Although this is an article about, as the title says, rites of passage in fiction – I’m going to have to start by talking about American TV shows and movies for a while. There’s a good reason for this, which I hope will become apparent later.
The night before I wrote this article, I was watching an episode of an American TV show called “Supernatural“. Since I seem to be watching this show at an incredibly fast rate (whenever I find reasonably-priced second-hand DVDs of it), I’m already a little over halfway through season four at the time of writing. Anyway, in episode twelve, the two main characters return to their old high school in order to investigate a series of mysterious ghostly events.
Although I noticed the “Heathers” reference at the beginning of the episode about ten minutes before one of the main characters mentioned it, the episode made me wonder “Why are there so many American movies and TV shows set in high schools?”
Seriously, as a setting in dramas, comedies, horror movies etc… high schools turn up a lot in the American media. As well as “Heathers”, other classic comedic examples include movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club”. Then there are horror movies like “The Faculty”, “Ginger Snaps”, “Scream” etc… It isn’t a super-common setting for films (when compared to the number of American films set in California or New York), but it’s certainly more common than you would expect.
I mean, you don’t really see the same kind of thing in the UK. With the obvious exception of “Harry Potter”, there are probably a few TV shows and movies set in secondary schools – but they’re mostly aimed at people who are still legally compelled to attend these dystopian microcosms (which teach you words like “dystopian” and “microcosm”).
And, let’s face it, back when you actually had to attend one of these drab part-time prisons, the last thing you wanted to do was watch TV shows about it when you got home.
At first, I thought that this was because our secondary schools were just too boring to be interesting fictional settings.
Unlike the slightly anarchic, rebellious, resolutely secular and free-thinking world of American high school movies, our secondary schools are like little versions of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – even down to the dreary uniforms and the mandatory assemblies (but we didn’t even get to shout at pictures of Emmanuel Goldstein for two minutes during assembly).
As you can probably guess, I wasn’t really a massive fan of secondary school when I was a teenager. Sixth form was awesome though.
Then I wondered if the prevalence of American high school movies was because most American movies and TV shows are made by writers and directors who were trying to vicariously re-live their lost youth. I wondered if the tradition of American high school movies was some kind of bizarre collective act of nostalgia.
And then I found the answer. American high school movies are very ritualistic things – they have a very defined set of traditions, they have very defined groups of people (jocks, nerds, preps, stoners etc… ) and all of the high schools in American movies look the same. I suddenly realised that American high school dramas are actually about high school as an almost ritualistic rite of passage.
They fill the role that, say, conscription or national service used to fill for British and American men in the 1950s and 60s. They’re a formalised rite of passage that everyone has to go through. And, well, this made me think about rites of passage in fiction.
This is actually a much older genre than you might think – I mean, the Germans even coined a word for it (“Bildungsroman“, if anyone was curious) back in the 19th century. Even then, that word was also used to describe stories from the 18th century.
So, why is this genre so appealing? Well, first of all, it’s kind of a timeless and universal thing – since everyone goes through at least one rite of passage of some kind throughout their life. Whether it’s five years at a British secondary school, some kind of conscription (and yes, some European countries still have this), an apprenticeship of some kind etc…
But, on the other hand, rites of passage stories are often very specific and very personal things. I mean, everyone has different rites of passage depending on both who they are and where they are.
For example, straight and/or non-transgender people don’t have the daunting rite of passage of “coming out” that many LGBT people do. They don’t have the soul-eroding rite of passage of being “in the closet“. And they don’t have any of the many other rites of passage that you may experience if you’re LGBT, depending on which letters of the acronym happen to represent you.
So, if rites of passage are very specific things, then why does the genre have such a widespread appeal? Surely everyone would only be interested in stories that are about rites of passage that are similar to their own. Well, no.
One of the great things about reading stories about rites of passage is that they let us play with our own history, they allow us to think “What if everything was different? What if, in some parallel universe, I grew up as a different person in a different place and in a different time?”
In short, rites of passage stories make us wonder why we happened to be this particular person, in this particular place and in this particular time of history. In this way, they are a much more spiritual and philosophical genre than many people might think.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂