Popularity, Plastics and Power

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I was eleven when I watched Mean Girls for the first time. It was during my best friend’s birthday sleepover, and we all piled onto her sofas with bowls of Butterkist and discussed how ‘lush’ Aaron was (Sugar magazine had told us so). We all appreciated its anti-clique message, and the bit at the end where Cady breaks up the Spring Fling crown and gives a piece to everyone. And then, when we’d finished watching, we entertained ourselves by being so horrible to one of our friends that she locked herself in the bathroom and cried until her parents came to pick her up. We’d failed to take the ‘calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier’ message very seriously.

I don’t want to deny Mean Girls its place in the canon of high-school chick-flicks. It practically defines the canon of high-school chick-flicks, and rightly so because it’s brilliant. Its best lines have become common cultural capital; I know a lot of people scream “scum-sucking road whore!” at bad drivers, or who store secrets in their big hair, or who’ve tried and failed to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s written by Tina Fey, and has a part where a pug chews at Amy Poehler’s nipple –it’s inevitably going to far outstrip the mall-trips and red plastic cups of your average teen comedy. As with any satire, its bite comes from the uncanny familiarity of its pitch-perfect depiction of interactions amongst teenage girls. Ask any current Year 9 who the ‘Queen Bee’ of their year is and they’ll respond not just with one name but a complex, considered analysis of the exact current socio-political situation amongst rival factions, complete with Nick Robinson-worthy predictions and animated infographics. Mean Girls encapsulates this. Its problem, however, lies in this recognisability. In portraying the politicking of female friendship, the falseness and frenemies and flagrant scandalmongering, it perpetuates a paradigm in which relationships between women are inherently bitchy.

In its presentation of the intricate hierarchies within the Plastics and across Northshore High, Mean Girls further propagates the dangerous and already pervasive image of female teenage friendship as defined by its fundamental nastiness – and in doing so, even as it emphasises its anti-clique, anti-bullying message, it implicitly promotes scheming and duplicity as the default, the ‘norm’, for girls’ interactions. Mean Girls reinforces the idea that the driving force behind all women’s friendship is the desire for status, for a nebulous ‘popularity’ to be achieved through complex, calculating power-play. Women are divided and ruled through the cliques into which they separate themselves, each character forced to navigate a complex hierarchy in which loyalty is secondary to self-preservation. Female friendship becomes about power, rather than actually liking each other.

To some extent, this is the reality of being a thirteen-year-old girl. My all-girls secondary school, for example, had to discontinue Circle Time because it descended into a weekly anarchy of spitting accusation. Since this is the image of female friendship that is being constantly reinforced, however – by parents; by teachers; by Disney; by Nickelodeon – is it really surprising? Films like Mean Girls manifest society’s different definitions of power between men and women, and our behaviour is shaped accordingly. It stems, perhaps, from the overarching presumption that little boys are ‘by nature’ loud and unruly whilst girls are quiet and neat, forcing us to sublimate anger into cunning and power-play rather than just thwacking each other over the head with the closest Bratz Doll to hand. But it is also an idea that almost every school-oriented film or TV series repeats. From High School Musical to Hannah Montana, John Hughes’s films to John Tucker Must Die, we are presented with the image of girls competing, attempting to take each other down through cunning politicking rather than outright aggression. In Grease, for instance, the T-Birds and the Scorpions race their cars until they have a clear winner; the Pink Ladies spend the film spreading rumours about each others’ pregnancies and trilling about how Sandra Dee is ‘lousy with virginity’ behind her back.

Portrayals of teenage male friendship, moreover, are rarely loaded in the way portrayals of female friendship are. In the grossout stoner comedies marketed to adolescent boys (like American Pie, or Superbad) samesex friendship is not a political phenomenon — it’s rose-tinted and headily bromanticised. Groups of girls, Hollywood tells us, are caught up in hysterical manipulations of one another, playing out petty insecurities viciously against one another – it’s Bill and Ted vs Easy A. Even when they’re too busy making wanking jokes to realise it. Mean Girls therefore reveals a reality of how calculatedly horrible girls can be to each other, but also perpetuates it. It participates in a discourse in which girls’ friendships are based on power-play, on drawn-out crusades against other canteen cliques – which only serves to normalise this sort of destructive behaviour. It teaches that being powerful depends on attacking others, that strength lies in making other women weak. Which isn’t how it should be. As Gretchen puts it, that’s just, like, the rules of feminism.

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