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As a New Musical, Mean Girls Is More Relevant Than Ever, for Reasons Beyond What Tina Fey Says

Lacey Chabert, Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried in "Mean Girls"

Mean Girls has been adapted into a musical, with a book by the film’s screenwriter, Tina Fey, and music by her husband, Jeff Richmond. The reviews seem to be predominantly positive, and at the Broadway opening last night, Fey talked about Mean Girls‘ continued relevance fourteen years after the fact. What’s interesting is that the way Fey sees that relevance and the way I see it are a bit different.

In an interview with Variety, Fey said, “The movie was about relational aggression among women. But now that behavior has really metastasized across our society, and you see it everywhere. You see it in people being horrible to each other on social media. So if anything, it’s gone wider. It’s such an escalation in the interpersonal arms race.”

She’s not wrong. The growth of the Internet and the rise of social media have created a completely different media and interpersonal landscape that allows all of us to indulge in “meanness” on a larger scale—so much so that the new musical is set in the present day, not 2004, in order to explore how much further the girls could’ve gone in their bullying had they had these tools at their disposal.

“You would immediately know that it was not of the present, if social media wasn’t part of it,” says Richmond. “But we also didn’t try to lean into it too hard, either.”

So, yes, social media is important, and we are all much more divided these days, thanks to this new media landscape. Us vs. Them, Internet trolls, cyberbullying, etc, etc. Yes to all of those things.

But, to me, Mean Girls remains relevant not as a general treatise on “meanness,” but as the beginning of a conversation about the causes of meanness that is female-specific. The original film scratches the surface, but it also falls back on film tropes that are inherently sexist in nature.

Too often in teen movies, “catty” girls are presented as inevitable. That’s just “how girls are.” But they’re that way for a reason. It’s a survival tactic.

In a world where …

  1. Men hold a majority of power and wealth
  2. there are more girls than boys, so we have to “compete” for relationships (if we’re even attracted to boys, because, of course, queer girls are often left out of the conversation in teen movies, except as punchlines)
  3. girls and women are only as valuable as their good looks (and an arbitrary mainstream beauty standard) allow, and
  4. girls and women are forced to strike an unfair balance between dichotomies they never signed up for: virgin/whore, mother/professional, girlie-girl or “one of the boys”

… in order for girls and women to move forward and achieve anything, they get subtle messaging about “eliminating the competition,” and are forced to fight for scraps, while boys and men have the luxury of dreaming and designing the lives they want for themselves. Women and girls aren’t allowed just to be “actual human beings,” as Cady says at the end of the film. And while she may have left the extremes of how she was viewed by others behind, she did so by landing a boyfriend, and her friends splitting up to do their own thing.

Every girl for herself.

Regina joins the lacrosse team to channel her anger, Karen becomes the school weather reporter (by feeling her own breasts on camera), and Gretchen joins the “Cool Asians” (a whole other piece could be written on the problematic use of race in cliques in this film), remaining trapped in the school caste system. Janis ends up dating Mathlete Kevin Gnapoor, and protagonist Cady gets to keep her love interest Aaron, who graduates and goes off to Northwestern (but she can still “see him on weekends”).

A scene from "Mean Girls"

It depicts what female friendships shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t take the time to show us what they should be.

There’s plenty of “girl power” messaging in Mean Girls. However, it also puts the onus solely on the shoulders of individual girls to end a systemic problem they didn’t cause. What it doesn’t do is take boys to task for their behavior, or articulate the fact that the reason why there are “mean girls” in the first place is because patriarchy teaches girls to be this way.

Patriarchy also teaches things like “boys will be boys” to excuse abusive behavior in boys and men, and while it’s absolutely true that men and boys abuse other men and boys in all sorts of gender-specific ways to assert their own masculinity, girls face abuse from both boys and other girls.

It’s almost as if girls are “mean” to each other in an attempt to head off boys being mean to them later. To steel themselves against it. Which, of course, doesn’t work.

Mean Girls delivers the messages that girls and women have been getting for decades: You’re beautiful exactly as you are! You’re strong! It’s up to you to be assertive! Or as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

That’s very true. No one can make you feel anything. But they can treat you as inferior with or without your consent, and that’s the problem. It’s not just about how oppression makes us feel, it’s about the fact that we shouldn’t be put in the position to feel any way about it, because it shouldn’t be allowed to continue happening.

We are living post-#MeToo and Time’s Up. We are living at a unique moment in feminism where gender equality, dare I say it, is actually a mainstream topic at the forefront of public discourse. I read a hopeful interview in USA Today with Erika Henningsen, the actress currently playing Cady in the new musical. According to her, the feminism of the film is updated a bit in the new production. She describes a climactic speech from Regina George toward the end of the musical:

“There’s a (new) wonderful scene in the musical where Regina tells Cady, ‘You don’t have to apologize for being a badass. You have to apologize when you tear somebody else down because of it. But you should never apologize for your worth and your strength,’ and that’s sort of been the new development of Tina’s message, of the show’s message for today.”

USA Today also reports that the feminism is “more clearly articulated,” saying that “There’s the overtly girl-power dialogue and songs from math teacher Ms. Norbury and subversive best friend Janis Sarkisian (a name change from the movie’s Janis Ian). There’s also a surprising moment from the air-headed Karen Smith about teaching young boys not to disseminate racy photos their female peers send to them.”

I’m heartened by word of these updates, and love the fact that Mean Girls can evolve in this way and go further in its feminism than it went fourteen years ago. Where I disagreed with Fey’s comment is that I don’t think the messages of the film or the musical should be diluted by making them about “everyone” being mean to each other.

Tina Fey as Ms. Norbury in "Mean Girls"

Mean Girls was never about “a culture of meanness.” It’s always specifically been about how society is “mean” to girls, forcing them to be “mean” to each other to survive.

While Fey’s Ms. Norbury advises the girls to stop calling each other sluts and whores, because “it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores,” I hope that the new, evolved Mean Girls brazenly asserts that It’s never okay for guys to call you sluts and whores. Under any circumstances. No matter what you wear or do. Blaming girls and women for their own oppression is not okay.

(images: Paramount)

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