December 25, 2006

Review of Mean Girls: are teenagers corrupted Noble Savages?

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.


  1. Wow u wrote alot about a silly teen-girl movie. I actually liked it tho...but not till the second viewing. Heathers was too boring. Happy Holidays.

  2. This all makes the "hot math geek" sub-plot rather difficult to swallow, and because it repeatedly interrupts the main storyline

    Dawg...the BEST part of that movie was Kevin Gnapoor representing at the state Math tournament. I remember doing something almost exactly the same when we beat all they punk asses at ARML.

    Kevin Gnapoor: Yo Yo Yo!
    All you sucka MCs ain't got nothin' on me!
    On my grades, on my lines you can't touch Kevin G!
    I'm a mathlete, I'm a nerd, but forget what you heard
    I'm like James Bond the third, sh-sh-sh-shaken not stirred
    I'm Kevin Gnapoor!
    The G's silent when I sneak through your door.
    And make love to your woman on the bathroom floor.
    I don't play it like Shaggy, you'll know it was me.
    Cause the next time you see her she'll be like
    'Ooh! Kevin G.!'



  3. Heh, yeah, I thought about including a link to that scene at YouTube (or the one where he raps at the talent show), but I wasn't sure if S.Asian nerds were proud of or embarrassed by that character.

    That's another good thing about the movie -- a needed updating of what ethnic patterns are at all common (e.g., the hot, bitchy Vietnamese girls who are cooler than other E.Asian groups). When Heathers came out in 1989, the prototypical S.Asian in the media was Apu from The Simpsons, not a thugly Mathlete or red-hot ER doctor.

  4. well...hmmm....i don't know if proud is the operative term, but i've now seen several movies/tv shows/etc. with rapping indian math whizzes. it's now almost a hollywood cliche. which is hilarious, because i thought i was the only one growing up. other thing that is notable about the movie is gnapoor's pro-active rejection of lindsay lohan, who is ridiculously hot in that flick (a non-blond rachel mcadams is almost as good, but lohan is amazing in that movie...which happened before her rise, or fall, to paris hilton/tara reid skankishness).

    by "pro-active rejection" i mean the line about how gnapoor only gets down with brown girls, or something to that effect. it's an implausible line reminiscent of the people who say "i didn't want to go to harvard", but is interesting to see on screen for a variety of sociological reasons.

    all in all, i'd say mean girls transcends the genre and is one of the best flicks of that type. for reasons which I don't really understand myself, i've seen a ton of movies of that type (varsity blues, american pie, etc. etc.) and mean girls was one of the best.

  5. by the way, "proud" is not exactly the term. def. not ashamed...but basically it's the cinematic depiction of the recognition by most south (and east) asians growing up in the 90's in the US that it is difficult to scale the traditional heights of the popularity ladder with the dual weights of IQ and ethnicity on your back.

    (nowadays it's probably different as there may be more of a critical mass of indos/asians, as well as more ubiquitous stigmatization of even casual racism)

    for those who could not ascend that ladder directly, one alternative was to build your own -- to embrace a self-definition which was not obviously loserish according to those at the top of the hierarchy. Thus filthy rhymes and boisterous braggadocio, which are not the stereotypical accoutrements of those at the bottom of the status ladder and which at least partially confound an attempt at dissing/pigeonholing. for the gnapoor character, the icing on the cake is his pre-emptive rejection of the prize for being at the top of that status ladder (the hot white girl).

    anyway, that's what was interesting to me -- the phenomenon of face-saving ethnic rejectionism, one of the modal responses by those who couldn't beat 'em but weren't willing or able to join 'em. Sports were really the key for me to move up the ladder, but others didn't have that possibility.

  6. i liked Heathers better.
    true comedie noir.

    You'd be surprised, agnostic, how close to the truth Mean Grrls is for my high school experience, as a pretty mathgeek.

    But eksually...for teendemonqueen movies...Ten Things I Hate About You is much closer for me. I was Cat, but didnt get the guy. Well...there weren't any guys like that in my highschool. ;)

  7. When Heathers came out in 1989, the prototypical S.Asian in the media was Apu from The Simpsons

    Not to pick a minor point or anything, but the first episode of The Simpsons didn't air until the very end of 1989, months after Heathers had been released.

    Iron Rails & Iron Weights

  8. I agree that Mean Girls is one of the better teen movies; I went on and on about my frustration over its treatment of the causes & solutions b/c the movie gets them so awfully wrong. Like I said, I doubt actual teenage girls will believe a few hugs & kisses will alter human nature, but it does give adults an excuse for inaction -- "Oh, we'll just do a few interventions and that will be that!", when in reality adults should be applying their brains to the hard problem of creating deterrents.

    Re: ethnic rejectionism, yeah, he uses the phrase "women of color," I think. He still ends up w/ the hottish goth girl, who in the movie is Lebanese, though Jewish in real life (Lizzy Caplan). A google image search shows she's more attractive than in Mean Girls.

    I haven't seen Ten Things I Hate About You, or many of the more recent teen movies (Varsity Blues, She's All That, etc.). I did see the parody Not Another Teen Movie -- as satire, it of course presents a more realistic view of the world. Lacey Chabert's in that one too!

  9. Wow, I wouldn't have expected such a thoughtful analysis of a chick movie from a guy in his 20s. Good job. Maybe I'll finally put this on my Netflix cue; it sounds a bit more nuanced than I'd expected.

    The thing that bugs me about movies like this is that they make attractive people the enemy, and imply that unattractive/unpopular people ipso facto are loyal, perceptive, moral, and full of amazing talents that make them much more interesting to hang out with. This is a dangerous myth. IRL, I've almost never been hassled or backstabbed by a woman (or man) who was more attractive, talented, or intelligent than I was. It's the lower-ranking people who are struggling to move up on the ladder who cause the most problems. And unpopular people will almost never side with each other against a more popular person, unless both are being attacked equally with no hope of selling the other out. Few unpopular people are proud rebels against the status quo.

    I went to an all-girls high school where many of the ruling "alphas" were women the average guy did not find attractive at all. Didn't make them any nicer.

    in which case adolescence will have to remain a time whose shittiness one must simply get used to and wait for it to end.

    I've found these situations everywhere there is social or professional competition, no matter what people's ages.

  10. Speaking of Lacey Chabert, she's on the cover of Maxim this month.

  11. Wow, I wouldn't have expected such a thoughtful analysis of a chick movie from a guy in his 20s.

    well, as we all say at gnxp, agnostic is the sensitive one :)

  12. This is a dangerous myth. IRL, I've almost never been hassled or backstabbed by a woman (or man) who was more attractive, talented, or intelligent than I was....I went to an all-girls high school where many of the ruling "alphas" were women the average guy did not find attractive at all. Didn't make them any nicer.

    That's why your experience was completely different. In a mixed sex environment, status is mostly a function of attractiveness.

  13. "Really, what's next -- Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist?"

    She was also a spaceship pilot in Starship Troopers.

    "There are several young actresses whose smarts and looks aren't in question -- Natalie Portman"

    She's not that attractive.

  14. ahhh, come on. You wouldn't throw Natalie out of your bed.


  15. Natalie REALLY isn't that pretty. There are zilliosn of regular non-famous girls a lot hotter.

  16. I just reread my comment and thought parts of it sounded snide and catty. Not as bad as Half Sigma's though. Even I would have Portman, just on general principle.

    In a mixed sex environment, status is mostly a function of attractiveness.

    Money and who your friends are play a big role, too.

  17. well, as we all say at gnxp, agnostic is the sensitive one :)

    well...razib and matt and arcane are sensitve too. ;)
    hmmm...assuming godless is anonymous still...does that make him the insensitive one?

  18. Even assuming we weren't ingenious enough to think up feasible solutions to the rumor/clique problem

    Agnostic, can you actually come up with any way to deter the damaging social aggression that girls (and many grown women) inflict on each other?

    All it takes is one whisper for a highly stigmatizing, reputation-killing rumor to enter circulation. How can a girl protect herself from such a situation? She has no idea from whence it originates, plus strenuous denial only serves to make the victim look more guilty.

    Gossiping is hardwired into female brains. As a method of attacking rivals, it's just so easy, so effective and lacks the physical danger entailed in male aggression.

    You think solutions are feasible, but how would you even begin to deter this kind of behavior?


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