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High School Satire and Shallowness Mark "Mean Girls"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Aug 03, 2007
High School Satire and Shallowness Mark "Mean Girls"

Release Date:  April 30, 2004
Rating:  PG-13 (for sexual content, language and some teen partying)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time: 93 minutes
Director:  Mark Waters
Actors:  Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Jonathan Bennett

Despite an opening scene that mocks home-schooled children, who are portrayed as total geeks or homophobic religious weirdos, “Mean Girls” will leave many parents feeling like traditional high schools may be the last place they want their teens.

Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) has just landed in suburbia, Illinois, after years of being home-schooled in Africa, where her parents did research – and which makes her different from other home-schooled kids, she points out. A blank slate when it comes to the intricacies of social relationships (another slam on home-schooling), Cady isn’t prepared for the jungle of public high school. Fortunately, Damien (Daniel Franseze) and Janis (Lizzy Caplain) take Cady under their wings. Janis is a Goth and Damien is “too gay to function,” but they explain the social hierarchy to Cady, and not without great bitterness.

"Mean Girls"

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When the popular “plastics” invite Cady to join their group, she is both flattered and tempted (after all, it’s every kid’s dream), but she doesn’t want to offend her new friends. So she accepts Janis’ offer to spy on them. Janis, who hates the plastic’s Queen Bee, Regina (Rachel McAdams), has a bone to pick from the 7th grade. Soon, Cady is caught in a web of deceit, even as she grows more popular with the spiteful Regina and her sycophants, shallow Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and ditzy Karen (Amanda Seyfried). Then Cady falls for Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), Regina’s old boyfriend. Cady and Regina become arch enemies.

The film serves as an excellent satire about high school and has a distinct “Saturday Night Live” feel. SNL head writer Tina Fey penned the script, a fictional comedy based on Rosalind Wiseman’s New York Times bestseller, “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence.” Along with SNL’s Amy Pohler as Regina’s mom, Fey stars as Ms. Norbury, Cady’s supportive math teacher. SNL veteran Anna Gasteyer also has a part (as Cady’s mom), and SNL creator Lorne Michaels is one of the producers.

Although comical for its scathing social commentary, this parody is disturbing on several levels. It strips away the veneer from high school life, revealing dirty secrets about cliques and cruelty, and how everyone – from the Asian sluts to the stoners to the geeks – are defined by their highly-stratified peer group. Damien maps out a blueprint of the cliques’ “assigned seats” in the cafeteria for Cady, and it is no wonder that the socially naïve teen compares their behavior to animals (in some funny imaginary scenes).

We also see the way that cruelty among girls has become habitual, and Wiseman’s seminars, which she hosts at schools around the country, are proof that the problem is endemic. The film points the finger at parents like Regina’s mother (Pohler), who are desperately trying to relive their own lives through their children, and thus refuse to discipline them. Equally, Cady’s parents have no clue about anything that is going on, much less what to do about it.

The language is mostly mild, although girls constantly call each other “bitches” and “whores,” which the teachers address at an Apology Day in the gym. The girls all wear revealing tops, midriffs and skirts, and the Plastics perform a song in skimpy red plastic “Santa” outfits that make them look like cocktail waitresses in a seedy club and a student raps some disturbing lyrics. Kids drink and make out during a Halloween party, which is described as “the one time when girls can dress like sluts,” explaining the abundance of Playboy bunny costumes. The most concerning moral issues portrayed in the film, however, are the defiant, self-centered attitude of the girls, who have no qualms about lying, manipulating and gossiping in vicious and demeaning ways.

The problem with the SNL-like satire in this film is twofold. One, Fey’s writing is so scathing that it sometimes misses the mark. Two, she can’t resist turning the movie into a lecture about acceptance. The satire worked, but the Dr. Phil session toward the end upset the cinematic apple cart. Although something clearly needed to be done about the girls’ behavior, the feel-good psychobabble doesn’t even scratch the surface of this social blight. It isn’t enough to tell teenage girls to be nice to one another. It has to be modeled – and enforced – at home. Teenagers are reeling from anxiety, fear and pressure, and they’re taking it out on one another. The problem is, without any standards by which we can all agree to live, everyone follows their own way. For this reason, the film ultimately falls flat. It’s shockingly good satire that suddenly morphs into politically-correct shallowness.

The irony, of course, is that Fey is the ultimate mean girl. Her SNL skits make fun of people in the cruelest of ways. Yet with her film, we’re suddenly asked to believe that this is wrong. The other great irony is that, despite its mockery of home-schooling, it ends up being the biggest advertisement for that practice that I’ve ever seen.