Among millennials, Mean Girls is one of the most well-known films of the past decade. It’s written by the highly-acclaimed comedian Tina Fey, who “you can never give … too much credit for [steering] popular culture” (Yarnall), and it is lauded for being an integral part of today’s “new wave of female comedy,” which many consider to be a “new space … [that] feminism is disruptively creating.” (The Times). But the movie is riddled with latent patriarchal sentiment that doesn’t pass as “just a joke” to be cast aside and deemed unimportant; the film itself doesn’t even seem aware of it. The desired feminist story is subverted by non-feminist means, and the movie actually arrives at an unexpected, yet somehow unsurprising, assertion.
The motion picture unintentionally falls back into pop culture’s pattern of male domination by placing men at the center of women’s plotlines. In fact, much of the movie is simply the aftermath of meeting a boy. Essentially, the protagonist develops a crush on the man sitting in front of her in math class, and she is henceforth doomed to exist for male attention. The character learns to wear makeup, style her hair, and clothe herself with the goal of gaining the attention of men, both character and viewer. But it’s not just her.
A female teacher is seen topless in the first few minutes of the film (in which she is simultaneously reduced to a divorcée whom a man is attracted to). The protagonist’s mother is never in a scene without her husband, although he can exist without her just fine. And another mother is only ever alone, but she, in compensation for lacking a male presence, is emphasized as having the same male-driven propensity for maintaining appearance as the teenaged girls.
While the film plays out, the characters’ struggles fluctuate and grow; yet in the end they can all be solved by a man. Specifically, the movie’s denouement is codependent to the pairing of each woman with a man. Once this happens, the chaos that stemmed from being independent of men is appeased and turned to harmony.
Some might say that the motion picture asserts, and brings viewers to agree, that female desire for male attention is a frivolous tendency, since comedic material is drawn from it. But when the underlying concept that women are unable to exist in film without a dependency on men is actually maintained by the final conclusion of the film, the satire of these instances is nullified.
The film also invites viewers to regard women as men would—for pleasure. This of course entails that the film is heteronormative, but more on that later. The women of the film are consistently portrayed as being one of two things: intensely worried about how their bodies are viewed, or flaunting them. (How could they exist without fashioning some relation to men?)
This corporeal focus is terribly clear in the fact that the most popular girls in the school are known as The Plastics. They have achieved social importance and high ranking by being the most attractive, to such a degree that they’re directly associated with plastic surgery—which, in its own right, is referenced quite a number of times. But in order to maintain their appearance, they must have the utmost scrutiny with their own bodies. There are always wrongs they must try to better or fix, or simply bemoan. “God! My hips are huge.” “Oh, please. I hate my calves.” “I’ve got man shoulders.” “My hairline is so weird.” “My pores are huge.” “My nail beds suck.” (19:38) Altering their physical appearance to be rid of these anxieties allows the girls to be teen royalty on campus, with Regina (Latin for “queen”) as their head.
And on the other side of the social desirability spectrum are the “desperate wannabes” (9:43). The girls with abnormal bodies: the physically disabled, small in stature, and fat. They display the unattractive qualities that The Plastics vehemently avoid, to such a degree that they are just to be laughed at, used as oddities to execute the film’s jokes. Or they are just the ones we hope will get prettier, we hope will somehow gain the means to attract a man. They are, in fact, only accepted into the main cast as reward for showing up made prettier, for wearing a dress or having intricately styled hair.
So these women have the opportunity to gain their importance in the movie, but what if men can’t gain pleasure from the character? What fate is he/she left to? It seems the male dominance of film is fraught with intricacies in how the male gaze should address those who innately lack the possibility of providing pleasure to straight men.
Homosexuality is shunned and made “other”, that much is clear. In providing a male dominated view of women’s existence and bodies, the motion picture must address how that gaze will react to non-heterosexuality. One major aspect to investigate in this movie is the inclusion of a heavily stereotypically gay character as one of the protagonist’s two main friends. In his case, the film can’t hide behind social-norm-attacking comedy, the joke is that he is flamboyant, fashion-driven, beauty product knowledgeable, and sassy – among other stereotypes. There is no societal prodding or questioning, it’s just funny that he’s so gay (as the currently derogatory phrase goes).
The movie has by this point made an intention to both laugh at and use the non-normal, seemingly because it means that the person can’t build the necessary relationship with a man that they require to be significant. In the case of this friend, there is not a single other homosexual man, presumably, in the entire school (certainly not to any extent pertinent enough to be mentioned and which comes into great importance later on). There is, however, a looming, fluctuating, threat of female homosexuality.
An interesting pattern in our culture is the greater acceptance for women to behave more masculine than for men to behave more feminine. This extends into the film during the scenes of girl-on-girl aggression being cheered on by bystander men (as Sarah Hartzell puts it, “for the realization of a man’s vision … violence against women is ‘worth it.’”), and even more so in scenes of sexual girl-on-girl action. Even just the stating of phrases like “girl-on-girl” and “the girls have gone wild” proposes the notion of sex between women (which viewers are expected to enjoy) (1:07:44).
So women leaning towards homosexuality is acceptable and encouraged – when in front of men. It is strikingly not so when amongst only women. And this is where the protagonist’s other friend comes in. We see this friend struggle with The Plastics’ belief and gossiping that she is lesbian. She had actually been “best friends” with Regina, head of The Plastics, until they started to think she was homosexual. “I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party,” Regina recounts of their falling out (33:50). There is an apparent duality behind when it’s okay, correlating to when it can be used to gain more male attention.
So, there is the momentarily funny and quickly forgotten gay friend, who is used to humorously tokenize gay males through his stereotypes and singular incidence, and the girl friend who epitomizes the constant reluctance women should feel to separate from the fetishistic bond they have with men. It is interesting then to see how these characters come out in the end. The girl friend who had been all but accused of lesbianism, ends up with a man (we see them in the final scene kissing on the lawn of the school). Thus, she is happy and unconditionally welcomed into the clique. Yet, in the same scene, as the camera pans to show each character harmoniously being brought into the group, the gay friend is notably left out.
Some might argue that his presence in itself includes him in the revelry, but it’s important to understand how he is presented among the others, and in the context of the overall motion picture. He’s there, but he has gained nothing, he’s not happier in the end. And according to the gender script of the film, this would be because heterosexual men don’t get pleasure from homosexuality in other men, no matter the condition. So the girl friend can be happy and accepted at the end, despite her ostensible transgressions, and the gay friend is doomed to be unhappy and unimportant.
Mean Girls is known as “one of the most quoted movies of all time … nestled into the hearts of fans” (Yarnall). Teaching girls to reject aggressive behavior towards each other, it is praised for the advancement of feminist beliefs and practices. But in its declaration of these notions, it upholds the dominant position of men in determining a woman’s worth. It tells female viewers that as long as they are able to relate themselves to a man’s pleasure, even by just successfully eliciting his attention, they will be happy and important. If you cannot, as gay men are doomed to be unable and lesbian women threaten to be, you will be neither happy nor important (at least not increasingly). A normative ending resolves the purposely overdone patriarchy that Fey used to make a point, and ironically sweeps feminism (and her point) under the rug. With a musical adaptation in the works, it turns out Tina Fey may actually have to consider rewriting this iconic script, if she is willing to lose fans over a potentially unsatisfying ending.
(might as well watch it again, basically all my points in 3 mintues of the film)
“How to Work The Red Carpet – And Other Lessons From Amy Schumer.” The Times: 16. Sep 17 2016.
Hartzell, Sarah. “What it Means to be a Woman in Film.” University Wire. Dec 07 2016.
Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Waters. By Tina Fey. Perf. Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. Paramount Pictures, 2004.
Schilling, Mary Kaye. “Tina Goes to War.” Town and Country: 14. April 2016.
Yarnall, Erin. “Mean Girls’ Celebrates 10 Years as One of our Generation’s most Iconic and Quotable Films.” University Wire. Feb 23 2016.