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Saturday, January 25, 2003

The Snob

This is yet another in the series of reviews of ephemeral films from the Prelinger archive.

Today's offering is "The Snob". This comes from the class of short guidance films, produced to instruct teenagers in the "proper" way to behave. See the previous post for a description of these films.

This specimen involves Sarah, a high school student who doesn't have many friends. As the film opens she's trying to get her algebra homework done despite the noisy teen party next door. Her mother comes in and gently tries to nag her into making friends with those nice young people. Sarah is rather snippy with Mom, and sends her away.

Meanwhile, next door, Ron's party is over, and his mother is helping him clean up. She nudges him into inviting Sarah. He doesn't want to. See, the other kids just drop in without needing an invitation, and he thinks that giving Sarah a special invitation will just encourage her to think herself better than everyone else.

This is where another instructional film should step in and point out that dropping in without an invitation would be very rude, and that as antediluvian as it may seem to Ron and his mother, some people cling to these old ways, and they really don't mean it as snobbery. Hmm, but I guess butting in like that would be rude, too.

But that's not really the problem. Ron has Sarah all figured out. See, she used to be the smartest girl in elementary school; but when they got to junior high, and then senior high, that was no longer the case. Now she feels she has to raise her status by snubbing her classmates.

That's Ron's theory, anyway. It's true that Sarah does show some jealousy toward students she thinks get by on less work than she does---"apple-polishers", she calls them. But she also seems just absorbed in her own little world.

Her father tries to get her to talk about it, and that's where all this comes out. He seems to think it's all her fault though. Try to like people, he tells her. "Friends are important in this world." And then he hits her upside the head with a parental non-sequitur: "All these people you don't like---aren't they happier than you are?" This is supposed to be the money quote, the stinger, the zinger, the line that makes her think. Feh. (In his book Mental Hygiene, Ken Smith says that this line makes you want to either "burst into tears or put your fist through a wall." I'll take wall, please.)

Anyway, Sarah's mother pushes her into attending the party that Ron's mother pushed him into inviting her to. She sits there stone-faced and silent, resenting the other kids, especially popular Bill Tyler and assuring herself that she's better than they are. This is the only time we really see her being a snob. Friendly Bill asks her to dance, and she spurns him nastily. Another kid tells her, "You just couldn't pass up the chance to be a snob!" Alarming horns sound, Sarah looks stricken and runs out of the house to go cry on a tree. Ron runs after her, and she explains that his friends are "mean and hateful", and don't understand anyone who isn't one of them.

We don't get a resolution, because this is part of the Discussion Problems in Group Living series, so we get asked a bunch of questions. Is Sarah covering up for some lack? Can Ron help? Is the group justified in judging everything Sarah does as snobbery?

"What do you think?"


This does not explore the basic problem of snobbery one damn bit.

I predict that today school counselors would take one look at young Sarah and her problem and decide that she's a lesbian, and that it's perfectly natural that she should struggle with her sexuality and they're going to help her, etc. Which is fine, should she actually be a lesbian. But there are other identity crises besides sexual ones. I get the idea that counselors are eager to stuff kids into that particular pigeonhole. "Well, a new record for crisis resolution, folks! If we hurry we can have time for a cig in the teachers' lounge before the bell rings."

Instead, I diagnose plain vanilla lonerdom. She's just not into what the other kids are into. That would be OK, except that her society (and not just mental hygiene films) doesn't seem to recognize that as an option. People, especially teenagers, are supposed to be gregarious, hanging out with one another, playing loud music and doing wacky things. If you don't want to do that, people think something's wrong with you, until you wonder if something's wrong with you. And they do seem to be having a lot of fun... You have to be especially confident, or oblivious, or physically isolated, to regard a disinclination for the company of other people as no big deal.

Notice the whiff of anti-intellectualism here. Ron immediately identifies Sarah's intellect as the problem. When Sarah and her dad have their heart-to-heart, Dad looks vaguely embarrassed that she should think that she is smarter than the other kids. Anti-intellectualism is an old and honored trope, but it just seems kind of out of place in this film. If you wanted to teach kids about the dangers of snobbery, wouldn't money or social position snobbery be more common?

But then, I say that because I'm an intellectual snob.

This film has great resonance for me, because I was Sarah, or would've been if I hadn't had the good fortune to grow up in a rural neighborhood where the few kids were real crumbs---petty juvenile delinquents. My Dad played the role of Sarah's parents, but he---let us say---was not as easily put off.

You know, it occurs to me that this film, or one like it, just might have been responsible for those little episodes! Dad's fear was apparently that if I did not make friends with the neighborhood kids at age 13, I would not ever get married. No, that was really his reasoning. My dad is exactly the age these films were designed to reach. If he'd been a little younger, anti-drug films would've shown him that fitting in was bad, and he wouldn't have tried to get me to make friends with those punks. (That lasted all of one evening. About a week or so later he saw them toking up or something, and forbade me to run around with them. Oh, my broken heart.)

I think this film is especially interesting because the grown-ups seem to be in almost as much confusion as the kids. They "know" what's to be done, they just don't know how to do it.

In contrast to Ken Smith's assertions that these guidance shorts were intended to harrass kids into conformity (see the previous post), in The Snob, you actually get the idea that the filmmakers believed there was a real problem with the kids---not a problem in which they behaved badly and were a pain in the neck, but one in which the kid was hurting, and which the grown-ups must fix, though (in this case) they weren't entirely sure how.

This movie is a little different from most of the "fitting-in" films, in that the problem is kind of vague, and the solution is not easy to see. (Most of these films urge kids to get involved in activities, to listen to others, to be considerate of others, etc.)

As I said, Sarah's problem was also my problem. To this day I hate parties. I feel awkward about joining other people in conversation. What if I'm butting in? What if I'm boring? Have I said too much? Too little? Of course I feel awkward about standing alone. Why not go home if I'm going to do that? Bleah.

I wonder what would happen if Sarah just thought about it and told her parents that she just wasn't interested in hanging out with the kids, that she'd rather be alone with her books. Would they just say OK? Would they take her to a psychiatrist? Or would there be a film in which poor Sarah is shown how to fake enjoyment at parties, because parties are the key to all future happiness?

Now, Sarah. Ask him about the Big Game last week. Once you can fake sincerity, all the rest is easy.