Sometime in the late 90s or early aughts, our lord and savior Tina Fey got her hands on a self-help book for parents of teenage girls (Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman), and our lives would never again be the same. Inspired by Wiseman’s wisdom on how to empower teenage girls, Fey adapted the book into Mean Girls, a film that, 14 years later, still leaves us all trying to make “fetch” happen.
B, let’s start off with a broad question. We’ve both watched plenty of high school movies, most of them penned by men. How does having a female writer at the helm subvert the genre?
B: Praise be to Tina Fey, who understands the intricacies of girl world in a way most male writers (Bo Burnham being a potential exception) simply could not. Perhaps because they’ve never bothered to try, but mostly because it’s one of those things you have to survive to understand. To be fair, Mean Girls still heavily features a conflict over a boy — Aaron Samuels — but above all else, it is concerned with how girls relate (and fail to relate) to one another. If our journey so far has taught us anything, it’s that such concerns are vanishingly rare in cinema. And yet, if a high school comedy — perhaps the most maligned of genres other than “chick flicks” — can achieve it, shouldn’t all of the high-powered dramas on our list be capable of the same thoughtfulness and multi-faceted narrative? If we thought so once, we know better by now. Which is what makes Tina Fey’s oversight over this whole thing such a gift. Perhaps even more so than her keen sense of comedy. Though it is inarguably the latter that has entrenched Mean Girls in the cultural consciousness so thoroughly.
But, as tempting as it is to digress directly into the quotable moments, we have work to do, S. Let’s start with the central struggle in the picture: Cady Herron versus Regina George. What do we make of the Queen Bee and the Home School Jungle Freak?
S: The thing that I think is great about Cady Herron is that she allows us to study Regina George. Because Cady grew up outside of the American school system, she doesn’t understand the social structure or the unspoken rules of a typical American high school. She’s stepping into this new experience as an anthropologist would, and she allows us, as viewers of the film, to see the Plastics not through the filter of our own high school experience, but rather, as scientists, studying behavior.
The brilliance of this setup is that Tina Fey has created a scenario in which we are forced to step back and examine the messages we are sent as teenage girls, as well as the unspoken rules by which we must abide. And this makes both Cady and Regina sympathetic characters. Regina is the Queen Bee who knows the rules, follows them to a “T” and holds other girls accountable to them. And the result? She’s angry as hell. I, frankly, don’t blame her. Cady, on the other hand, doesn’t know the rules, but comes to understand that there’s a certain benefit from following them (attention from boys, worship from other girls). And the result there? She loses her friends, as well as the trust of her parents and educators.
So many other high school films tell us that social — and romantic — success is gained by following the rules. What Regina George and Cady Herron tell us is quite the opposite. They tell us that following the rules makes you miserable. And god bless Tina Fey for that.
So B, speaking of rules, let’s examine the film’s supreme rule followers, the other two Plastics. Are Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith hilarious caricatures or problematic stereotypes?
B: After much, probably too much, consideration. I’ve decided that Gretchen and Karen definitely roll more caricature than stereotype, but there are certainly some elements of both in play. For instance, I’ve never known a girl who would swear off of white gold hoops just to please a Queen Bee, but I do know plenty of girls who would try to suppress attraction to a boy who was already “spoken” for. We don’t see Gretchen do this expressly, but it’s implied that hoops are by no means the only thing she’s sacrificed for her friend. And so, she is at once a perfectly hilarious exaggeration and a cautionary tale. If Gretchen’s more pure comedy, Karen is the more troublesome. I’m fairly sure I never met a girl who used her breasts to tell if it’s already raining, but there were more than a few girls who got the “dumb blonde” bad wrap. I like to think I wasn’t so quick to put them in that box, but any watch of Mean Girls feels a little too familiar for me to assume we weren’t some version of the North Shore junior girls after they found the Burn Book. It’s rather cruel how she’s written, almost as if her plight is less than Cady’s or Gretchen’s because she doesn’t grasp the situation.
S, I can’t be sure if Tina Fey wanted to force us all to hold a mirror up to our own experiences or if perhaps she slipped into some stereotypes even as she attempted to comment on them. What say you? And while you’re talking, what’s with word on Aaron Samuels?
S: It’s Tina Fey, so I’m guessing it was the former. If any of the latter slipped in, I’m betting it was based on studio notes, and our lord and savior made a sacrifice to ensure her vision would make it to the silver screen. And speaking of things that made it to the silver screen (and not at all terrible segues), let’s get to Aaron Samuels.
The thing that I think is interesting about Aaron is that he, as the love interest, plays the role that in so many other movies is given to a female character. Like his predecessor Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can’t Hardly Wait (among so many others), Aaron is a source of infatuation but has no real personality or agency. What do we really know about Aaron? He’s bad at math. His hair looks better the other way. He plays soccer? (I’m putting a question mark there because I played college soccer, and the way Aaron wears his socks over his shin guards convinces me otherwise). Not. Much. Else.
Aaron, like so many female love interests before him, is a plot device written to drive home the depth of Regina’s cruelty, and to benchmark Cady’s slide into plastic-ness. He’s less a character than he is a mechanism to allow the girls’ stories to be told. So here’s the question I have for you, B: is it problematic that a male character in this film is subject to the same sentence that so many female characters before him have been given? Or is it fair game, given the incredible scope of movies that fail to pass the Bechdel test? Let me know what you think, and then give me any final insights you have before we get into stray observations.
B: Oh Aaron Samuels, his hair does look sexy pushed back, but he knows it. So at least no one ever reduced him to the status of pretty but doesn’t know it. We are of one mind here, he’s nothing more than a narrative device, and yet, I’m not bothered by it. For one thing, having a crush in high school is actually a bit like having a flat, cinematic love interest. Your hormones are crashing into each other and quite inexplicably the combination of dark eyes, a henley and the ability to beatbox becomes intoxicating. There’s no logic, just id and things get wacky — hence the brilliance of the wild animal metaphors, this whole movie works because there’s no much truth in the hyperbole.
Here’s the other reason Aaron’s plight leaves me without cringe — everything about Mean Girls is subversive and nothing about it is accidental. I have to think Tina Fey, who clawed her way to Head Writer at SNL and has turned out some deeply loved female-led films and television, has spent no small amount of time ruminating on how we tell stories, and what place women have traditionally had in those stories. That Aaron takes the role of the girl in the center of a bet or the one who changes a man’s ways strikes me as her quiet rebellion against how things are done. It’s not the most subtle path, but it’s the one that worked in 2003. And let’s not go feeling too bad for Aaron Samuels, he still has girls fighting over him and Jonathan Bennett (the actor who brought him to life) has a nice cushy job as a Food Network host, has his very own Hallmark Christmas movie and regularly cashes in on his famous turn as Regina George’s high-status man candy. The most recent such embrace of his legacy was in a little video you may have seen —Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next.
That’s an eclectic resume, but it has nothing on these stray observations:
- I still know all of the lyrics to Kevin G’s talent show rap
- Janis Ian has the kind of strategic mind that will lead her to unimaginable wealth or possibly prison
- Is the tradition of using Spring Fling King and Queen to populate student leadership roles a strange backdoor into a high school monarchy that parades as a democracy?
Back to you SF — rock my world with at least four candygrams worth of observations.
S: Get ready for the groolest list of stray observations you’ve ever seen:
- “I’m not like a regular mom; I’m a cool mom,” might be my favorite line in a movie ever.
- Speaking of Hallmark movies, I’m very bummed that Lacey Chabert has been relegated to them. She is delightful and deserves better.
- Here’s a fun fact I found (HT BuzzFeed): the MPAA tried to cut the line, “I can’t help it if I have a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina.” However, because Anchorman had just earned a PG-13 rating with an erection scene, director Mark Waters and the rest of the crew convinced the MPAA they were being sexist, so Mean Girls got to keep the line.
Now let’s put on our Mathletes jackets and get to some arithmetic.
- -7 cringes for our lord and savior, Tina Fey.
- -3 cringes because this film is one of the few high school comedies to actually pass the Bechdel test.
- +5 cringes for Coach Carr’s hooking up with two teenage girls being played as a joke.
- +5 cringes for the dropping of the “r” word. Oh early aughts, how you should have known better.
This leaves Mean Girls at zero cringes for me. This brilliantly done satire deserves all of the pieces of the Spring Fling Queen crown. So what say you, B? Am I so blinded by my love for Tina Fey that I’m letting this film off too easy?
B: Here’s the thing. Definitely not. I’ll grant that if anyone loves Tina Fey more than you, it’s me, but Mean Girls works because it knows exactly what this genre has done for so long, it knows what real life is like, and it takes both of those things and applies a think varnish of cutting comedy that exists to make a point: Girl World is tough. Here’s what I’ll add:
- +3 cringes for the fact that weight gain is used as a method to humiliate and debase Regina.
- +2 cringes for Gretchen winding up with new language skills but no real growth after the plastics break up.
- -5 cringes for Janis Ian, a girl who gets to understand the rules and operate outside of them unapologetically.
So here we are back at zero because the limit for the number of times we can watch and love Mean Girls without feeling emotionally conflicted does not exist.
If we know anything to be true, it’s that this feeling won’t last for long.