Last weekend when I was writing up a should-be-unnecessary post showing that sci-fi geeks are disproportionately male, I had trouble staying on task because the trend is so clear that I felt it a waste of time to demonstrate the obvious at length. So I turned on the TV just when the movie Mean Girls had begun -- I'd heard it was OK from the high schoolers I tutor, and one of the main characters is Cajun super-hottie Lacey Chabert, so I figured it would provide adequate diversion while I typed. The script was written by former SNL head writer Tina Fey, who also plays a math teacher in the movie.
In brief, the movie details how civilization is incapable of restraining the primeval instincts of adolescent females to gossip, spread lies and rumors, and occasionally sabotage their closest friends in order to rise in status. The protagonist Cady (Lindsay Lohan) has recently moved to suburban Chicago from somewhere in sub-Saharn Africa, where she was raised and where her professor parents had been conducting fieldwork. Much of the plot focuses on her navigating the unfamiliar waters of post-pubertal life in a modern society -- there are evidently no cliques or coalitions in Africa, which might seem puzzling to anyone who's picked up a newspaper or seen the news even once in the past 30 years. She is thus surprised to learn from her Good Samaritan guides Janis and Damian that her fellow high school juniors are fractionated into exclusive groups such as the Varsity Jocks, Girls Who Don't Eat Anything, and the Plastics, the last of which are what I used to call the "pretty, popular girls." As an attractive girl, Cady is invited to join the Plastics, which her social outcast friends Janis and Damian encourage her to do so that she may serve as a Trojan Horse. The rest of the movie follows the conflict she faces in her dual roles as infiltrator and comrade within the Plastics.
If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, you're not having an early senior moment, since there has already been a movie wherein a pretty, popular girl teams up with an outcast to destroy a Plasticky clique from inside. The earlier incarnation, however, was dark, cynical, and though more absurdist in its plot, proved more realistic in its appraisal of human nature. I'm referring of course to the movie that featured such lines as: "Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count." Mean Girls, by contrast, presents a stupefying naive view of the causes of adolescent misery. At one point, the internecine backstabbing amongst the female juniors erupts into a full-scale riot, prompting an intervention by the administration. That I could believe, and I could even believe that the intervention would be some woollyheaded nonsense prepackaged in a Graduate School of Education somewhere. Surely enough, the entire junior class of females comes to understand that they have all hurt and been hurt by each other, after which they apologize for their past sins and fall from a raised platform into a sea of supporting arms. What an achingly girly solution: just increase communication and understanding of common suffering, and they won't harm each other ever again! Veronica Sawyer knew better -- nothing short of killing the bitches off one-by-one would put an end to the popular girls' tyrrany.
Although neither Heathers nor Mean Girls dwells on the reasons why this is so, it's easy enough to understand by comparing movies about the problems of teenage girls to those about the trials of male adolescence. The latter feature average teenage guys, whose only real problem is losing their virginity. That's certainly not because males are less predisposed toward destroying each other -- quite the opposite -- but because male competitive instincts are to pummel another guy's face in, and in civilized societies the State has a monopoly on the allowed use of force. On a smaller scale, security guards and other adult authority figures patrol the hallways of a high school, not to mention the crowd of people who can be immediately summoned should a fist fight break out. This serves as a deterrent against physical attacks, so it's very rare (although not impossible) for a typical teenage male to have to fend for himself, form a coalition for mutual protection, and so on.
Females, though, cannot rely on the inventions of civilization, such as neutral third parties who are charged with watching everyone, to protect them from the verbal attacks that are more likely to befall them. No iron fist will come down on their heads if they spread a rumor, nor will authority figures rush to break up a gaggle of girls gossiping. Even if there were such deterrents in place, a crackdown would be difficult to execute in practice, since females typically meet in secret when they want to concoct a rumor. More, once the rumor spreads, it takes on a life of its own -- much like the one in Mean Girls, according to which Janis is a lesbian (she is not), which has followed her from 8th grade to 11th -- so that eliminating the rumor would require changing the beliefs and suspicions of a large number of individuals. Rumors are typically the kind of thing one can't disprove (e.g., X is a lesbian, X confessed she has a crush on Y, etc.), and which the believers are likely to suspect are true even more strongly if there were a massive effort to wipe out the rumor. Thus, unlike the broken nose a male may have to deal with for several weeks after a rare fight, the entire collection of rumors about oneself persist indefinitely -- right up through one's 25th high school reunion, I would guess.
As a source of accurate data, then, Mean Girls does an excellent job at portraying the depressingly commonplace savagery that teenage girls must suffer, for want of a deterrent. There is a good scene in which the "Queen Bee" of the Plastics, Regina, calls Cady and stages an ambush by passive-aggressively goading her into maligning another member of the clique, who happens to be listening in silently, just to test her loyalty. And Janis' rage over the lesbian rumor that won't die poignantly portrays the struggle an "innocent" individual must mount to clear her reputation in the face of an overly credulous mob bamboozled by an expert social manipulator. True, even the inventions of civilization that combat mob suspicion, such as a trial with rules of evidence and defense by advocates, don't always prevent an unthinking horde from going with its gut; but the lack of such bulwarks allows natural-born pettifoggers like Regina to run roughshod over the accused.
However, as far as explanations go, the script reads like a mishmash of half-baked ideas from an introductory Women's Studies textbook. To reiterate, a major theme of the movie is the culture shock Cady experiences after leaving existence as a Noble Savage for the corrupted modern world. At times this nicely highlights the beastly nature of adolescence, such as when Cady is watching the goings-on at the local mall and daydreams that the teenagers are hopping around like chimpanzees chasing after each other at a lek. But the notion that she could be so innocent of the tendency to form in-group vs. out-group distinctions, after being raised in one of the most tumultuous areas of the globe, is utter balderdash. And in our days as hunter-gatherers we were even more murderous; those who believe in the Noble Savage would do well to read War before Civilization. So, short of genetic engineering, the best we can do in the meantime is to apply some tough-nosed thinking to the problem of creating deterrents against adolescent female barbarity.
This is another area where script-writer Tina Fey let her emotions get the better of her by slipping into the Moralistic Fallacy -- that is, "It would be so great if X were true; therefore, X is true!" In our case, it would be so great if this problem could be solved by increasing communication about and understanding of common suffering (a la the movie's finale); therefore, this solution would work! Think again. The underlying causes would remain: the instinct to form exclusive groups, the motivation to increase one's status (for girls, access to higher quality boyfriends), the lack of neutral third parties that might protect them, and so on. Even assuming we weren't ingenious enough to think up feasible solutions to the rumor / clique problem, I still wouldn't advocate using one of these "let's understand each other's pain" interventions. It just underscores how vicious one is toward others and vice versa. Once the girls figured out that the one-day love-in hadn't changed anything, the end result would just be a greater appreciation of how awful it hurts to be mired indefinitely in depravity. If I ever had to live in hell, without escape, you can bet I'd want to be as unaware of the pain as possible.
Finally, no review of this movie would be complete without a few words about Cady's talent at mathematics. In short, although she's able to get straight A's in math class, she feigns confusion so that hunky, popular boys won't be intimidated by her brains, and may even feel compelled to assist the damsel in distress. And despite joining the Mathletes club, she hides this from the hunky, popular boy whom she's enamored of. This is all apropos of the recent hulabaloo about hot girls who are also geeks, for several reasons. First, the fact that Lindsay Lohan is playing a math geek -- someone not merely adept at math, but who joins the Mathletes -- shows how difficult it is to find a female who is both incredibly attractive and math-geeky to play the part. Really, what's next -- Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist?
There are several young actresses whose smarts and looks aren't in question -- Natalie Portman and Eden Riegel attended Harvard -- but their dispositions and interests don't incline them toward life as math / science geeks. Still, I felt such an actress would have been a better choice since the message is supposed to be, "Look how hard life is for smart, pretty girls," and with Lohan assuming the role, we are only forced to consider how hard life is for pretty girls. As an aside, Winona Ryder's character in Heathers is also high-IQ and attractive, but she uses her brains to write rather than derive formulas, again making this movie more believable. As a second aside, this is why Dick Wolf hasn't had trouble finding fashion models and Bond girls to convincingly play Manhattanite Assistant District Attorneys on Law & Order.
Here Tina Fey, who attended the elite state school the University of Virginia, is using Mean Girls more to complain about her own idiosyncratic high school experience rather than portray high school life as it really is. Fey is certainly attractive and intelligent, as well as a proud nerd, and yet she majored in drama in college and became a performing artist, rather than study math and work as an engineer. If we are to take seriously the movie's innuendo that smart females aren't becoming mathematicians because they feel discouraged or care more about impressing boys -- rather than the finding in personnel psychology that girls are more likely to prefer the subject matter of drama and politics than that of math and engineering -- then Fey herself must be seen as a let-down, a sell-out, in the stern eyes of the sisterhood of radical feminist scientists.
Moreover, in real life she married a popular musician, not a computer programmer; and in the movie her character confesses to trying to steer her husband into a career in law, not physics. We can't honestly entertain the notion that Fey chose a career in show business over the sciences because the latter domain is more sexist, and the same would be true if she took a position at a Manhattan law office. Showbiz bigshots and law partners are of course more likely to be testosterone-crazed, macho pricks when compared to the grown-up geeks who head science departments. This all makes the "hot math geek" sub-plot rather difficult to swallow, and because it repeatedly interrupts the main storyline, it leaves you feeling like a hapless dinner guest whose deranged host won't stop trying to shove moldy asparagus down your gullet.
In the end, Mean Girls is an entertaining movie with plenty of delicious one-liners and sight gags that pepper a more disturbing reminder of how primitive the existence of modern-day adolescents is, especially for females, and is definitely worth watching. However, the point-of-view regarding the causes of teenage savagery is too naive: well-educated, right-thinking adults may be gullible enough to buy the bull about the power of a few cumbayas to transform human nature, but teenage girls themselves are unlikely to so foolishly let their guard down. The last thing we should do is lie to them about the causes of and feasible solutions to their worst problems, but we can also do better than simply shrugging and saying, "Well, human nature sucks, so things aren't likely to get much better." Hardheaded individuals should be able to think up deterrents against rumor-spreading and social sabotage. But because no one's attempted this project, the problem may well prove intractable, in which case adolescence will have to remain a time whose shittiness one must simply get used to and wait for it to end.