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Why 'Mean Girls' Still Resonates 10 Years Later

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 29, 2014 at 2:30PM

Ten years ago tomorrow, a modestly-budgeted female-led high-school comedy opened across the U.S. Based on the debut feature script from a “Saturday Night Live” writer, adapted from a non-fiction self-help book, starring a coterie of largely unknown faces, and centering on a Disney contract player who’d had a big hit the year before with “Freaky Friday” but a miss earlier in 2004 with “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” the film is a rare example of bottled lightning, of a whole that adds up to much more than the sum of the seemingly fairly standard parts. Why else would we be sitting down to write about “Mean Girls” on its 10th birthday?
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Mean Girls

3. The Issues It Tackles Are Still Relevant
You have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores.” - Ms. Norbury
Bullying, slutshaming and homophobia are front and center of the plot of “Mean Girls,” and are obviously still massive issues in high schools and beyond today. But underlying almost all of that hot-button stuff is the area in which “Mean Girls” sets itself ahead of the pack: throughout, it is remarkably cuttingly incisive about how girls of that age talk to and treat each other, and how, whether they realize it or not, that contributes to their view of themselves. From Cady realizing that it’s not just about fat or skinny, “but apparently there are lots of things that can be wrong on your body” (Karen hilariously kvetches over her nail beds), to the cleverly achieved sequences in which call waiting or three-way calls are used to let someone know what someone else really thinks of them, to the subtler cues like how Regina and her sister are overtly sexualized by their mother (we first glimpse the younger sister shaking her prepubescent booty to Kelis' “Milkshake”), this is where “Mean Girls” stops being simply a very funny comedy, dons its armor and goes into battle.

Because there really is a steady throughline of sincere concern, maybe even anger, in the script, about how society teaches its young women to relate to each other, and to boys (viz. Cady pretending she’s bad at math so Aaron will help her). Occasionally this impulse is so strong that the film stumbles and becomes a bit didactic (the post-riot gymnasium talk and subsequent trust exercises are kind of cringey for laying this subtext so bare) but the sincerity of the intention makes these infrequent lapses forgivable. Sadly, if anything, the social-media-driven world in which teenaged girls now live is maybe even more rife with the opportunities for pettiness, jealousy, pressures to conform, victimization and bullying that “Mean Girls” wants so much to counteract, so if anything, its message has become even more relevant with the passage of time.

Mean Girls Caplan

4. The Attention to Detail and Side Characters Reward Rewatching
Nerd is inferred. But forget what you heard, I'm like James Bond the Third.” - Kevin G
One of the chief markers of the kind of longevity that “Mean Girls” has achieved is that it bears up under repeated rewatches; in fact it develops. Largely this is because the script is so dense with throwaway quips that you always find something you didn’t quite notice the last time around. (One example: just recently we noticed how cleverly Cady’s speech to Regina explaining why she isn’t losing any weight eating the Swedish weight-gain bars mimics the pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo of fad diet language). Additionally, the film has an affection for its minor characters that adds texture to the background. So Kevin G (Rajiv Surendra) the Mathlete captain, who in most other movies would be the stereotype of the socially insecure nerd, is also a bitchin’ MC and gets to deliver a terrible, but totally cocksure rap (written by Amy Poehler in fact); Damian (Daniel Franzese who recently wrote this touching coming out letter to his character on sister Indiewire blog Bent) may be “too gay to function” but also emerges as the most down-to-earth and secure character in the film; while even the adults get their character moments. Ms. Norbury works three jobs, one as a bartender at “PJ Calamity’s,” Principal Duvall is revealed to be as terrorized/fascinated by Regina George as everyone else, and so on.

Of course, while “Mean Girls” picks its battles well, it can’t wage war on all fronts so some areas do only get cursory attention and can feel a little one-note, like the two Asian girls who are fighting over the coach, and indeed the whole coach-with-a-thing-for-underage-girls subplot feels sort of light on consequence. Perhaps that’s a factor of a broader issue of focus: very few male characters, since the film's perspective is not really ever theirs, are anything but objects over which the girls flirt and fight and make each other miserable. Still, these cases aside, it scores well on making real people out of characters who in another film are so much stock footage, and if there are a lot of the cast whose job it is to turn up and deliver one joke, at least it’s usually a good joke. (“One time she met John Stamos on a plane…and he told her she was pretty.”)

Mean Girls Junior plastics

5. It Hasn't Really Been Replaced Yet
Oh look, Junior Plastics.” - Cady
Finally, one big reason that “Mean Girls” still resonates today is that it hasn’t yet been supplanted. To some extent every generation gets the high school comedy they deserve, and within that canon, there’s a further subset of films that concentrate especially on the travails of the female schoolgoing experience. Of those, the peaks are probably: “Pretty In Pink” (1986), “Clueless” (1995) and “Mean Girls” (2004) with ”Heathers” a slight outlier due to its more blackly comic tone and “Easy A” a strong addition to the genre, but one that somehow does not feel quite as universal or as definitive as those aforementioned three. So, if the nine-year cycle between epochal teen-girl high school films were to continue, something new and shiny should have come along last year, to launch a whole new crop of young stars and trendy buzzwords on the moviegoing public. Damned if we can think of one that fits the bill, though, so we guess we’re overdue?

Certainly, “Mean Girls”’ preeminence is not going to be challenged by its own sequel. “Mean Girls 2” released straight to DVD in 2011 and really its only redeeming quality is that it is a fascinating comparison point: while the outline of the story (outsider girl joins new high school, falls foul of popular clique over a boy, becomes briefly worse than they are as she plots revenge, learns error of ways and true meaning of friendship, etc.) resembles that of the original, the execution has none of the original’s wit, wisdom or “wide-set vaginas.” So what remains is simply “Mean Girls” made by people who seem to have totally missed the point of “Mean Girls.” In fact, we’d suggest that the stars-aligning nature of the first film means any attempt to replicate it without the key players, director and specifically without Tina Fey, was always doomed to failure.

The next great high school film, one that’ll broadly define the female schoolgoing experience in the age of Twitter, snapchat and nofilter selfies may not be here yet, but “Mean Girls” will do just fine while we’re waiting. After all, it may never have made “Fetch” happen, but arguably it pulled off an even greater trick: it made “stop trying to make ‘Fetch’ happen” happen.

stop trying



This article is related to: Features, Feature, Mean Girls


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