Our obsessions with high school and social status never really end – at least according to the eternal popularity of Mean Girls, which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Written by Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters, and produced by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, Mean Girls is just what the title implies. It is a story about the unbearable cruelty of teenage girls – how gossipy, catty, and brutal they can be to one another – and was based on the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. The film begins when Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) moves to Illinois with her zoologist parents after spending her childhood being home-schooled in Africa. Cady is hopelessly naïve about what life in a regular public high school is like, and through her perspective we get an almost anthropological approach to exploring the social strata of high school. She immediately befriends outcast art students Janis Ian and Damian Leigh (Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese), the self-proclaimed “greatest people you’ll ever meet,” who give her a rundown of every clique at North Shore High and a map of their respective cafeteria territories.
An instant later, she meets the “worst” people at school: Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, and Karen Smith (Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried), better known as the Plastics. These girls are mean, but they start out seeming nice; they invite Cady to sit with them at lunch one day, and she finds herself drawn in by their allure. According to Janis, though, the Plastics may be the most beautiful and popular girls in school, they are also the human embodiment of evil. Thus begins a scheme between her and Cady to dismantle the Plastics from within, and destroy queen bee, Regina George.
Through all the absurd scheming, Mean Girls takes a satirical look at the social divisions of high school; but it also shows the intensity of the wars female students wage against one another. The girls constantly hurl insults at one another, they spread nasty rumours, they scrutinise their appearances in the mirror, magnifying everything. The film holds a twisted mirror up to high school society and asks us to notice all its flaws, it exaggerates the worst features of its characters while also treating them with sympathy. The tightly-wound Gretchen and the sweet, ditzy Karen can enact cruelty of their own, but are more often than not pawns in Regina’s game. Meanwhile, Cady Heron starts out as an adorably naïve math whiz before morphing into a “mean girl” herself as she infiltrates the Plastics. Tina Fey plays Ms. Norbury, the recently-divorced calculus teacher who encourages her students but is not afraid to call out their awful tendencies; even the parent characters are fun to watch (Amy Poehler as Regina’s mom is particularly noteworthy in her pink velour tracksuit). Perhaps it is the diversity in character perspective, and the sympathy that each character gets, that makes the film infinitely re-watchable. We see traces of our own best and worst qualities in these flawed teenagers and the flawed adults they interact with.
At North Shore High, nobody is safe from gossip, and nobody is quite who they initially seem to be. Cady and the Plastics constantly switch phone lines to gossip or complain about each other; they switch between meanness and niceness depending on who’s watching, and are always performing multiple identities. Janis eviscerates Cady for consistently blowing off her and Damian, though Cady claims she just pretending to be like the Plastics in order to sabotage them: “You’re not pretending anymore,” Janis responds. “You’re Plastic. Cold, shiny, hard Plastic.” When you are actually living through being a teenager, social status really does feel like it is the only thing that matters, and people become what they pretend to be.
If Mean Girls the movie had a human form, it would easily be the most popular kid in school. And like the vicious gossip that spreads throughout high school, Mean Girls has become an inescapable part of the cultural consciousness. It is a pop culture phenomenon and the quintessential teen comedy of a generation. When I was in high school, lines from Mean Girls were referenced constantly, and spread just as much as rumours did: we quoted the lines in class or online, celebrating the unofficial ‘Mean Girls Day’ of October 3, or talked about trying to make “fetch” happen. The wit of Fey’s screenplay has endured, and the story has also been adapted in various forms: there was a made-for-television sequel to the film, as well as a Broadway musical co-written by Fey. Many viewers became familiar with Mean Girls before they even stepped foot in high school, and the memorable moments of the movie become mixed with actual memories of cliques and real-life mean girls.
The film’s depictions of meanness and girl-on-girl assaults have taken on new meanings over the years. High school is a place of violence: if not physical violence, then at least violently cruel language. Regina uses faux-niceness and passive aggression to wear down Gretchen or put other girls in their place, and Cady is warned by Regina and later Damian that joining the mathletes is “social suicide.” Mean Girls shows the extreme emotional toll bullying and exclusion can take on young women. When Cady manipulates Gretchen into thinking that Regina has been excluding her, Gretchen cracks when reading a creative piece that compares high school to Rome: “Why should Caesar get to stomp around like a giant while the rest of us try not to get smushed under his big feet?” Her solution, at least in the writing assignment, is to propose that they all stab Caesar, and all her repressed anger and pain comes pouring out.
Such moments of expressing some deep desire to physically harm another student take on even more sinister undertones in a time when violence in high schools is frequently seen on the news. Later in the film, the violence becomes no longer something that is just imagined. Regina betrays Cady and the other Plastics by showing their Burn Book to the principal, and she wreaks havoc in the hallways by scattering copies of the pages for the whole school to see. Chaos erupts, and the girls go wild. They start brutally attacking one another, slamming each other against lockers, clawing at faces and yanking hair; a male student gets on the phone with his mother and begs to be picked up because he’s scared. It’s certainly a moment of comedy, but the fear he and the other students feel is incredibly real. An emergency assembly is called in the gym for all junior girls, and the principal announces to the terrified students: “Never in my years as an educator have I seen such behaviour. And from young ladies. I got parents calling me on the phone asking, ‘Did someone get shot?’” Gun threats are unfortunately a very real fear for many students, especially in the United States – fifteen years later, high schoolers are still afraid of what violence they may inflict upon one another.
The violence does not end even after the emotional catharsis of the assembly, where the girls apologise for hurting one another. A confrontation between Cady and Regina spills out onto the street in front of the school, and Regina suddenly gets hit by a school bus. She survives, but has a fractured spine. A rumour starts that Cady may have pushed her. Though the viewer knows that this is not true, that violence does not seem beyond the realm of believability; Cady is not as nice as she may think herself to be. “Cady, there are two kinds of evil people”, the surprisingly wise Janis tells her. “People who do evil stuff, and people who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.” Cady initially tries to stop evil, but becomes a villain in her own right enacting “evil stuff” and serving as a reminder of the possibility of violence. Mean Girls ends on a note of hope, with the girls resolving their tensions and learning how to channel their anger and angst in a productive way. Though the fashion trends may have changed since 2004—the movie features plenty of shiny lip gloss and low-rise jeans—teen anxiety around fitting in has remained constant. Mean Girls lets teen girls, those who were once teen girls, as well as everyone else, to see the violent absurdity of it all. If we cannot avoid the horrors of high school entirely, then at least we can laugh about it for a while.
by Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is studying English at Princeton University. She has lived in New Jersey her whole life so far, and has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.