Ten years after Mean Girls was released, the teen coming-of-age film that features no Web pages, no smartphones and little technology of any kind has become as integral to social media as an army of skanks was to Regina George's reign as Queen B of North Shore High. This last month saw representatives from Tumblr tell The New York Times that Mean Girls alone is responsible for more than 10,000 posts and nearly 500,000 notes. The Washington Post cited it as perhaps the most enduring bit of pop culture to ever grace the Internet amid a cloud of fast-fading memes.
In perhaps the magnum opus of Mean Girls social media commentary, Megan Garber at The Atlantic noted that not only did the film debut the same year that Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook's (FB) earliest incarnation at Harvard, but it laid the meme-based groundwork for Tumblr, BuzzFeed and everything that followed. In Garber's view "it combines informational content with social and emotional content" as those sites have and as your social media feed does on a daily basis.
So how does this happen pre-Internet? How does a film made on a $17 million budget by Lorne Michaels, his Saturday Night Live head writer and some of the spare parts he had laying around -- and we're talking about Amy Pohler, Ana Gastayer and the shamefully underappreciated Tim Meadows, not early-career Amanda Seyfreid and Rachel McAdams -- end up making $129 million and going into regular rotation on TBS? It's because of us.
Mean Girls' greatest treasure isn't Kevin Gnapoor's Christmas song (or Pohler's NSFW readthrough), Regina George punching people in the face or Glen Coco (you go, Glen Coco). It's the moment when Lizzy Caplan's Janis Ian, the first high-school friend of Lohan's formerly home-schooled Cady Heron, walks her into North Shore's cafeteria and hands her a map of the various cliques.
Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there. You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don't Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics.
For perhaps the first time in high school movie history, kids aren't lumped into giant, cartoonish, overly generalized groups. They're not represented by proxy (a la The Breakfast Club), they're not reduced to devolved satire (Heathers) and they're not turned into snarky mannequins (Clueless). They're niches, and you get a sense that there are more of them in the cafeteria than the small corner of the map and ensuing action allow us to see.
Based loosely on Rosalind Wiseman's self-help book about cliques, Queen Bees & Wannabes, Mean Girls does little to veil its anthropology. By making Cady the daughter of zoologist who just spent 12 years doing research in Africa, Tina Fey gave herself a vaguely scholarly and scientific cover for a fairly overt study of both biological and cultural divides. It puts her in a rich, diverse world where straight white males not only don't play a dominant role, but can sound pretty dumb when they do show up.
Those niches and unique subsets are social media's greatest strength. It's where just about any obsession, subcategory, subclassification, label, identity, belief system, shared interest or polarizing belief have myriad groups attached to them that connect cliques over vast geographic chasms. Like suggestive interpretations of holiday classics? You're not alone. Just wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school, or just have a lot of feelings? Join the club. Book smart, but still love to talk smack and spit rhymes? We got you.
The brilliance of Mean Girls is that it delves into how all of that can go horribly wrong as well. The polished, popular Plastics are tyrants: Imposing their will on the rest of the school through either by inspiring empty, consumerist envy or by undermining everyone who gets in their way. The Plastics embody the self-absorbed, unaware masses who make every day in social media a potential burn book day and highlight just how hard the other cliques have to work just to get some camera time.
That's the film's strongest strength and, memes aside, it's most enduring trait. It doesn't flinch, and the social media that followed didn't either. Social media doesn't just remember the time you shared your plastic tiara with the whole school, but the times you threw your friends under the bus, said something terrible that you couldn't take back and sold out your strongest supporters. It judges on the aggregate, and it takes some serious pain to revise your way to a happy ending.
It's that combination of informational and emotional content we alluded to earlier, and it's a beast. It forced us into a world where ironic detachment couldn't cut it anymore, but where earnest human response all too often trips over the line into a big pile of smarm. Mean Girls walked that line deftly while foreshadowing the global, clique-filled cafeteria to come. It was little surprise that by the time the next great high school movie came along in 2010, Emma Stone's lead character Olive in Easy A was doing much of her narration via webcam.
Mean Girls put the spotlight on us before we placed it on ourselves, but did so with a warning: Either put your best, true self forward, or get ready to spend a whole lot of time in bathroom-stall exile.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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