Why We’re Still Watching Mean Girls a Decade Later
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.
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.
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.
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