by Lucy Thomas
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Mean Girls, the film that brought teen girl politics out of the Burn Book and onto the Spring Fling dance floor of popular culture. When the archetypal clique of teen mean girls first entered public consciousness back in 2004, the world was a very different place. Social media was literally in diapers, with Facebook only predating the film by several months, yet Mean Girls’ themes remain just as relevant for young women today.
The truth is, Mean Girls is powerful because it’s real talk. The story cuts straight to the core of growing up and figuring out where we fit amid a jungle of confusing hormones, social competition and insecurity. And best of all, it forces us to laugh about it.
These enduring teen girl dynamics were first immortalised in Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, the source of inspiration behind Tina Fey’s screenplay for Mean Girls. Wiseman herself had spent over a decade working with adolescent girls and learning about the complex issues involved in navigating “Girl World.”
Naturally, when given the opportunity to contribute to the maiden issue of SheRa Mag, I plucked up the courage to get in touch with Wiseman and capture her thoughts on the evolution of Girl World during the past decade. As fate would have it, our interview occurred on a Wednesday and yes, I wore pink.
Although Regina George reminds us all of somebody we knew in high school, you actually met and worked with hundreds of girls in researching your book. What did you learn about these real mean girls?
We all know those girls out there who are really charismatic, fun to be around, who can be good friends, but who also really see friendships as ‘you’re either with me or against me.’ They don’t tolerate what they see to be threats to their power very well and perceive other people gaining social status or attention as a threat. These girls are created from a mix of influences. There’s the fact that we’re hardwired to be socially connected. Sometimes we weigh our social importance up in comparison to others. Then there’s the relentless messaging to girls that getting attention based on the way you look gives you value. On top of this, high school girls know that adults expect them to be cliquey and nasty, so there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘this is just what girls are like.’ It’s important for us to show girls that our relationships with other women are incredibly important to our health, to our safety, and to our ability to function in the world.
Mean Girls was pretty edgy at the time in the way that it acknowledged female sexuality so candidly. In your experience, how do young women tend to react to the challenge of understanding and expressing their sexuality?
Girls have very diverse reactions to sexuality. Thank God! Yes, there are some girls who buy into the idea that they have to be sexualised in these very codified, regressive ways in order to count. But then there are also girls who see gender as very fluid. They want something different to the passive female sexuality that is being shoved down their throats all the time. One of the things I love about working with girls is that I’m constantly reminded that they are often more mature and sophisticated about the way that they see and express gender than we give them credit for.
In translating Queen Bees and Wannabes into Mean Girls, what do you feel were the most important ideas to capture?
I wanted girls to be able to see themselves, or dramatic versions of themselves, and to laugh in recognition, but also to be able to learn from what they see. In actuality, what you learn as a teen patterns you for the rest of your life. Knowing this, I just didn’t want the message to come across as “lecture-y.” You have to satire the whole situation in a way that is both credible and familiar and the film does this well.
Mean Girls continues to drill down on the gritty politics of current teen Girl World. Why is it that these ideas are still so damn relevant?
The ways in which girls interact with each other are immemorial. There’s barely any technology in the movie, so the methods have certainly changed. But ultimately we all want friends. We all know what it’s like to be on the outer and desperately wanting to be included. We all feel a rush of adrenaline of when we belong. We tell ourselves:
“Oh my god, these people like me, like, oh my god!”
Mean Girls is subtle and smart, so it’s something that girls can still relate to—the motivations behind it are true to real life and they are enduring.
As a collective of women, shouldn’t we have evolved further in the past 10 years?
Well I would like for us to have evolved further! There is a long way to go, but I think girls do believe that they have the right to succeed and that they have the right to be passionate about things that they care about, like making the world a better place. There are still some girls who are incredibly superficial in choosing not to find true meaning in social connection. There’s a tug of war between superficiality and meaning. But I’m heartened to know that there are many girls who do demand more of themselves and of others. They know that they are being disrespected when mainstream culture pushes messaging about how they should be sexy, get fake breasts, look exactly the same, and pretend they’re not as smart as they are. They recognise this pressure and they do fight against it.
Since Queen Bees and Wannabes, you have engaged with parents, teachers, and thousands of teens across the United States. What has changed about the social dynamics of Girl World since the book was published?
The whole obsession of taking pictures of ourselves has definitely changed the dynamic between girls. What worries me is the searching to be seen as a celebrity and having that moment where everybody is focused on you. I think this is an incredibly manipulative and nasty thing that mainstream culture does to girls. It’s a toxic message: In order to count, you have to be seen in a sexualised way, instead of being valued for meaningful contributions and friendships. I also worry about young people’s sleep, because your brain can’t shut off if you’re looking at a screen at night. It creates this feeling of constantly trying to fix the crap that’s going on around you on social networking. It’s relentless, that’s what’s changed.
In your new book about teen guy politics, Masterminds and Wingmen, you challenge the assumption that girls are really complex, but guys are “simple.” What are some of the challenges that teenage guys face in navigating Guy World?
Well that’s just it. We don’t allow guys to have a language about their lives and tend to think of them as being simple or stupid. They should be just as outraged as girls and ask, why are you shoving me into this box of gender? Why are you only giving me this completely regressive way of being? We talk to boys as though there’s no confusion and complexity in their lives and there is.
Another issue is that although guys are in a position of power and privilege, this power and privilege comes at a high cost. It allows some guys to become complete douchebags and strips them of the ability to connect in ways that are not power-oriented. It also teaches other boys to say nothing in the face the cruelty inflicted by these dominating, arrogant, or abusive guys. We don’t give guys the language to be able to speak out and be actually courageous in ways that we say we want them to be. Guys do need to be responsible for their behaviour, but we also need to educate them and reach out to them and respect the lives that they’re living in order to help them.