Mean Girls hardly invented the high school movie, but in 2004 it came damned close to perfecting it. That certainly seemed to be the consensus at the time and immediately after. Tina Fey’s savvy script took the ‘Buffyisms’ of Sunnydale and accentuated them; saw the jagged edges of Jawbreaker and smoothed them. Based on a novel by Rosalind Wiseman, her screenplay offered an alternative to the glut of ‘bro comedies’ and frat-boy antics that had appeared in the wake of American Pie.
Directed by Mark Waters, the resulting film confidently aspired to the acerbic sass of cult favourites such as Heathers or The Craft, and found favour with the same crowd. Mean Girls may not have started the tradition, but it gamely took the baton, ultimately passing it on to the likes of Easy A and even, conceivably, Booksmart.
It is, perhaps, the first (ugh) ‘Millennial’ high school movie, capturing a restless generation, overexposed to information, waiting, ready for the Meme.
Reflected through the lens of 2019, Mean Girls is a movie about segregation. Much is made of the different groups and the zoology of the high school cafeteria. The Hot Black Girls sit together. Cute Asians have their own microclimate separate from Nerdy Asians. Everyone hopes the moronic Jocks will keep to themselves. At the centre we find, of course, The Plastics; the white girls deemed successful and beautiful under the tutelage of Rachel McAdams’ pitch-perfect byotch* Regina George. Within themselves these groups seem relatively harmonious, but step back and view the room and you see a faltering system; a collection of cliques that don’t/won’t interact because of their negative responses to one another.
The main steer of the story is the arrival of Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan); home schooled up to 16 in Africa and therefore totally alien to this complex social situation. Art Freaks Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese) embrace her outsider credentials and become honest friends with her, but it is Janis’ vitriolic disdain for Regina and everything she represents that pushes Cady into the arms of The Plastics as a kind of double agent. Cady is positioned there to ingest anecdotal gossip that she can then regurgitate for Janis’ delight. Regina may be vapid, but from the off she is not the only Mean Girl in the situation. Janis is mean for taking pleasure in the snark. Cady is mean for perpetuating it (and a lot more besides as she gets caught up in the dramas of high school).
Between stealing boyfriends and scribbling in Burn Books, the plot machinations swerve this way and that until, come the end of the picture, clique mentality at the school has been decimated. A new, better world order has been born out of the chaos. Lunch tables have intermingled and the boundary lines have become more porous, more flexible. What’s been created is a lunchroom free of segregation, and everyone seems healthier for it. Mean Girls purports that, to achieve this kind of change, we must endure strife and crisis.
But Mean Girls was never a hit for its subterfuge message of societal progression. This shit rocks because its funny. Amanda Seyfried (who originally sought the role of Regina) is hilarious as Dumb Girl Karen. Caplan and Franzese turn Janis and Damien into a vaudeville act. And Tina Fey (not only good in the movie) brings formidable wit to virtually every dialogue exchange on offer. Its knowing. It spoke to its audience in 2004 from a position of extreme relatability. So many high school movies take the approach of warped caricature; written by people who have seemingly misremembered their own experiences from a myopic standpoint, or who have attempted – and failed – to understand a zeitgeist that they are separated from by a generation. Fey avoids these pitfalls. Her script is smarter, and endlessly quotable (e.g. “You smell like a baby prostitute.”). The speech she gives herself about the negativity of slut-shaming is also, not for nothing, superb.
Looking at it now, there’s a wonderful nostalgia factor to Mean Girls bolstered in part by a glorious soundtrack which is so 2004. Missy Elliott. Peaches. Kelis. Pink (has “God Is A DJ” ever sounded so good?). The passing of time will further time capsule the fashions of the movie. We’ve already seen ad nauseam the codification of 80’s style. Inevitably a time will come when the same thing happens for the layers in Cady’s hair, or the array of miniskirts in Regina’s wardrobe.
Mean Girls also serves as another, more unwitting time capsule, evidencing Lindsay Lohan at the peak of her bankable collateral, before the inexorable draw of excess and tabloid catastrophe would bring her to the brink of ruination… something that feels strangely prefigured by Cady throughout the film itself. The former Disney mainstay was already in the midst of her fall (the kind of star vulnerability that is viciously picked over) when Mean Girls landed. Of course to watch it without that context, you’d never possibly know. Her Cady is the embodiment of Hollywood’s swoon for beauty in youth. With her plump face and thin waist, she was American’s precarious wholesome daydream. Perhaps it was adhering to this impossible template that proved too much?
A child star, Lohan spent her entire youth being packaged as some kind of ideal. Rebellion against that isn’t just understandable, its damned near inevitable. I still hope for a phoenix return from Lohan, Cady-style. Not to the same faux ingenue sparkle… but to something new. An evolution. She’s shown she has the screen presence and acting chops for cinema. If she wants it, she could do it…
Until then, we have Mean Girls. Truth, attitude and weaponised lip gloss. Fetch.
*this spelling is taken directly from the Mean Girls Insults Teller that comes as part of the lavish and wonderful 15th Anniversary Burn Book Edition of the movie. I mean, look at the thing. Well done, Paramount.