By the end of high school, I felt lucky. I'd made great friends, passed my classes, took chances on extracurriculars that shaped my personality and avoided distractions that could have derailed those goals. Part of that was never settling into a clique; I ran with a nerdy bunch that brought a day's AP English lesson to the lunch table and planned mini-golf outings on the weekends, but I was too curious to stick with them every waking hour. So I picked the brains of the popular types and the outsiders, the jocks, the chain smokers, the academic elite and anyone who would give me the time of day. I was conducting my own sociological study. After four years of picking every kind of brain, I thought I knew people.
Turns out, I didn't know squat.
I saw Mark Waters' Mean Girls in April 2004 -- a month from accepting my diploma and getting the hell out of dodge. Catching the latest multiplex release was standard operating procedure during my time in the 'burbs, and Mean Girls was the perfect antidote for my then-girlfriend, who survived accompanying me to Hellboy earlier that month. Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey tackling the screenplay gave my cynical 18-year-old self hope, thought I couldn't help but think it was "one for her." My girlfriend had two requirements for what made a good movie: 1. It had be funny; 2. It had to have a happy ending. Knowing She's All That and Bring It On previously fulfilled these conditions, Mean Girls became a must see.
Waters and Fey's comedy hit me like a speeding school bus. A person doesn't need to fit the profile of a character, recognize the setting or have lived the scenario for a movie to get in his or her head, but the stars can also align during a viewing experience. For me, that was Mean Girls. The movie was the definition of a rude awakening for a high school male. I entered the theater thinking I had my fingers on the pulse of youthful behavior. I left realizing I was still Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) on her first day of high school.
Mean Girls opens with Cady arriving to her first day. She doesn't know anything about teenagers. Her Research Zoologist parents raised her on the plains of Africa and when she enters the double doors of North Shore High, she pictures the wild. The halls are the plains, her classmates are the beasts and on display is their vicious, animal instincts. From talking to Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), she realizes that's how everyone in high school sees the world. Cliques create a biological classification system. Classmates are in various "Kingdoms." The rare person has a personality worth defining as a "Genus." Fey's script reminded me that people are in the details. Befriending isn't saying hello -- it's falling face first into their world. I wanted to learn about people, but I was only an ecological observer.
"Entering the Plastics was like leaving the actual world and entering girl world," Cady says, after she's recruited by Regina George (Rachel McAdams) into the Queen Bee hierarchy. As a mild-mannered male teenager, that moment sent me through a Phantom Tollbooth. I should have realized that Sex Ed, The Karen Carpenter Story, an impassioned conversation with my significant other and the occasional blip of gossip don't paint a full picture of what girls deal with in high school. In retrospect, this is obvious. In the swell of high school drama, it shook me. After watching the Plastics critique their fellow classmates in the "Burn Book," then turn their scornful eyes to their own bodies, Cady admits, "I used to think there was just fat and skinny. Apparently there are a lot of things that can be wrong on your body."
Cady tries to fit in and fails. She's seduced by the Plastic lifestyle -- looking "hot" and prioritizing boy-wrangling. The Plastics set trends and guidelines for girls at the bottom of the food chain, who would kill for a taste of small pond fame. Janis, Damien and a handful of outsiders gawk at the Plastics. Beats confronting the blatant homophobia that runs rampant between classes! Mean Girls pries into the cliques and reveals that social pressures metamorphose impressionable young people into gemstones of each color.
I saw myself in Cady's shoes. She segues from one group to another, thinking she knows the people contained in each, all while becoming a dulled down version of her former self. The walls of the cliques are multi-tiered -- stepping past one barrier only leads to another. Fey's character, Ms. Norbury, finally rips off the facades after the hate-filled pages of the Burn Book are leaked. She asks the girls if they have ever had someone talk behind their back. Everyone raises a hand. She asks if they had ever talked behind a friend's back. Everyone raises a hand. "You all have got to stop calling yourselves 'sluts' and 'whores.' It only makes it OK for guys to call you 'sluts' and 'whores,'" she says.
MEAN GIRLS captures a "No, duh" aspect of life that continues to cripple people long after their high school graduations. Early on, the movie runs down the list of cliques with sublime accuracy: "Your Freshmen, ROTC guys, Preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity jocks, Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feelings, Girls who don't eat anything, Desperate wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually active band geeks..." Then it demands we wake up and realize this is toxic thinking. With sharp wit, Fey lays out every unspoken high school on the issue, to the point that a high schooler who thought he had a grasp on things was left laughing and pondering his mistakes. The things we say and do change others. They may lash out, they may recoil into their shells. The big point: any semblance of a segmentation prevents honesty. Obvious, perhaps. But only when Mean Girls states it bluntly.
Thanks to a happy ending (phew), my girlfriend and I were still laughing when we left Mean Girls. I returned to my final month of school wondering if I knew any of the people I had been talking to for years. I wasn't sure -- but from then on I was willing to fall face first into anything in hopes of letting a person act freely, truthfully. Like Cady, I wouldn't watch the animals of the African plains from above. I'd run wild, and watch as they did the same.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH., available at your local Alamo Drafthouse.