Why We’re Still Watching Mean Girls a Decade Later

Mean Girls
“You’re not pretending anymore. You’re cold, shiny, hard plastic.”

This April will mark the tenth anniversary of the theatrical debut of Mean Girls. What is it about this film that makes it as culturally iconic today as it was a decade ago?

First and foremost, we must acknowledge the brilliance of writer Tina Fey, whose basis for the screenplay was Rosalind Wiseman’s self-help guide, Queen Bees and Wannabees. Fey developed a comedic plot around the topics discussed in the book, basing aspects of it on her own high school experience. This reveals an important reason about why Mean Girls remains culturally relevant: many aspects of the high school experience endure, from the time when Tina Fey was in high school to now.

In an industry that, to this day, produces few female-led films, Mean Girls stands out with its all-female lead cast. The film explores the cattiness of cliques and popularity, ultimately condemning the behavior of those who sacrifice their individuality or hurt others in order to climb the social ladder. No film is perfect, and while there are certainly a few problematic elements in Mean Girls from a feminist standpoint, all in all, the film expresses a strong feminist message. Mean Girls examines the distressing nature of “girl world” and the way in which teenage girls treat each other. An interesting lens through which to view the feminism of Mean Girls is the Bechdel test, a method of examining gender bias named for a 1985 comic by Alison Bechdel. For a film to pass the test, it must have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. In a male-dominated film industry where many popular films fail the Bechdel test, Mean Girls passes. Passing this test is by no means an absolute indicator that a movie should be considered feminist, but it provides a nice starting point to discuss Mean Girls. Though there are numerous conversations between girls about things other than boys, many of these conversations center on bringing down other girls for no reason other than to assert power. In one instance, Regina calls Taylor Wedell’s mother and pretends to be a representative from Planned Parenthood calling with Taylor’s test results for the sole purpose of keeping Taylor from going out with a guy whom Gretchen likes.

Burn Book
“It’s our Burn Book. See, we cut out girls’ pictures from the yearbook, and then we wrote comments.”

Degrading other women for no reason is antithetical to feminism, but Ms. Norbury (Fey) gives the students the wake-up call they desperately need. The cruel and gossipy nature of the girls is most clearly evident in the “Burn Book,” a place in which the Plastics write rumors and crude comments about their classmates. After the entire junior class reads the contents of the Burn Book, fights ensue, and the principal calls on Ms. Norbury to talk sense into the girls. As Ms. Norbury speaks to the assembly of girls, she implores, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.” Her comment illuminates the internalized misogyny that most, if not all of the girls possess to some extent. Throughout the film, the girls buy into patriarchal notions of how women should look, from Regina’s attempts to lose weight to the scene in which Regina, Gretchen, and Karen gather around a mirror, each demeaning various parts of their bodies. They turn to Cady, waiting for her to express something she dislikes about her own body, and seem disgusted and shocked when all Cady offers is, “I have really bad breath in the morning.”

Cady, who had previously been homeschooled and thus was not fully immersed in these cultural norms, quickly learns them. Because she wants Aaron Samuels to like her, she pretends to be bad at Calculus, a subject in which she excels. As she learns the rules of “girl world,” she loses her friendship with Janis and Damian, but more importantly, she loses her own identity. She seeks to distance herself from her former self, covering a photo of her childhood in Africa with a photo of herself and the Plastics, denying interest in music that her mother claims Cady loves, treating her parents with disdain, and bringing home a failed math test for her father to sign. Cady, who started the school year unfamiliar with the conventions of high school, becomes addicted to the power that comes with being Queen Bee after dethroning Regina, thus highlighting how easy it is to be swept up in the caste system that defines most high schools.

In the pivotal scene in which Ms. Norbury encourages the girls to talk openly about the rumors in the Burn Book and their issues with each other, the group learns that Cady was involved in a plan to ruin Regina. Cady follows Regina out of the gym, but Regina is struck by a bus and breaks her neck when she finally turns around to confront Cady. Overwhelmed by guilt, Cady begins to amend her life, attempting to right all the wrongs she committed during her time as a Plastic. This includes taking full responsibility for the Burn Book, although she only wrote one entry herself, and apologizing to those she hurt.

The message we can take from both Cady’s journey and that of the junior class is what makes Mean Girls as relevant today as it ever was: shedding your identity and berating others for the sake of gaining a higher social stature is not worth the price. Cliques don’t seem to be going away, making it likely that this film will resonate on some level with generations of teens to come. As long as we come across mean people in our lives, even after high school, the comic viewpoint from which Mean Girls views those people will still be applicable.

Bo Obama
Bo, stop trying to make fetch happen.

Finally, it would be a crime to write an article on the endurance of Mean Girls without discussing the dialogue that now permeates our culture. The film’s positive, feminist message ensures its continued relevancy, but its oft-quoted dialogue is what makes it iconic. In an era when some still expresses surprise when a comedy written by a woman is successful, Tina Fey’s writing and the hilarious cast shatter the claim that women aren’t funny. Even though “fetch” never happened, the dialogue from Mean Girls certainly did. Almost ten years later, references to the film are prevalent, popping up everywhere from Jennifer Lawrence’s acceptance speech at the People’s Choice Awards to the official White House Twitter account. The White House tweeted the photo above in August with the caption, “Bo, stop trying to make fetch happen.” The tweet quickly became one of the White House’s most popular tweets of the year, according to a recent White House blog post, receiving over 27,000 retweets and over 17,000 favorites. In response, Taco Bell tweeted, “Do you wanna do something fun? You wanna go to Taco Bell?”

Who among us hasn’t shouted, “She doesn’t even go here!” on at least one occasion? If you’re like me, maybe you’ve even driven up next to a friend and said, “Get in, loser. We’re going shopping.” You’ve probably also informed someone, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.” How do I know this? It’s like I have ESPN or something.

In an interview with Canadian press upon the release of the film, Fey mentioned the difference in reactions between teens and adults in test audiences, noting that teens were more likely to watch the film like a reality show, while adults were the ones laughing hardest. Perhaps this is one of the biggest reasons we’re still watching Mean Girls: people who were teens when the film debuted are now in their twenties. Not only does the dialogue stay with us, but as the number of years separating us from high school increases, we find even more things to laugh about in Mean Girls.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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50 Comments

  1. I love every second of that movie. All the girls and women are absolutely great, classic, but it’s worth mentioning: the male characters are also fantastic. Principal Duvall (O hell nah I didn’t leave the south side for this!). Kevin Gnapoor. Damian.

  2. Kristine
    0

    It’s just perfect. Such a shame that Fey hasn’t had the same success with her other films- she clearly needs to be writing them all.

  3. Jennifer Carr

    I actually remember going to see this movie when it originally came out and I didn’t really get it. I watched it again when I was older and something clicked. It was so funny, yet so insightful. It’s a movie that everyone should watch, regardless of age, because like you said, the lessons are applicable to all stages of life. Great article.

  4. Opal Carlson
    0

    As a 43 this movie may not be aimed at me but I must admit I love it.

  5. Great article – makes me want to watch the movie again!

  6. Noelle Phillips
    0

    The word “Classic” being bandied around like last nights supper makes me feel decidedly ill. Having said that, I might have to watch this film just to see what the noise is about. Despite really enjoying Tina Fey and her writing and watching more movies than is healthy for a living person, I have avoided this like the plague. Well here I go, into the abyss.

  7. Tami Gibbs
    0

    I’m a woman who graduated from high school in 2003, and this movie gets so much about high school right while being consistently entertaining. It’s a fun movie to watch, and I like that the story of the relationships among the girls is as important as the romantic plot line.

    However, as someone who has worked in schools, I know this bullying still goes. I’ve seen girls as young as nine or ten form similar cliques with similar power structures. Unfortunately, teachers can’t do much. They can set rules and punish what they see, but there’s a lot that’s done in other teachers’ classrooms, outside classrooms and outside the schools.

    If you want to show girls that this bullying is destructive, you have to do so in a way that entertains them without preaching or being condescending, and I will always love this movie for doing that.

    • You’re absolutely right. Especially in the age of cyberbullying, it has become tougher and tougher for teachers and even parents to stop the bullying. We need more movies like Mean Girls that show both the destructive nature of these power structures and the appeal to adhere to them in the first place.

  8. Lisamarie
    0

    Awesome article Dan! It is so FETCH!;) luv your cuz!

  9. Ross Palmer
    0

    Good film. Still found time to make a cheap joke about at the unattractive students at the maths contest though. I didn’t like that.

    • GEorgie
      0

      True – but I think that’s nicely offset by Cady’s internal monologue acknowledging the fact that ultimately it didn’t matter what they looked like, it wouldn’t stop them beating her

  10. I has absolutely no idea that this abysmal film had any appeal. Genuinely. I’m shocked and to be honest appalled too. But this article does present its claim very well. Kudos for that.

  11. Elizabeth
    0

    Great movie–face it, almost everyone was either a Mean Girl or the victim of a Mean Girl in high school, and that’s why it strikes such a chord with all of us. There have been a lot of good coming-of-age movies about teenage boys, but not that many good ones about teenage girls, which may explain MG’s popularity–that and the great script.

  12. Jessica Koroll

    Great article! Mean Girls is definitely one of those films that you learn to appreciate more as you get older. Along with being hilarious and memorable, its portrayal of high school life and issues that teens can relate to is just fantastic.

  13. stephen watsky
    0

    Truly an excellent article, very professional and well written. Anyone such as myself who is or has been involved in the raising of a teenage daughter can relate. Frankly, it is a movie that I would not have touched with a 10 foot pole; however after reading this piece, I am actually looking forward to sitting down and watching it in the near future, as it is being run on Showtime these days.

  14. Its an incisive ( and probably unintentioned in its depth & scope & analysis) an examination of the human condition. Its done humorously and, in the now standard americanized way, also quite brutally – almost Tarantino-esque. After revealing & depicting an extremely competitve intra-female girls world, I wonder if the net effect has been to make girls more tolerant, compasionate & caring to each other, and understanding of each other. If it has, it has suceeded beyond just making us all wince and laugh in equal measure.

  15. Great article and exploration of why “Mean Girls” is still so culturally relevant! I remember when this movie came out it reminded me very much of my own experience entering American high schools in senior year – very much a culture shock. I would change the wording on one analysis you made – “She seeks to distance herself from her former self” – I think it’s more accurate to say she seeks to immerse herself in the new culture and become one of them, squashing any characteristics that make her stand out. As the movie (and most people’s high school experience) shows, individuals are not as important as a homogeneous clique. Aspects that make a person stick out – homeschooling, living in Africa, dressing differently, being smart at math – make her different and “weird”, not prized for her individuality, and so are downplayed to fit in.

  16. Oh, and I forgot to add a different view on why this movie is still relevant, Hollywood-wise – it showcases the best of Lindsay Lohan before her dive to tabloid stardom. I’d love to see her pull off another role like Cady in Mean Girls, but it does not seem meant to be!

  17. It was a really good film for the first two thirds until it took the standard hollywood comedy turn in the last third of trying to make a paper thin story out to be more than it is.

  18. A well written article, kudos to the writer. I was a father of a teenage daughter when this movie first came out and since one of the things we did a lot was go to the movies, I have seen this movie so many times that I can actually quote lines from it. I have more than once used the ESPN line over the years. After reading this article it made me actually want to watch the movie again, but my daughter now in college informed me that she had it at school, so it appears that her and her friends are still watching it ten years later.

    Funny to laugh at as adults, but very serious issues for teens in school.

  19. Rachel C.
    0

    This article is so ON POINT and it makes me want to rewatch the movie. Hope to see more fresh takes on other pop culture topics from this author.

  20. Ismael Clarke
    0

    this movie remains relevant because most people have the intellectual abilities of gnats. if you like this movie and find its message poignant, you are a child. social manipulation via popularity contest is an old puerile game. you ignore it and don’t let it affect you or you punch the person in the face (figuratively or otherwise) who’s trying to use it against you and end that shit right there. sadly, many adults haven’t learned this lesson and still think they’re in high school.

    • While I agree that the whole concept of popularity contests is puerile, this is one of the reasons WHY Mean Girls is still relevant. Bullying and the social structure of popularity as depicted in this film are toxic elements of our culture far beyond high school. “Social manipulation via popularity contests” is a form of bullying, especially as portrayed in this film, and to suggest that people “ignore it” is the same ineffective argument that has been used for years in an attempt to stop bullying. Mean Girls effectively depicts the allure of this social structure, yet clearly emphasizes the consequences. You say, “if you like this movie and find its message poignant, you are a child,” yet you are illustrating one of the most relevant aspects of the film. Degrading people who like this film and calling them children demonstrates one of the very forms of bullying that people don’t seem to outgrow.

    • Yeah brother I don’t the film was intended to be a manual for life.

  21. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    Mean Girls resonates so much and provides so much great social commentary. Other than the slut-shamey aspects of the film, I think it *is* such an important film – if not just because of how accessible it is. Also, I think a huge part of the popularity of this film is that it is one of the very few female-led films – since its release, there’s literally been Bridesmaids, The Devil Wears Prada, Baby Mama, Mamma Mia, Juno, The Heat and not much else. You’ve got to hold on to what you get. Give me all the lady movies.

    Great article!

  22. I love Mean Girls, and I think you hit the nail on the head in your article; it’s a cultural icon that everybody quotes, and you want to feel a part of that crowd, don’t you? Tina Fey is an absolute genius, and each time I watch Mean Girls, I catch on to another line I missed that’s just hysterical yet downplayed. A fantastic film with an outstanding message despite its teen-queen packaging: calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.

  23. Mean Girls is something that I find myself drawn to watching. I feel like a lot of my life consisted of running into several type a “mean girls”. I was always the new girl at my school when my family would move around a lot. Growing up, I found high school to be a rough a grueling time for me, so watching Cady take over and squash the mean girls made me feel like I could do the same; however, I ended up doing no such thing.

  24. Catherine Zamora Quintana

    Mean Girls is definitely one of those films you cannot resist yourself from watching again. I enjoyed your article completely and like to add that this film although it shows how bad bullying can be I enjoy how the consequences rap up the story line and shows the audience members how bullying can be overcome. And of course, the last scene of the film definitely brings up that the cycle of bullying will arise again when it shows the three young girls walking past them as they sit outside in the grass and automatically the audience thinks, “The new Plastics.” The film keeps it within what a teenager can relate to, and what an adult can remember from their teen years. Which I admire and love from this film!

  25. Great article:) I graduated from high school six months ago and it is amazing how this film perfectly portrays high school in it’s cliques, social groups, conversations, trash talk, and superficial mentality. While times and trends ay change, there are always elements of human behavior that transcend eras. Also, Glen Coco is god!

  26. So accurate. Especially the part about “fetch”. So many friends of mine still joke about that. I haven’t watched that movie very many times but I see evidence of what you’re talking about maybe 3 times a week!

  27. Cassandra Palmer

    I like how you made a point of the fact that this movie is still so popular and albeit, iconic now, and has a female lead cast. That is important in this day and age where most films are male lead and discount the females that are in them. However, from a feminist POV, I would argue that it isn’t that strong of a commentary. The Bechdel test is flawed in itself, and Mean Girls (for the most part) plays into the exact opposite. While the ladies may not be talking about boys in some scenes, they aren’t conversing about anything that showcases their intellect; namely superficial topics that promote self-objectification and allow for others to objectify oneself. That being said, it does send the message that individuality is key; that being said, I still freaking love this movie lol. It has become a cult classic.

  28. setbrizi

    Your article was the first article I read on Artifice and I just loved it! Everything you said about the film was incredibly accurate. Why do we keep talking about this even a decade later? There is no doubt that Tina Fey is a brilliant woman and comic, her screenplay is both humorous and heartfelt. We have all been in a situation similar to what the film portrays and the unfortunately we all know that sometimes, some people never grow out of their “mean girls” stage. This film continues to be relevant because the experiences depicted in the film still speak to us even after a decade. Maybe fetch didn’t catch on in daily talk, but it is still remembered and mentioned throughout the years.

  29. I was wondering what the problematic elements from a feminist standpoint were? I don’t think you touched upon these explicitly in your essay. I also don’t think you quite answered the question you set up in your title–why do we keep watching Mean Girls? Sure, we relate to it, but why and how? Your descriptions of several scenes in the movie are colorful and well-written, but perhaps you should have concentrated on what the scenes achieve rather than what they depict.

  30. I am always thrilled to see A)the Bechdel Test get a mention, and B)a film actually manage to pass said test. That having been said, you raise an interesting point: What does it mean when a film that passes the test (which really is a rare and commendable thing) does so with scenes in which the destruction of women is the topic of onscreen discussions between women that do not center on men? You are correct in surmising that passing the Bechdel Test is not, in and of itself, proof of a “feminist” film…but I cannot help but be troubled by the alternative to male-centered conversations offered up in this film. It would be interesting, I think, to know what response, if any, Alison Bechdel would have regarding films (like Mean Girls) that pass the test in this manner.

  31. This is a great piece, thank you! I’ve loved this film since high school and definitely agree it is a universally loved story by many women no matter what the age. I really liked the comedic and feminist aspects of the storyline, but more importantly the exposure of women who try to destroy each other instead of empower each other. One of my favorite parts is when Cady is giving her speech at prom because she realizes that everyone needs to be accepted and treated equally no matter the size,shape, etc. I like the tranformation you describe of Cady into being a woman in American society. Additionally, I think this film addresses a big issue in the U.S. – bullying. I wish cyber bullying could have been included in this film, but overall it did a great job and is definitely a cult classic – thanks for sharing!

  32. I remember when I had received this movie in the mail from Netflix (back in the day). I had ordered it just for the sake of watching a chick flick, and to be honest, knowing Lindsay Lohan was going to be the protagonist/main focus of the movie, I was not expecting it to be such a brilliant masterpiece. The witty script packed with some of the most genius responses and insults one could think of, as well as its portrayal of this generation, was executed beautifully. It felt as if my inner thoughts as a girl who was bullied in high school were literally projected on the big screen, proving how well and thorough the directors and writers investigated a typical teenage moment. A movie doesn’t have to be considered “successful” based on its incredible cinematography, picture, costume, etc. If people are still quoting the whole effing movie a decade later, job well done. It was so fetch.

  33. I’m really surprised that as many times as I have seen this movie since its release I have not grown tired of it. Mean Girls did such a good job of criticizing they way teenage girls can treat each other while still being hilarious. I absolutely love this movie and think that it will continue to entertain people for years to come.

  34. Alice Bishop

    I also love Mean Girls but I can’t help wondering whether it’s just a nostalgic thing for me now. When I watch it I think a lot of the enjoyment comes from how familiar I am with it. Great article though 🙂

  35. Couldn’t help but read this article – it’s so true, my friends and I reference Mean Girls on a regular basis – even my male friends understand the references now! I must admit I even watched Mean Girls 2 in the hope that I’d be able to update my quotes, but it’s nowhere near as incredible as the first (and not written by Fey!)

  36. Spencer

    Really interesting look at the film, and really engaging article!

  37. Yes definitely! I agree with almost all the points you’ve provided. Having only watched Mean Girls a few times during the past 5 years, I still happen to experience occurrences of quotes re-enacting from the film, especially the scene where he says, “and none for Gretchen Wiener. Bye!”.

  38. Excellent. I think the film has endured not only because of its universality, in the sense that everyone, boy or girl, has felt the way Cady feels at school sometimes, in some form, but also that the script is packed full of no end of quotable lines. That’s Tina Fey’s success coming through

  39. Wonderful article! I do think it’s important to note the popular actors in the movie, however. Tina Fey, Lindsay Lohan, AND Rachael McAdams?! Yes, please!

  40. Jessica Lancaster

    Mean Girls will forever be one of my favorite movies. The brilliance in Fey’s creation lies in its universal appeal – as you said, both teenagers and adults can relate to the movie and its humor. Who hasn’t encountered (or even been) a mean girl before? I’ve seen Mean Girls so many times now I feel like I can basically recite everyone’s dialogue on my own, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Oh, and the 10 year anniversary is today. It’s Wednesday, and I’m wearing pink.

  41. I’m 17 and I loved this movie. Mean girls 2 was a bit disappointing.

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