How Mean Girls held up a mirror to the cultural pressures teen girls face
Beloved teen comedy Mean Girls is turning 15 years old on April 30th.
Since hitting theaters in 2004, Mean Girls has reached the status of pop culture gold. Starring a peak-2000s Lindsay Lohan as Cady and the irreplaceable Rachel McAdams as Regina George, the movie tackles cliques, hierarchy, and teenage life. While these storylines are visible in most movies targeted toward teenagers, Mean Girls offered especially incisive commentary on the social pressures that teenage girls face—whether it’s Eurocentric beauty ideals, class divisions, the Madonna-whore complex, or the idea that one’s value is tied into attracting and keeping a man. But prior to Mean Girls, a lot of teen movies relied on the idea that teen girl villains (and teen girl characters in general) are vapid and solely concerned with superficial things.
The genius of Mean Girls lies not only in how it addresses larger social issues, but for its unwavering stance that teen girls are hyperaware of the gender norms and cultural pressures informing their worlds.
Beyond that, the film highlights that teen girls are capable of forming a resistance. When Cady and Janis initially draft a plan to upend North Shore High’s social politics, what they’re really doing is naming the social norms that seek to limit girls and refusing to comply with how class, Western beauty ideals, and heteronormativity impact social hierarchy.
The movie opens with Cady on her first day of high school. Previously homeschooled and recently moving to America from Africa, her parents are rightfully worried about her being in a public school. But Cady soon befriends outcasts Janis Ian and Damien Leigh, who give her a comprehensive crash course on North Shore High School— including its reigning queen bee Regina George. By pure chance, Cady manages to catch Regina’s attention and the outcast crew decides to use the opportunity to infiltrate and sabotage the “Plastics” clique.
Cady, Janis, and Damien create a list of all the things for which Regina is exalted and then use it to exploit her peers into sabotaging each of her crowning “accomplishments.” Number one on the list is her enviably gorgeous boyfriend, number two is her “hot body,” and number three is her loyal followers.
The hypervigilance surrounding appearance in Mean Girls, especially Regina’s “hot body,” is also linked to class. Regina is wealthy, and her ability to buy trendy clothes and makeup while having free time to terrorize her peers instead of working a part-time job is key to maintaining her social status. Similar to today’s Instagram influencer culture, Regina’s huge mansion and fancy convertible offers her the facade of refinement, making her influence at North Shore so powerful that she inadvertently convinces her peers to cut holes in their shirts and wear it as fashion.
Because of this, Regina seems irritably self-assured. But like many girls her age, she harbors insecurities about her body and weight despite having a figure that is slim by conventional standards. Throughout the movie, Regina is constantly preoccupied with “losing three pounds,” and while this seems like a superficial obsession, it also reveals how teenage girls are expected to constantly police their bodies in order to gain acceptance.
Toxic beauty standards are not the only problematic norms addressed in the film. The word slut gets tossed around a lot in this movie, and it happens almost anytime a girl acts upon her sexual desires. The balancing act that almost every girl in the school tiptoes around is maintaining an aesthetic that is sexy while simultaneously maintaining a reputation that borders on virginal. This is also known as the Madonna-whore complex, where women are expected to compartmentalize their sexuality, desires, and personality in ways that men are not expected to.
On the surface, this appears to be a film about high school and its many woes, but what the girls of North Shore High actually realize is that adhering to this social hierarchy not only brings them personal misery, but is built upon cultural messages that seek to marginalize them. This is particularly palpable when Ms. Norbury tells students in a self-healing exercise that they need to stop calling each other sluts and whores because “it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
When Cady finally wins the Spring Fling Queen’s crown she breaks the plastic tiara, distributing the pieces to each girl in the crowd. It’s the final piece of eliminating a social hierarchy that can only succeed if girls agree to be pitted against one another. And “that’s just, like, the rules of feminism.”