Reviews

Mean Girls (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Concerns Cady's transformation, as she's subjected to high school and the 'mean girls' who prowl its corridors.


Mean Girls

Director: Mark Waters
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Tina Fey, Lizzy Caplan, Rachel McAdams, Lacy Chabert, Daniel Franzese, Tim Meadows, Rajiv Surendra
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-09-21
Why do girls do this thing where they pretend that they're really fat or they're really stupid, or they're not good at things when they know that they are?
-- Rosalind Wiseman, "The Politics of Girl World"

Did you see nipple? It only counts if you saw nipple.
-- Boy in cafeteria, Mean Girls

"There are you, and your math." Watching Mean Girls, director Mark Waters spots writer Tina Fey, playing high school teacher Ms. Norbury, marking up her chalkboard while her students shrink in their seats. During their shared DVD commentary, Waters, Fey, and producer Lorne Michaels alternate between making these sorts of obvious remarks and effusively praising their performers ("He's so in the zone with that part!", "God, she's good!", "I think Lindsay looks so adorable here!"). Rightly pleased with their clever film, they also appreciate its success and want to share it with the rest of us.

Their quite excellent film concerns the transformation of nice girl Cady (Lindsay Lohan), as she's subjected to high school and the "mean girls" who prowl its corridors. On her first day, she's shaken to see just how strictly the other kids adhere to their habits. This leads to one of Mean Girls' repeated metaphors: as she's spent her childhood being home-schooled by her anthropologist parents in Africa, Cady envisions her new classmates as inhabitants of a "wild" habitat. Under her narration, they turn into subjects in a Discovery Channel special, scampering, growling, and pouncing, as if scrapping for access to the water hole.

The Chicago burbs, it turns out, are not so different from Cady's previous wild-animals environment. Still, her ability to read social signs is somewhat less acute than she once assumed. Luckily, she's soon adopted by fellow mavericks, goth Janis (Lizzy Caplin) and flamingly gay Damian (Daniel Franzese). They helpfully draw her a virtual map of the cafeteria terrain, pointing out the "Asian nerds," the "Varsity Jocks," the "Cool Asians," the "Unfriendly Black Hotties." Looking out over her new environment, Cady wonders whether she will ever fit in. Looking with her, you can only hope she doesn't.

Most aggressive among the packs, à la the Heathers, are the Plastics, comprised of Queen Bee Regina (Rachel McAdams) and her wannabe minions Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried). When Regina takes a liking to "new meat" Cady, Janis and Damien send her forth on a mission, to infiltrate the enemy pod and return with information. Little does Cady know that Janis has a personal history with Regina ("She's a life ruiner!" hisses Janis), or that she will develop her own personal investment, in the form of a crush on Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), Regina's ex. Of course, as soon as Regina perceives this interest, Uber-mean-girl immediately re-possesses Aaron, apparently so malleable before her wiles that you might wonder just what Cady sees in him. (And then the camera grants a lingering, Cady's point of view shot of his beautiful face, and you know what's set her young heart a-quiver.)

As Mean Girls points out, high school mating rituals resemble those of the African savannah. Cady's multiple efforts -- to please Damien and Janis, exact revenge on Regina, and attract Aaron's attention -- are convoluted and daunting. (The DVD's extras reinforce this structure, with three featurettes, "Only the Strong Survive" [multiple talking heads discussing how the film is "realistic and true to high school"], "The Politics of Girl World" [featuring Wiseman's take on girls' relations] and "Plastic Fashion" ["everyone has a visual plan" in the film's costume design], as well as a blooper reel [here called "Word Vomit"], and and deleted scenes collected under the title, "So Fetch.")

In Girl World, Cady soon learns, power is primal and morality is inverted: lying to get what you want is a time-honored tradition, ensuring a rival's public humiliation a triumph of social skills. Her initiation involves a visit to Regina's home, where she's shocked to see Regina's younger sister shaking her skinny little white booty in sync with Kelis' "Milkshake" video. This performance -- the child acting out an excessively self-confident, adult sexuality -- alarms Cady at first, though she will soon learn how to adorn her own body for similar display.

She also learns the value of sabotage (convincing Regina that a foot cream is a face cream backfires: "All we've done is make Regina's face smell like a foot!") and manipulation (pretending to be bad at math, in order to convince Aaron to tutor her: "All the work is right," observes her teacher skeptically, "Just the answers are wrong"). "It may look like I've become a bitch," Cady reassures in voice-over, "But that's only because I'm acting like a bitch."

Fey's script (based on Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, a self-help book for mothers, a concept that only exacerbates the convoluted process of typing teens as objects of study) reveals the many ways that kids mimic even as they resist "grownup" behaviors. The girls keep a "burn book," in which they keep track of terrible and vaguely clever digs they've devised, written in swirly script alongside victims' photos.

The girls' phone conversations, arranged in split screens to showcase their deviousness at any given moment, build to weird little climaxes, for instance, the discovery of a third party (another girl) listening in, and so some dire secret has been revealed. During a fourway, Waters notes that Regina -- deep into her demise, overeating in a misguided effort to lose weight in some newfangled way -- cuts off a slice of bread, then bites into the loaf. "Old school," he laughs, "Bugs Bunny."

The Plastics' increasingly bad behavior cows adults in their vicinity: Regina's insecure mother (Amy Poehler) only wants to maintain her youth (which she sees in a faux connection with her daughter, who overtly resents and reviles her). Ms. Norbury tries to maintain her distance, even as she sees that Cady is a math whiz who should put out for the school team, made up of nerdy boys who'd love to have a girl along ("You guys," she tells her charges, "have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It's just bad for business"). And principal Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows) occasionally takes up a Joe-Clarkish baseball bat in his efforts to maintain a mostly superficial order. His complete inability to control or even anticipate anything that happens around him ("The girls have gone wild!" wails one supposed monitor, as the camera pans absolute chaos in the hallways) only underlines the film's central point: unhappy, confused kids grow up to be unhappy, confused adults.

The struggle for Cady, as for Heathers' Veronica (Wynona Ryder) before her, involves the discovery of her own decently girlish identity. By the time she comes to worry about lying to everyone from her parents to her friends to the deftly ironic Ms. Norbury, Cady's options appear limited. She's no longer a designing interloper in Girl World, but a full-fledged member. As per generic conventions, Cady will figure it out. But this familiar story is helped considerably by the fact that her figuring is framed by such a snarky worldview. In Girl World, as in any feral environment, "When you get bitten by a snake, you're supposed to suck the poison out."


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.