Mean Girls (2004)

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.”