“Bobby, stop trying to make this Mean Girls review happen, it’s never going to happen…”
“But guys, it’s just so…”
“Don’t say it. You can’t say it. It’s just like the rules of feminism.”
“Come on, guys. It is so fetch.”
“Who do you think you are saying ‘fetch’? I like invented it.”
“Boo, you whore.”
Ahem, as much as I would love to fill this page with nothing but quotes, I do have a review to get through. Mean Girls is a 2004 teen comedy about…well…mean girls. Scripted by Saturday Night Live comedian Tina Fey and based on an advice book about how to survive in high school, it was a significant hit when it came out. All four leading actresses got career boosts from it, and two of them are still notable stars today. But this film faded from the public consciousness for a while…until around 2010-ish. It suddenly exploded into popularity again as more and more people started using social media – especially Tumblr – and became one of the most quoted and memetic films of all time. There is not a single line from this film that cannot be quoted or turned into some kind of meme. Even the fact that I’m posting the review today demonstrates the film’s status – October 3rd is known as Mean Girls Day because it’s the date Aaron asks Cady for in math class.
Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is a sixteen-year-old daughter of zoologist parents. Having been home-schooled all her life, Cady has never experienced a true high school system. But now she’s moved back to America and must start high school. It’s quite a culture shock for the girl, never having experienced how modern teens do things. For some reason, Cady manages to fall in with a group of girls called The Plastics. They are the school’s version of celebrities: beautiful, popular, adored and admired by all. The head of the clique is Regina George (Rachel McAdams), the Queen Bee. At first Cady thinks Regina is just a friendly girl…but then she gets a taste of how nasty and manipulative she can really be. Cady gets persuaded by Regina’s former BFF Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) to take revenge on her by bringing the clique down. Along the way there is much bitchy backstabbing, catty taunts and general hilarity. But it seems to be that Cady might soon become the very thing she’s fighting against…
Mean Girls began its life as a raunchy R-rated comedy much in the same vein as American Pie. Karen and Regina would have had topless scenes, the Halloween costumes would have been far skimpier, a subplot would have featured an ecstasy addict, one character would have masturbated with a hot dog and Gretchen would have been caught giving Jason oral sex. Those, along with another ton of risqué gags were cut once Lindsay Lohan was cast. You see, she was considered a family friendly actress at the time. I kid you not. She even turned down the role of Regina and opted to play Cady, worrying that playing such a mean girl would hurt her public image. As such, this film is now a lot harsher to watch with the knowledge of how Lohan’s career would go. But – as I said in The Parent Trap review – one can easily forget just how gifted an actress Lohan was in her day. Cady or the twins are probably her most remembered roles, and with good reason. Lohan brings a great blissful ignorance to her character and conveys these nice subtle changes in character as she’s slowly corrupted by the system. Although Cady is a Junior in the school, she is pretty much there to represent the newbies to the high school system. The proverbial goldfish tossed into the shark tank. And as far as characters go, the film does a really great job of demonstrating how bullies are made. Cady begins simply enacting what she feels is justified revenge on Regina. But she keeps on with the revenge until one day she realises she’s become a clone of the very girl she was tormenting. Thankfully she realises her mistake and does her best to make amends. But sadly for a lot of others, the corruption doesn’t end.
While this movie is known primarily as a parade of one-liners and hot girls in skimpy outfits, it actually does have a profound message hidden under it. Lots of teen movies and after school specials try to tackle the issue of bullying but they usually don’t handle it well. A bully usually gets portrayed as a one-dimensional antagonist who exists just to torment the protagonist’s life for no reason. Then by the end the bully gets their cosmic comeuppance and everything is wrapped up nicely. This movie, helpfully coming from the good advice in the guidebook, is able to accurately show how one might become a bully. It usually starts when someone has ‘wronged’ the person in question. In this case it’s Regina making a pass at Aaron, knowing Cady fancied him. Cady’s response is to a) split the couple up, b) trick Regina into gaining massive amounts of weight, and c) manipulate her friends into turning against her. Taken out of context, it sounds quite like a villain’s master plan right? That’s what the film is getting at. Two wrongs do not make a right. Regina was wrong to manipulate Cady like that, but Cady was equally wrong to start on her campaign. You often see this kind of thing on Facebook. Someone leaves a comment that offends someone else and usually the injured party’s friends launch into a barrage of attacks on the offender. And it solves nothing. As Cady says in her monologue in the math competition, “calling someone fat won’t make you any skinnier, calling someone dumb won’t make you any smarter…” – it seems like such an obvious lesson, but it’s one that a lot of people could stand to learn.
The movie as a whole takes apart the character of the Alpha Bitch, as TV Tropes calls her. Many movies and TV shows have this character as an antagonist – Libby from Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Kate from Lizzie Maguire, Cordelia from Buffy (at first), Taylor from She’s All That, Sharpay from High School Musical, Heather Chandler from Heathers…the list goes on. Some movies such as The Breakfast Club deconstruct this character nicely. This film takes a unique idea with it too. For while Regina may be the Queen Bee, she’s only one of many mean girls in the school. She’s just an expert at social manipulation and has used that to get to the top. She’s still a teenager with her own issues, and being the Queen Bee doesn’t justify what Cady does to her. What’s more is that she seems properly surprised and hurt when she finds out how much the whole school hates her. It’s likewise illustrated further by having her fellow Plastics portrayed as sympathetic in spite of their meanness. Gretchen for example is a desperate wannabe who craves Regina’s respect and attention – and thus overcompensates with catty insults and overdramatising. Gretchen represents the ‘survival’ category of bullies – the kind who take part in order to avoid getting bullied themselves. And it shows how Gretchen is just as miserable being a Plastic as she would be getting tormented by them. Likewise Karen is the most sympathetic member of the clique – being more stupid than actually mean-spirited. Still she takes part in things like writing in the Burn Book – again showing how good-hearted people can easily take part in things like this. Overall the film does a great job of deconstructing the concept of the mean girl clique. Except for one rather glaring plot element…
Hi Janis, you didn’t think I’d forget you? Let me elaborate on what Janis does in the story. When the Plastics ask Cady to hang around with them, Janis encourages Cady to do it and then to tell her about the mean things they say. As early as the ‘pink Wednesday’ part of the movie, she’s hoping to use Cady to get revenge on Regina. And when Regina makes a move on Aaron, who is it that convinces Cady to get revenge? Janis. She’s the one that comes up with what they’ll do to destroy Regina. So Janis is an example of how the supposed victims can be just as bad as their tormentors. The only problem is that *she* gets away scot-free. At no point in the film is she a) called out for her behaviour, b) forced to apologise for her part in the ordeal, or c) given some kind of comeuppance. There is one part where Cady yells at her for “using me for your eighth grade revenge” but it’s not really a pay-off scene. The part that sticks out the most is when Janis confesses that she was the one behind manipulating Cady into messing up Regina’s life – and the rest of the girls cheer her for it. We see that Cady is ostracised by everyone after the Burn Book incident. But Janis still gets away with everything she did, despite being just as horrible as the Plastics. That’s one of the things that prevents this movie from getting a perfect score. Other than that, it’s brilliant. But unfortunately with Janis, this reinforces a rather bad formula that I see pop up from time to time. The idea that the ‘Cool Loser’ as Janis is – and this character is usually some form of nerd, goth or alternative scene – gets exempt from any kind of criticism because they are different. The concept that different=better gets brilliantly torn apart in the Amy Studt song and video for “Misfit” but unfortunately it’s a missed opportunity in this film.
Elsewhere it may be surprising to realise that we are over ten years separated from the release of Mean Girls. And immediately on a watch, it’s surprising how it easily dates itself to the early 2000s. For example there is not a single element of cyber bullying in the film. Odd Girl Out, which came later, addressed this. The Burn Book – if it were done these days – would most definitely be online either as a private Facebook group or a password-protected website. Cady is the victim of a three-way calling attack, which is used with landline phones. Nowadays that would probably be achieved via texts or Facebook messages. Regina photocopying the Burn Book and spreading it around would more likely be achieved by either inviting everyone into the hypothetical Facebook group, or uploading screenshots of it to Facebook. Likewise Cady’s parents not finding out about her party probably would be harder to pull off – what with most relatives and family friends having Facebook accounts too. They would be sure to have seen pictures online. What’s more is that Cady would probably not have been home-schooled – but rather gone to school online. Even zoologists in Africa would have an internet connection right? And finally Regina’s flaunting of her wealthy lifestyle immediately places the film in a pre-Recession world – when showing off one’s wealth was in style.
There’s very little else to talk about when it comes to Mean Girls. The film does very little wrong, apart from that glaring thing with Janis. On a deep level, it has a very good anti-bullying moral. And its representation of cliques and their rules was actually shockingly true to real life – namely the Plastics’ rules about dressing, acting and behaviour all came from one girl’s testimonial in the advice book. Of course that hasn’t stopped the film from being a hit with the very people whose lifestyles it satirises. On a wider level, it’s endlessly funny, highly quotable and is most certainly a pop culture phenomenon. And of course it’s not just a hit with girls. While it’s undoubtedly held up as a ‘girls movie’ it has plenty of male followers – and not just for all the T&A on display. I had very little to criticise about this movie and I could still watch it back-to-back and quote it just as much as the next guy. So my rating is a solid 8/10 – a true pop classic. And why stop at just one witty meme to close the review?