Does anyone remember the ABC After School Specials that ran from 1972–1997? I do. In fact I remember once fantasizing to myself about them: “If only the Saturday Night Live people wrote, acted in and produced these shows they might almost be … tolerable.” If any of you have ever shared my fantasy, I have a movie for you: “Mean Girls,” featuring our favorite Tina Fey as screenwriter and co-star, several SNL regulars as supporting actresses/actors and Lorne Michaels himself as producer.
As you may recall, the ABC After School Special television movies were a bold move to introduce and deal with controversial and socially relevant issues, but in a network TV friendly manner. Put another way, these after school shows were produced in the same way vegetables are prepared at Morrison’s Cafeteria: in a way everyone can eat, even denture wearers without their dentures. “Mean Girls,” on the other hand, deals with controversial and socially relevant issues you can sink your teeth into, yet in a firmer, tastier way.
“Mean Girls” is about the survival of the fittest that is high school, its numerous cliques, the psychic scars that girls inflict on each other and female image issues. Cady, the main character played by Lindsay Lohan (circa 2004 when she could still act and live as if she were a teen), is the new girl who has never been to school since her zoologist parents raised her in the African bush. In the opening minutes the SNL influence looks to dominate much of the movie with a hilarious micro-sketch of a group of home-schooled boys sitting together in front of a tractor to punctuate in Cady’s voiceover what her homeschooled experience was NOT like:
Home schooled boy with southern accent as sharp and heavy as an axe: “And on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so that Man could fight the dinosaurs … and the homo … sexuals.”
His brothers: “Aaaaaaayyymeeeuuunnn!” ["Amen."]
As welcome as the micro-sketch tendency is early on, it necessarily wanes as the storyline builds. That high school is a dangerous place is foreshadowed in an early scene where Cady is nearly run over by a school bus on the first day. The bus becomes one of several unobtrusive Ibsen-rifles on the walls of Tina Fey’s screenplay, each hitting its target at unexpected moments by the third act of the movie.
After numerous awkward school room incidents, Cady inadvertently infiltrates the most fashionable clique of girls, The Plastics, but is then manipulated by her less popular friends into knocking the Queen of The Plastics from her throne, only to find herself, Cady, as the new Queen, becoming that which she had previously abhorred, and, as a result, through several plot turns, insulting virtually all girls in her Junior class, as well as Ms. Norbury, her math teacher, played by Tina Fey. The scenes with The Plastics cover most, if not all, female body image issues, with Amy Poehler’s cool mom character acting as an accomplice to the crimes perpetrated by society before our eyes against its teenage girls.
As if all of this were not enough social satire ground to cover, the film also attacks the presumed tendency for some girls to play stupid, with Cady as a math whiz (“I like math because it’s the same in all languages” she says) who acts dumb to get a cute boy’s attention, much to the disappointment of Ms. Norbury who recognizes the game being played.
The various storylines converge when Regina, the Queen of The Plastics, discovers Cady’s plot to dethrone her and steal her former ex-boyfriend. By publicly disseminating to the entire school the contents of the “Burn Book,” a secret scrap book The Plastics use to slander and mock students and teachers, Regina opens a Pandora’s Box of back biting and name calling in the halls as each girl (and some teachers) read slanderous remarks about them from photocopied pages of the book. This near riot is soon averted by a mandatory meeting of the entire Junior girls’ class in which Ms. Norbury is called upon to smooth things over.
As noted in the Bossypants chapter “Growing Up and Liking It,” while writing the screenplay for “Mean Girls,” Tina Fey attended a workshop on female self-esteem and bullying conducted by the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman, her book constituting much of the basis for this film. What follows next in the movie appears to be an adaptation of this workshop. Norbury has each girl stand on a short platform before the audience and make an apology/confession before falling backwards into the crowd to be caught in the forgiving arms of fellow females. As one of The Plastics apologizes to another Plastic before she does her crowd surfing healing ritual:
Karen: Gretchen, I’m sorry I laughed at you that time you got diarrhea at Barnes & Nobles. And I’m sorry for telling everyone about it. And I’m sorry for repeating it now.
Although only responsible for one vicious entry about Ms. Norbury, saying without meaning it and without basis in fact that the teacher was a drug pusher, Cady accepts the entire blame for the Burn Book and is ostracized by the school and teachers. In one of many steps to atone for her sins, at the request of Ms. Norbury, Cady decides to join the Mathletes, a club The Plastics had forbidden her to join, saying it was social suicide, but a group suited for her abilities. Cady participates, wearing the drab garb of the team, and has an epiphany in the final round of a math tournament competing against an unattractive girl. Cady catches herself judging the girl on the other team by her looks and dress and realizes that even if she made fun of this girl’s looks it would not stop the girl from beating her in the contest. Cady wins the tournament and returns to school just in time for the Spring Fling where the Queen of the Fling will be crowned. Here, as in many movies, the need to resolve so many issues results in a faltering step or two near the end.
Joining the crowd at the Spring Fling dance, Cady, wearing a letter jacket for the Math Team instead of a prom gown, is unexpectedly elected Queen. She gives an acceptance speech, acknowledging the non-traditional beauty of several girls in the audience and the beauty of all of them. She then takes the crown and breaks it into pieces for everyone to share. Finally, she meets up again with Regina’s ex former-ex boyfriend, the boy she pretended to flunk math for, who is now back in love with Cady, and they dance the night away.
I enjoyed the humor and themes of this movie a lot and I recommend it for 13 year old and older teens (and their parents). Like Cady infiltrating The Plastics, this film infiltrates our own Plastic views of the world and our self-important place in it and overthrows them. But at the end I’m left to wonder if some of its themes were undermined by a few of the inescapable clichés we always expect in teen movies, and that this film delivered, that are, no doubt, necessary for a film like this to be successful and reach a large audience. Could we have learned the lessons of this movie without Cady winning the math tournament, without Cady wining the Spring Fling Queen crown and, especially, without Cady winning back the boy she pretended to play stupid at math to win in the first place? I suggest that once we have really learned the message of this movie, we won’t need some of these conventional resolutions and pat endings in order to enjoy the experience of the film itself.