MTV's 'If You Really Knew Me': Can The 'Breakfast Club' Model Reduce Bullying?
- August 18th, 2010
- 4 Comments
Lately MTV’s reality programming seems to fall into one of two very distinct categories: heavily edited, love triangle- and catch phrase-fueled guilty pleasures (ahem, Snooki and company), and more serious endeavors to mix entertainment with education—or at least start conversations—about the real issues facing modern teenagers (like “16 and Pregnant”).
“If You Really Knew Me,” the latest attempt to address cliques and high school bullying, is among the most compelling shows I’ve seen in the latter category. In each episode, MTV films a different high school as its students take part in Challenge Day, a national program in which trained facilitators lead a workshop designed to break down barriers and get teens to see beyond the standard labels: jock, nerd, goth, etc.
The results typically include a lot of crying. In one episode, Katie (helpfully labeled “popular,”) tears up as she talks about how lonely she feels at school, even after winning the title of homecoming queen. At another school, Brian (“the class clown”) learns how much his mean-spirited jokes can hurt, and acknowledges that he probably targets his peers so much because he’s insecure. At the end of each episode, everyone hugs and promises that things will be different from now on.
If it sounds tired, it might be because “a group of high school students learning to look past social divisions and realizing how much they all have in common” has been central to perhaps half of the movies ever made about high school, from “The Breakfast Club” to “Mean Girls” and beyond. And as the Daily News’ David Hinckley points out, it’s a bit hard to believe that the lessons of Challenge Day truly make a permanent difference for teens who find themselves at the bottom of the high school’s cruel popularity totem pole.
But for me, considerable cynicism aside, certain aspects of the show ring incredibly true. While MTV seems to be promoting the show as part of a larger push for a discussion about peer pressure, sexting and cyber-bullying—public service announcements from the network’s A Thin Line campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about these issues, run during each commercial break—the most touching moments I’ve seen involve teens opening up to each other about the real, often dark problems within their families, issues that transgress the campus social hierarchy. In one recent episode, Brittney, a “loner” who says she’s teased or ignored by most of her classmates, talks candidly about having bipolar disorder, her father’s drug abuse, and her mother being in prison. Many students discuss dealing with the death of a family member or close friend, and how difficult it is to put on a happy face at school. Ugly divorces, eating disorders, suicide attempts—the show’s model might be reminiscent of a John Hughes movie, but the content is far from formulaic, and teens’ stories are treated with respect.
I am interested to know how teenagers feel about this show (stay tuned for YouthTube, an upcoming Ypulse Report measuring the fall television lineup among teens & collegians). For adults, I think it can serve as a sobering reminder that high school students face bigger problems in their daily lives than a thousand trend stories about sexting would probably have you believe. And if MTV can encourage more teens to actually talk about these problems—with adults, with each other, with anyone—then I’d be hard pressed to find a bone to pick with its methods.