Before I begin, I would like to report an exchange with Zoe while watching Mean Girls last night. This happened right after Regina George is hit by a bus.
Zoe: What happened to the black girl? (Zoe identifies people by the color of their clothes; Regina George is wearing a black shirt in that scene.)
Me: She got hit by a bus. She got hurt.
Zoe: (after a thoughtful look at the screen) The purple girl (Cady Heron is in a periwinkle top) should kiss her.
Me: Will that make her feel better?
Me: That’s a good idea.
Zoe: Yeah. That’d be great excited. (pause) That was not very nice of the bus!
Okay, here’s the actual post. As promised, I have for you a comparison of the “girl worlds” of Clueless and Mean Girls. I had promised, in my post about The Curse of the Good Girl to look at Clueless and Mean Girls as examples of what kinds of stories were told about female friendships when I was a teenager vs. now. Well, now-ish. Mean Girls came out in 2004. But has anything like it come out since? I don’t think so. So I will proceed.
For those of you who have been living in a cave for roughly sixteen years (Clueless came out in 1995), I will provide rough plot synopses for each movie. Clueless is an update of Jane Austen’s Emma, and, speaking as a fan of both, it’s a very good one. Alicia Silverstone plays Cher Horowitz, L.A. teen queen. She engages in match-making and makeovers, first for a pair of teachers and next for a new girl at school (Tai, played by the late Brittany Murphy), with her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) until she discovers that she herself is totally clueless and then makes over herself and falls in love with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd. Oh, Paul Rudd. I don’t care how many Judd Apatow movies you do; you’ll always be Josh to me).
Mean Girls was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes, which covers some of the same material as The Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out. Tina Fey took the parenting guide about teen girls and made a story of a sixteen-year-old, Cady Heron (Lindsey Lohan, back when she was curvy and redheaded and relatively clean, although still with excessive eye make-up), who has just moved with her zoologist parents from Africa to Evanston, IL and has thus entered an American school and been introduced to American high school culture for the very first time. She initially is befriended by an outcast type, Janice Ian (Lizzy Caplan – she’s been on my TV screen a few times since then and I squee every time) and her gay male best friend Damian (Daniel Franzese). They – well, mostly Janice – convince Cady to befriend The Plastics – the teen queens of Evanston – in order to spy on them and make fun of them. The Plastics are Regina George, Queen of All Bitches (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert, who has been playing a teenager forever, right?), her Number Two, and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), Dumb Slut. Cady eventually agrees to go even further than that and dethrone Regina when Regina “steals” the boy Cady likes. In so doing, Cady basically becomes Plastic herself, and then all hell breaks loose, and then all the girls Learn a Very Important Lesson.
The two movies deal with very similar themes. Both of them involve a new girl entering an unfamiliar social world. Both of them are very focused on the relationship between female friends. Both of them deal with teenage girls who are on the top of the social pyramid at their school. And they were made less than ten years apart. But the models of normal female friendship they offer are very, very different.
The female friendships, in Clueless, are the ones between Cher and Dionne, and between Cher and Tai and, to a lesser degree, Dionne. In Mean Girls, they’re the ones between Cady and Janice, and between Regina, Gretchen, and Karen, and, to a lesser degree, Cady.
The friendship between Cher and Dionne is very close and very emotionally supportive. They certainly snark at each other: “‘Been shopping with Dr. Seuss?’ ‘At least I wouldn’t skin a collie to make my backpack.'” But in their case, it’s a sign of their extreme closeness, rather than distance-creating meanness. An exchange can begin snarky: “‘Would you call me selfish?’ ‘No. Not to your face.'” But it can end in support, with Dionne blaming Josh (who did call Cher selfish) rather than Cher for Josh’s remarks. Cher supports Dionne when Dionne’s got boyfriend troubles by echoing her feelings: “He is so possessive.” and by reaffirming her worth. “You could do so much better.” Dionne assists with Cher’s schemes to hook up two of their teachers and to make Tai over into a more socially acceptable teenager even though she makes clear that she finds them ridiculous. Overall, it’s very clear that they consider each other confidantes and allies.
Cher and Tai’s relationship is somewhat more compromised, in that Cher sees her as less than her and is determined to make her over into a more-like-her person, and then gets upset when it works a little too well. Even with that complication, and Cher’s self-appointed mentoring role, we do see support and closeness between them. Tai has dinner with Cher and her father and hangs out at her house. Cher and Dionne both support Tai’s new look (that they created) by pointing out to her how good she looks and how others are noticing how good she looks. When Tai’s crush object (which Cher and, to a lesser degree, Dionne, created and supported) doesn’t work out, they give her support and take her out to get her mind off of it. Later, Dionne seeks Tai’s advice on sexual matters, representing that Tai has become a full-fledged member of their group rather than a mentee.
Most significantly, when Cher and Tai fight, they do so in a fairly mild way – Cher makes Tai upset by unintentionally implying she’s too stupid to go out with Josh, and Tai responds by telling her she’s “a virgin who can’t drive” – Cher confronts her directly and immediately without being mean: “That was way harsh, Tai.” And Tai acknowledges her fault and says they’ll talk “when we’ve mellowed.” When they do, they are both effusively apologetic and physically affectionate; it’s very easy to believe that it’s a genuine reconciliation.
Mean Girls has very few moments where we can really be convinced of genuine support and love between any of the girls. The interactions between Cady and Janice are almost entirely about first Janice’s and then their mutual hatred of Regina. It makes their big fight feel a little false. When Janice throws her painting at Cady that depicts their friendship, the audience isn’t really sure when such a friendship to inspire the painting happened. (Okay, maybe it was just me.)
We do see Gretchen and Karen have some genuine moments of friendship. Karen, for instance, is the only person who catches Gretchen in the trust fall exercises they do toward the end of the movie. And Cady has a nice moment with Karen where she tells Karen she’s not stupid and encourages her to discuss her abilities.
But that’s really about it. Regina is never really nice or supportive or loving to anyone and the few moments where she does something nice-ish, it’s at the expense of someone else and usually for an ulterior motive. For instance, she engineers a telephone call to get a girl away from the boy Gretchen likes. But it’s a nasty, mean trick on a girl she doesn’t know. She tells off this same boy for hitting on Cady in a gross and vaguely harassing way, but she does it to defend Gretchen’s interest in him, and to get in a dig at him, not because she has a genuine interest in defending Cady. And, as Cady learns, even the moments where she seems like she’s being nice (like telling her her bracelet, or some other girl’s skirt, is adorable), she’s lying. The blown kisses and “love ya”s she throws out are clearly meant sarcastically. Gretchen and Karen say supportive things to Regina, but they are very clearly supplicants, not friends. There’s no mutual support.
I thought for a moment that I ought to blame source material for this difference. Queen Bees and Wannabes is, after all, specifically about the dangers and deficits of female friendships in middle and high school – not because all female friendships are so compromised, but because you don’t need a book to help your kid deal with their awesome best friend with whom they have a great relationship. But Emma doesn’t have an equivalent of the Dionne character. Amy Heckerling, Clueless‘s writer and director, created Dionne because having a reigning social queen without a legitimate best friend seemed unrealistic in a contemporary American high school. In Mean Girls, by contrast, it seems unrealistic to expect that you can find that kind of support and love in a female friendship.
It’s worthwhile, too, to point out the outer social worlds these girls are operating in. In Clueless, despite being told that Cher and Dionne are at the top of the social ladder, we don’t really see them interacting with the high school at large, and when we do, the interactions mostly seem positive, as when Cher gets a round of applause for being the cause of their grumpy debate teacher’s newfound high spirits. There is only one “victim” of their bullying, and she gives as good as she gets and is part of their clique. In Mean Girls, by contrast, being popular means being constantly on view and in public. When the Plastics are first introduced, Damian declares that if their high school were Us Weekly, those three would always be on the cover. Later, when Cady becomes part of the group, she voice-overs about how being part of the group feels like being famous, and this notion is backed up by a montage of various people in the high school, including even the principal, reporting what they know of the lives of the Plastics and what they think of them. The principal even uses the only-found-in-tabloids word “canoodling” to highlight the point. And we see Regina be mean to more than just her own group, as is mentioned above. At the big group exercise later, all the people in the room raise their hands when asked if they’ve been personally victimized by Regina George. The girls in Mean Girls exist very much in public space and are actively and consciously aware of that public space and how they might appear there. Even the resolutions of most of their fights are about public space. Regina tells Cady what “everyone is saying” about her; Karen’s big apology is to Gretchen for revealing a secret about her. The girls in Clueless, by contrast, have their focus elsewhere. While public space does exist – Cher says she and Dionne are friends because “we both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of us”; Cher begins to grow insecure about her friendship with Tai when public consensus on Tai grows more favorable than public consensus on Cher.
So who cares? Who cares what two movies about teen girls say about teen girl friendships? Aren’t teenagers old enough to know that movies aren’t real?
Well, no. Adults aren’t usually old enough to know, really know, that movies aren’t real. And why should we be? We are cultural animals; we ARE the stories we tell about ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. And Clueless and Mean Girls were wildly popular movies which both reflected and affected the realities of the teen girls that know them by heart. (Clueless came out when I was fourteen and just about to enter high school. I am willing to bet that the majority of women who graduated high school in 1999 as I did can recite the damn thing by heart. My sister, who is seven years younger than me, says she and her friends can do that with Mean Girls.) (It should be noted that she herself can do that with Clueless, too, because she had an awesome big sister who took care of her cultural education. Hi, Kate!) We saw ourselves in these girls, but we also saw what common expectations were about friendship and the kinds of support we could expect from those closest to us, as well as what we’d need the support for. And I’m glad I grew up with media that told me I should expect my friends to be supportive and loving to me.
One more thing, sort of anticlimactic, but interesting, I thought. Each movie has scenes in which the main girl (Cher, Cady) illustrates how she’s going to get her man. In Cher’s case, she demonstrates her popularity and desirability by sending flowers to herself, eating chocolates (to draw attention to her mouth), and showing skin. In Cady’s case, she plays dumb, deliberately failing math tests to get the guy she likes to tutor her. Of course, neither strategy is effective. Cher was using those wiles on a gay guy, and Cady doesn’t get the guy until she flies her nerd flag, instead. But it’s interesting. (Regina gets her guy by saying, “You’re so hot,” and kissing him. I want to make fun – she was, after all, more interested in putting Cady down than in actually getting that guy – but I think probably telling a guy “You’re so hot” and then kissing him is better than any strategy I’ve ever used.)
Okay, people, I hope you enjoyed my close analysis of pop culture. We must do it again sometime! But I promise; the next post will be all Zoe, all the time, okay?