Mean Girls turns 10 next month, and rather than trot out the inevitable look at where Lindsay Lohan is now, we’d like to stay positive and focus on a film that knew exactly how to tackle the “rules of feminism.”
Let’s rewind to 2004: Facebook was called TheFacebook and existed only at a few elite universities; Bush and Kerry were running against each other in the presidential election; Britney Spears married K-Fed; and Friends and Sex and the City were in their final seasons.
Fey’s satirical look at teenage girls managed to be genuine and to touch upon the subtleties found in female relationships.
These days, female comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and their respective TV shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have earned accolades and large fan bases. But when Mean Girls premiered, female-driven entertainment was much more infrequent. The movie wasn’t just a cult film — it gained instant success and was quickly compared to similar films, like Heathers and Clueless. Tina Fey’s satirical look at teenage girls managed to be genuine and to touch upon the subtleties found in female relationships— all without looking down on the characters or turning them into caricatures.
The movie depicts a secret world in which a compliment is really an insult, and the need to copycat the popular crowd competes with a simultaneous need to hate them. In this girls’ world, the insecurity bubbling beneath venemous friendships is much nastier than any fistfight between giant jocks.
“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores,” Fey’s character, Ms. Norbury, tells the girls in the movie. “It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
She’s right, and what she says brought slut-shaming to light when the term wasn’t yet a common part of our vocabularies. The beauty of Mean Girls is that while Tina Fey satirizes the way teen girls insult each other and the harm that brings, she’s not holding them at a mocking distance; instead, she’s also gently teaching teenagers how ridiculous it is to tear each other down. Paramount reported that on opening weekend, women made up about 75 percent of the audience, and half were under 18.
The film, directed by Mark Waters and produced by Lorne Michaels, debuted with a box office opening weekend of $25 million and received stellar reviews. “In a wasteland of dumb movies about teenagers, ’Mean Girls’ is a smart and funny one,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Fey subverts formula to find comic gold,” said Rolling Stone. “She’s a brash new voice in movie comedy.”
Could we have asked for a better villain?
Mean Girls showed the nuances of mother-daughter (and teacher-student) dynamics. Everyone can point to the “cool mom” among their circle of friends’ parents, played here by Amy Poehler, with just the right ring of desperation for approval. Tina Fey’s satirical writing, matched with the superb acting talents of Rachel McAdams’ viciously delicious Regina George and Lindsay Lohan’s new-girl-turned-renegade Queen Bee, Cady Heron, was gold. Add the rest of “the Plastics,” with their incisive reminder that “you can’t just go around asking people why they are white,” plus welcoming-yet-vindictive social outsiders Janis and Damian, and you get a movie that people still talk about a decade later.
It was one of the first quotable female-centric flicks. There are plenty of movies about male dynamics, like Top Gun, Animal House, Old School and Anchorman. But a film that both guys and girls quote that is centered on women — that’s a much rarer find. It’s safe to say that the phrase “Stop trying to make fetch happen” has hit the mainstream when even the White House uses it. (It may even be an official cause for the quote’s retirement.)
The cinematic genius of Mean Girls isn’t even contained in the complete movie. Hidden gems can be found in the film’s deleted scenes, including a bathroom scene in which Regina confesses to Cady about a dollhouse she no longer wanted but didn’t want anyone else to have. Rather than gift it to her cousin, she smashed it. So utterly Regina. This nasty confession was humanized in true Tina Fey style by Regina admitting her embarassment that her mom was at the school dance.
Speaking of Regina — could we have asked for a better villain? She can be ruthless and ice-cold, but we are invited to pity her at various moments. McAdams’ acting and Fey’s writing combine to give us a teenage girl whom we loathe yet respect, with her enticing aura of bitchiness. Mean Girls puts us through an emotional oscillation that reverts us back to high school, and gives us sympathizing viewpoints of geeks and Queen Bees alike. No matter which one you were as a teenager, you are now invited to see the other’s world in all of its pubescent glory.
At the end of the movie, we find out that when the girls became seniors, they pretty much moved on from their petty drama. They weren’t baking cakes filled with rainbows and smiles, but they were maturing, as high school girls are wont to do. Yet their junior year allowed us all a chance to reflect back on the madness that was high school and the intricacies of female relationships. The film has earned iconic status and there is a generation of millennials who still won’t wear pink on Wednesdays without a little giggle.
And the truth is, the cat-fighting shown on Mean Girls isn’t confined to high school cafeterias. It doesn’t end when we graduate. Which is why the film rings true and reaches far beyond the grasp tweens and teens. The lessons of how women should demand more respect from each other, from ourselves, and from others, are ones we can afford to continue learning — one laugh at a time.
You agree, right? You think it’s really pretty?
Why you should care
Ten years later, and people still quote this classic high school drama. And everyone in Africa can read Swedish.