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
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

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

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

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.