Prep Schools in Pop Culture: A Primer

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It’s either innate masochism or American optimism that has made prep-school culture so pervasive during some of the most trying economic times since the Great Depression. But the trend shows no sign of letting up: Yesterday Pop Candy posted the trailer for Tower Prep, a new Cartoon Network series that “focuses on a secret academy where teenagers with enhanced abilities are spirited away to be prepared for a mysterious fate even they aren’t sure of.” Yet stories about rich kids at private school are nothing new. After the jump, a primer on prep school in film, literature, and TV. We assume you won’t mind that we’ve left off Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, and Gossip Girl — we figured you’ve already heard more than enough about them.

Movies

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) This Weimer-era German film about teenage girls at a boarding school run by an authoritarian headmistress isn’t just a classic of the prep-school genre — it’s also a lesbian cult favorite and widely considered to be the first movie to feature a relationship between two women in a positive light.

If… (1968) Any movie directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm McDowell — in the role that launched his career — was going to be weird. This satire of English public schools (by which, of course, the confusing Brits mean “private schools”) features a group of juniors who are tormented by the Whips, seniors who might be referred to in a contemporary boarding school as “proctors” or “prefects,” the faculty, and basically everyone else at the school. Eventually, they do what every prep school weirdo dreams of: mount a hostile takeover.

Dead Poets Society (1989) Anyone who has attended boarding school in the years since this film was released (yes, we’re guilty as charged) has probably been forced to see Dead Poets Society more times than they care to recall. The coming-of-age tale stars Robin Williams as the archetypal Best Teacher Ever, whose unconventional methods include helping his students form the titular secret literary society. But how long can an innovative teacher last at a place that clings so desperately to tradition?

Cruel Intentions (1999) Amid a flood of squeaky-clean teen films, dark and subversive Cruel Intentions found its inspiration in the aristocratic manipulations of Dangerous Liaisons. At the time, we thrilled to see Sarah Michelle Gellar as a scheming New York prep-school princess — then known only as vamp-slaying good girl Buffy Summers — who lived to manipulate her stepbrother Ryan Phillippe and his ultimate conquest, Reese Witherspoon. And, of course, there was her famous kiss with Selma Blair…

An Education (2009) Last year’s acclaimed Mad Men-era period piece stars Carey Mulligan as a smart 16-year-old girl who falls in love with a dashing older gent with an armload of baggage and jeopardizes a successful college career. If Dead Poets Society is the ultimate boys’ prep-school coming-of-age film, An Education may just be its female equivalent.

Books

A Little Princess — Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905) You may have seen Shirley Temple’s sanitized film adaptation, but have you read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original story of Sara Crewe, a spunky rich girl sent to boarding school in London? The tale turns tragic when her beloved father dies in India and Sara, having lost her fortune, instantly transitions from student to servant. Thankfully, a mean headmistress and a wardrobe of rags can’t keep a sweet, imaginative girl down for long.

A Separate Peace — John Knowles (1959) A bromance for the ages, A Separate Peace centered around the friendship of boarding school roommates Gene and Phineas. While the former is something of a nebbish, the latter is charismatic, mischievous, and athletic. Of course, Gene can’t help but feel competitive… and that’s when the real trouble starts. If you sense a homoerotic undercurrent here, well, we won’t argue with you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — Muriel Spark (1961) Muriel Spark’s short novel, told out of order in a series of flashbacks, follows an iconoclastic Scottish prep-school teacher and a group of six girls who become her protégés. Relationships strain as the talented young women come of age, and Miss Brodie’s complicated romantic life becomes more apparent.

Prep — Curtis Sittenfeld (2005) There is something uncanny about the way Curtis Sittenfeld — who both attended and taught at prep schools — recreates contemporary, New England boarding-school life. Through the eyes of protagonist Lee Fiora, a shy cipher from the sticks, we witness all four years of work, sex, friendship, and class consciousness at a school brought to life in astounding detail.

Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School — Abigail Jones and Marisa Miley (2007) Written by a duo of Milton Academy grads, Restless Virgins is the true story of the way seven of the boarding school’s students spent a year (2004-2005) that saw the school mired in a sex scandal that made national news. For those who aren’t acquainted with the excesses of prep-school living, their drug-fueled sexcapades may make your head spin.

Television

The Facts of Life (1979-1988) In this wildly successful Diff’rent Strokes spin-off, Edna Garrett is the housemother to a gaggle of girls at Eastland, a single-sex boarding school in Westchester. The main characters included a range of types, from spunky Tootie to tough tomboy Jo to, um, chubby (we’re not being jerks — just pretty sure that was the defining bit of her personality) Natalie to spoiled Blair. (Anyone else out there wondering whether Blair Waldorf is her namesake?) Not nearly as sordid as most contemporary prep-school sagas, The Facts of Life is good, clean, often cheesy fun.

USA High (1997-1999) Created by the folks responsible for Saved by the Bell, this oft-forgotten USA series was set at an American boarding school in Paris where — scandal! — the international group of boys and girls lived in adjacent quarters connected by a common room. Hilarity ensued.

Rich Girls (2003-2004) Rich Girls, an MTV reality series that debuted right as the most recent vogue for rich teenagers began to pick up steam, starred Ally Hilfiger (yup, that Hilfiger) and her BFF Jaime Gleicher, a spoiled duo who attended Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School. They didn’t do much on the show, besides shop, engineer their social lives, and plan vague and naïve charity projects. The show didn’t make it past a single season, and Hilfiger was so disgusted by her behavior on the series that she checked herself into rehab.

Hex (2004-2005) Harry Potter fans who haven’t seen the British series Hex are in for a treat. The show takes place in the English countryside, at a boarding school that also happens to be a clearinghouse for supernatural activity. The combination of setting, subject matter, and socially marginalized female heroine remind us of Harry crossed with Buffy. (The opening credits below certainly owe something to Joss Whedon…)

NYC Prep (2009-present) An obvious, Real Housewives-style reality show Gossip Girl rip-off, NYC Prep was a similarly fascinating trainwreck of the famous and well-connected. The series had its lothario, its shrew, its crypto-gay, and no shortage of schemers — but, unfortunately, none of these real kids were as smart or magnetic as Blair and Chuck. Apparently, the series was such a success that LA Prep and NJ Prep are currently in production. Hey, if WASP teens and guido gorilla juicehead make for good TV on their own, who knows what can happen when they’re finally together!