Teen movies, or movies that focus on the life and problems of teenagers in the American society, are a separate genre on their own. These movies are usually set in the high school that seem to have a typical social structure with a beautiful blonde or a muscular athlete at the top and the nerdy outsider at the bottom.
These teen movies depict a system where rewards and punishments are decided by the inclusion or exclusion into the charmed group. Mean Girls, is one such teen movie with all the elements of teen movies as discussed by David Denby. Mean Girls has a group of beautiful blondes who are preoccupied with maintaining their superiority and a couple of nerdy kids who feel wronged by the blondes and so use the new girl in school to get their revenge.
The movie Mean Girls is successful because it touches a chord with the audience who have all lived through the high school faced similar peer pressure to live up to the ideal set by the one beautiful girl or muscular jock.
Regina George in Mean Girls is the typical rich, tall blonde girl who looks down at those who are not as fortunate as her and reminds the viewers of that one girl in high school whom they all loved to hate.
Regina is always accompanied by two girls who are just like her while Regina is the “queen bee”, the leader, who makes all the rules and reigns over her small kingdom. In typical teen movie tradition, rest of the school loves to hate her and secretly wants to hurt her just the way she has hurt everybody else in the school. Regina does not necessarily have to be mean or insulting but simply by being beautiful and glamorous she alienates others who can never be like her.
She is the subject of awe, the uncrowned royalty, and hence, in a society that stresses equality, is the antithesis of everything that America stands for. Regina divides the school into “haves” and “have-nots”. Those who are not as lucky as her hate her simply for being who she is. In the theatre, this mean character reminds all the viewers of that one girl from their school days and becomes the symbol of their collective hatred.
So when the nerdy outsider challenges her reign and overthrows her she becomes their hero and the viewers can collectively cheer for her. The downfall of the beautiful blonde serves to massage the bruised egos of the viewers who have been secretly smarting at their inability to challenge the “queen bee” from their high school.
Regina establishes in the high school an oasis of beauty and desirability that everybody, unsuccessfully, seeks to achieve and to the audience it is a bitter-sweet reminder of their own vulnerabilities as teenagers.
Regina is always accompanied by her two friends, Gretchen and Karen, the wannabes who tag around with her so that they too may be considered “cool”. This small group of friends is like an exclusive club in which entry is by invitation only and whose members have to follow strict rules of dressing and grooming.
The exclusivity and obvious glamour of Regina’s small group ensures that everybody else aspires to be more like her. In one funny scene in Mean Girls, Cady cuts holes in Regina’s t-shirt. But instead of being upset about it, she wears the t-shirt with holes. In the next scene, the entire school is shown wearing torn t-shirts as they try to copy Regina.
This eagerness to imitate somebody stems from the basic human desire to be liked and because the popular student is perceived to be universally liked, the obvious assumption is that by imitating that person, others too could achieve the same popularity. In a society where teenagers “look to one another and not to adults for advice, information, and approval” (Jean Schwind 80), peer pressure can become the driving force for all actions.
Since Regina sets the bar for what is cool, everyone else scrambles to imitate her and be more like her. The resulting comic-tragic sequence is one that almost everyone in the audience can identify with since we are all always aspiring for a higher ideal that is always just outside of our reach.
Regina, Cady and other teenagers in the movie are not afraid of adult authority and this reflects a cultural shift in the society, wherein parents have little or no control over their children. According to Denby, in a typical teen movie, “the enemy is not authority; the enemy is other teens and social system that they impose on one another” (Denby 345). So in a modern day teen movie, teenagers do not face any opposition from the authority figures of school and parents but from other students in the class.
Regina’s mother is more like a friend who supports her daughter and even encourages her in whatever she is doing. She also does not have any real authority over her daughter but gets ordered around by Regina. Similarly, the school’s principal, Mr. Duvall does not seem to have any authority over the students. Cady’s father has no idea how to discipline her daughter. The only teacher who knows how to control the teenagers becomes victim of malicious gossiping.
By stripping all the authority figures of their power, the movie caters to yet another viewer fantasy of not having to deal with rules. Indeed, there seems to be a complete absence of any rules in Mean Girls and other recent movies of similar genre. Viewers, who live in a society bound by rules are able to live their fantasy of a free society through the lives of these young teen girls.
Regina is both the most liked as well as the most hated person in her high school and as a result, when she suffers, the viewers find themselves being uncomfortably glad at Regina’s downfall. Regina is not a bad person but a victim of her own popularity and so must take steps to ensure that she remains popular.
One way to do so is by keeping herself unique and above the rest of the crowd. The other way is to ensure that her two followers always remain loyal to her so that her exclusive club is maintained and continues to remain the envy of the rest of the class.
But in order to keep Gretchen and Karen loyal to her, she must use the carrot and stick approach of showing them the benefits of being her friend while at the same time pointing out the ill-fate that befalls those who dare to cross her. In other words, her bitchiness is the result of her need to remain popular and exclusive even though she does not mean any harm.
But to other students of the school, she epitomizes the “mean girl”. According to Schwind, “envy and resentment motivate peers to take ‘she’s all that” girls down a notch or two…The quest for popularity (is) a ‘cutthroat contest’ in which girls betray true friends and make false once to advance within the social hierarchy” (Schwind 81).
In Mean Girls, we see this power play being played out between Regina and Cady as Cady almost destroys Regina and takes her place as the “queen bee”. The audience that has lived through these power plays during their high school years is able to identify with the various characters but also realize that Regina’s “punishment” may be too harsh. So when Regina meets with the accident, they feel sorry for her but also get a perverse pleasure from her predicament.
In modern world, a teenager’s life is not easy and they must constantly prove themselves to each other, to their parents and teachers and to the society or risk being marginalized. Movies are but a mirror of society and Mean Girls shows that the biggest challenge that modern teenagers face is not from strict parental authority but from their peers who are increasingly competitive and not afraid to cross boundaries.
High school is the time when students are most vulnerable and given the peer pressure, surviving high school is not an easy task. The audience who has lived through those competitive years remembers them with mixed feelings. Mean Girls brings out the constant struggle that they had to live with during their high school years. This makes it easier for the young movie-going audience to identify with the movie explains its success.
Denby, David. “High-School Confidential: Notes on Teen Movies”. Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Eds. Sonia Masik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford. 343-349. Print.
Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Water. Perf. Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams. Paramount Pictures, 2004. DVD.
Schwind, Jean. “Cool Coaching at Ridgemont High”. Celluloid Dreams: How Film Shapes America. Eds. Chris M. Ramos, David T. Mayeda and Lisa Pasko. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010. 343-349. Print.