Hannah Friedman's Everything Sucks is billed as the anti-Gossip Girl, but it speaks to the same cultural obsession: a combined envy of and disgust for the very rich and very young.
Of course, Everything Sucks (subtitle: Losing My Mind and Finding Myself in a High School Quest for Cool) is actually a memoir, written about Friedman's days as a scholarship student at New York prep school Danforth Academy. Friedman's only 22, so what her book promises is a look at prep school kids as they really are, or at least as they were just five years ago.
The mean girls in Everything Sucks could go toe-to-toe with Blair Waldorf any day. Called the Great Eight (did anyone else's high school actually have popular crowds with names?), they orchestrate complicated social humiliations via IM, count to ten whenever one of their members leaves the room before mercilessly dissing her, and compete over who can lose the most weight and wear the most expensive clothes. The ringleader is Cashmere, a trust-fund Regina George with a snobby, racist mom and a closet full of Gucci. Her blowout with her mother starts with a birthday gift of designer jeans in size six (horrors!) and ends with Mom tossing the keys to Cashmere's new BMW out the window — a creepily fascinating set piece on bad parenting and teenage entitlement.
Friedman made a splash while still in high school when her essay, "When Friends Are Really Enemies," was published in Newsweek, and a certain amount of Everything Sucks is devoted to her process of breaking free from the Great Eight and the classist, sizeist values they represent. She recounts her final conversation with her frenemies thus:
"Where are you applying, Hannz?"
I take a bite of lettuce. "I'm not sure yet."
"Well, maybe you can go wherever [your boyfriend] Adam is. Where is he, anyway, like, Colorado or something?" Teagan smiles at me generously. "I hear you can really stretch a buck there."
"And with all the hiking and stuff, you would totally lose the weight!" Cashmere adds.
I clear my tray and walk down the steps of the dining hall. I don't come back. Ever.
Friedman eventually triumphs over bulimia and an overreliance (the word "addiction" isn't used, and Friedman isn't interesting in demonizing drug use) on cocaine and Adderall, and over an administration that wants to punish her for her essay. For teenage readers, her book would be an inspiring tale of a smart girl who has been down, but never out. As a grown-up, though, I couldn't help but read it as part of a larger genre of prep-school literature, TV, and film. Friedman acknowledges this, telling Salon's Judy Berman that an obsession with the very wealthy is, "pervasive in pop culture. It seems like every other person is Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, and that we should aspire to have a closet full of $900 shoes." A reading of Everything Sucks sheds some light on why an audience of largely non-prep-schooled readers and viewers gobble up Gossip Girl, Prep, and the like.
Not everyone in the book comes off badly — Friedman's guy friends are largely supportive, fun, and witty, despite the drug problems from which some of them suffer. But the Great Eight are so superficial, self-absorbed, and nasty — and their parents and the Danforth top brass so materialistic and enabling — that they confirm every negative stereotype the public-school-educated have about prep schools. Especially if we came up through America's overburdened urban school systems, we may have endured indifferent teaching, rundown facilities, and rubbery nacho cheese, but the denizens of Danforth, we can tell ourselves, were far more corroded by their privilege — and isn't it fun to watch it happen?
This combined fascination with the gloss of prep school and feeling of superiority over its supposedly morally bankrupt students may explain the popularity of Prep and Gossip Girl. Everything Sucks deserves to share in this popularity for its clear-eyed account of a young woman who survives being a socioeconomic outsider at a cutthroat institution and learns a lot about herself in the process. At the same time, the Great Eight sometimes read like caricatures, and I started to wonder how much Friedman was relying on her memory and how much she was giving us exactly what we expect rich high school mean girls to be like. Friedman may not have seen any other side of these girls, and she may not have witnessed any family interaction beyond the acrimonious mother-daughter exchanges we get here. But it would have been nice if Everything Sucks offered not just the moving story of its heroine, but nuanced portraits of its villains as well. As a former public school kid, I already have lots of preconceived notions about Gucci-wearing teens named Cashmere, and these notions probably deserve to be challenged.