at the same time challenges this belief by showing a “popular” character that is not necessarily wealthy.  I have presented both sides of the argument but, ultimately, viewers must make up their own minds about what really influences popularity when watching an episode of 90210.