Before watching the movie:
I’m fairly certain there were girls’ clique stories before Mean Girls, and of course many more after and because of it. So my impression is that this is extremely generic. But that’s probably unfair. Especially because of the influence this has had on the ten years since. And there’s always room for the writing to rise above a generic story type. I know there are a handful of lines that have become memetic.
This is also likely the most in-depth look at the girls’ clique trope. I seem to recall an idea that this is nearly anthropological in its study of catty high school girls, but that may be an argument beyond the depth of this blog.
After watching the movie:
Cady Heron grew up homeschooled by her zoologist parents in Africa, but just moved back to America and started high school as a junior.On her first day at school, nobody will talk to her. On her second day, she befriends a pair of outcasts, cynical Janis and “almost too gay to function” Damian. On her third day, she unexpectedly gets invited to hang out with the “Plastics”, three rich, two-faced, popular girls led by Regina George. At Janis’s suggestion, Cady pretends to befriend the Plastics in order to report back on all their dirt, and then when Regina sabotages Cady’s chances with a boy, to stay with them for long-game revenge. But pretending to be friends with them means learning to act like them, and soon it’s not just an act.
Many high school stories play on a rigid caste system that doesn’t seem to bear much resemblance to reality. Perhaps high school is the first time people have to interact with so many different people that they have to pick and choose whom to be close to, but I’ve never experienced or met people who experienced any simple stratification by stereotype.
However, where most stories merely use this dynamic to create caste conflict, invoke Romeo and Juliet, or simply signpost “this is high school” (or college), this uses it to make some jokes about student types and then ignores it in favor of the more nuanced game of social chess the girls are playing against each other. None of the main girls are stereotypes. Even the Plastics, though they share common traits linking them as a clique and are held up as a bad example, are none of them stereotypes, although they’re built up from them.
When I remembered seeing a credit for being based on a book, I realized that of course it has a very “YA novel” feel to it, and thought that was where the earnestness and strong characterization came from. However, it wasn’t based on YA fiction, it was based on a non-fiction self-help book on high school social struggles (like He’s Just Not That Into You, Think Like a Man, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but using the content more than leveraging the brand). So it was based on an expert’s sociological view of high school, but everything else came from Tina Fey as screenwriter and Mark Waters as director.
Another strong point is the adults. Aside from Mrs. George, whose single trait is “cheerful enabler”, none of them are flat or ineffectual like adults often are in stories about/for kids. Cady’s parents are inexperienced (“kids can’t go out when they’re grounded?”) but trying their best, Mr. Duvall the principal is often hilarious in a way that doesn’t at all rob him of his authority (I give much of the credit to Tim Meadows’s performance), and Ms. Norbury is the best source of advice, though I’m not sure she earns that place as she’s mainly a background character until the third act, but she’s a mouthpiece for the book author’s wisdom and played by the screenwriter/biggest non-teen star, so I’m not terribly surprised the balance was off. If she was more present earlier I may have ended up complaining about her taking focus off the girls anyway.
As Cady gets further into her role among the Plastics, I found the story less immediately relatable, but her starting position of being completely unfamiliar with school as a foreign culture was very familiar to me. Her being an outsider trying to understand and fit in served the adaptation of the self-help book, but also provides a point of identification for those who were really lost trying to socialize at school. I think I’d figured out most of it by high school, but I think very few people understand everything about dealing with everyone around them.
Relatable. Complex. Deeply thought out. Slightly indebted to Harriet the Spy. A YA novel for those uninterested in reading. How could this not find its audience and hold them ten years on?