Our Perverse Infatuation with Mean Girls

3479633meangirls2004720It’s reported that the Mean Girls cast will reunite for a comedy sketch on a network to be announced. On one level, it makes sense. The original movie, based on a book by Rosalind Wiseman, was a huge success. Its characters captured a special dimension of mean girls’ lives, making the absurdity of their manipulations comic fodder. I bet the new sketch will be equally clever. Tina Fey is a comic genius, and if anything she’s gotten better since the movie’s debut a decade ago.

Question: Is it okay to riff on mean girls, when real mean girls are working their real mean magic on defenseless kids every day? This is not an abstraction to me. I am often talking to girls about the subtle bullying that goes on in school; the subtle innuendo of hurtful, insulting language, the clever use of semantics, the particular expressions, and unsettling laughter that make up the mean girl arsenal. These are the social cues that make girls on the outside feel anxious, and in some cases, paranoid. Note: this is not the funny part of the mean girls phenomenon.

In real life, real mean girls make the lives of other girls miserable. Mean girls can drive other girls to change schools, need mental health treatment, and in the most tragic situations, commit suicide. None of this is nearly so funny as the girls depicted in the movie.

Another question: Is there is a double standard for gender, when it comes to bullying?. Imagine that boys who intimidate, bully and brutalize other boys became the subject of a comedy called Bad Boys.  The movie would be nonstop laughter as bigger, stronger, antisocial boys pushed around other boys, who had too few friends, who looked weird to bullies, or who dared to express a different viewpoint. (Many bullies are especially sensitive to kids who use big words – can you guess why?)  I’m thinking that Bad Boys wouldn’t get a free pass. Instead, it would be challenged, and hopefully called out for its regressive ideas; for making the daily horror of children the subject of entertainment. We should be smart, and have the character not to let our kid’s traumas and dramas be cannibalized for entertainment that lacks a more transcendent message.

I’m sure that many would argue that Mean Girls is in fact transcendent; that it is a form of social critique. I don’t doubt that there is a layer of this, but that is not what made the movie popular and financially successful. For me, a film like Mean Girls is actually less problematic than how we as a culture digest it. Like other aspects of mass culture, which we consume without much sensitivity to nuance, mean girls becomes a “thing” – a social thing to think about, reference with friends, and vaguely worry about if we have daughters. Even the term “mean girls,” the ways it is so easy to say, and how it has an ambiance of silliness, somehow makes it more acceptable. By referring to “girls,” it becomes easier to write it all off as coming of age stuff – nothing to worry too much about. But what if the things that mean girls do is genuine antisocial behavior that warrants diagnosis – and police intervention? Why do we smile wryly at snide behavior, when we know it conveys an absence of empathy, and joy in belittling others.

It may be that mean girls gets a pass because we believe that the intra-gender struggle for power deployed by some girls is a reaction to living in a world where girls and women are systematically denied their share of power and influence. Maybe mean girls reminds us that desire for power is alive and well among girls. Maybe that’s the main point; what we need to take in before worrying about the kinds of social consequences I’m raising here.

However, it seems especially easy to sympathize with mean girls in the movies because they are almost always pretty, and often seductive. It’s those very qualities, in combination with their meanness that makes them interesting to watch. But let’s be honest, many an antisocial personality has been a charmer. They know how to hold our gaze, and command our subordination. Mean girls know how to make us afraid to be ourselves. They silence other kids, and ultimately make the world a smaller, less diverse place.

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