The Evolving Value of “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls

I watched “Mean Girls” twice in theaters. Two times. And just to be clear: my friends did, too. It was Plebe year, “Dead Week,” the time after finals but before graduation in which every Midshipmen is required to be in Bancroft Hall, regardless of whether we had any required duties. Most of us didn’t. As Plebes, we had not climbed Herndon yet, so we were still required to abide by the required institutional rules, but most of the Upper Class had stopped caring, which we took advantage of in small, but important ways. We stopped chopping in the p-ways. I stopped squaring my corners. Plebes don’t rate either music or multimedia, so my classmates stayed up late playing video games. I watched the music video to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” ten times in a row.

In addition to the relaxing of rules, we were also granted a lot of liberty. My classmates and I rescued each other from the abyss. Five of us ventured out into town en masse and in uniform, skinny white clones in summer dress whites. We took the bus to Annapolis Mall to watch the recently released and most highly anticipated movie of 2014: “Mean Girls.”

We loved it. Or at least I did. Enough of us liked it that three days later, with another day of liberty in front of us with nothing to do, we took the bus to the mall and watched “Mean Girls” again.

Yes, we were struck by the beauty and potential of a younger Lindsay Lohan, but it was more than that. It was Tina Fey, too, who acts in the movie and who also penned the script, for scene-by-scene quotes and dialogue and the off-kilter portrayal of high school politics, from which we were not too far removed, that kept the clichés from feeling depressing.

There was also the social component of us, the viewers, the shared camaraderie of laughing with the friends with whom we had undergone a year-long indoctrination in our first year at the United States Naval Academy. For Plebes, going to the Annapolis Mall and watching a movie was as integral to our Academy experience as the gauntlet of The Yard, so it fitting that we cap our first year together with a movie, that, at the time, and my memory retrospect remembers as pure joy from start to finish.

How does the movie hold up, twelve years later, post-graduation and post active duty? I ventured to find out. Earlier this week, I was feeling anxious about the world and had trouble falling asleep, so I started browsing Netflix, looking for something easy to watch. I remembered that “Mean Girls” had just been added to their list. I found it and hit play. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it anymore. The movie was the same but I was different: 
I was older and not with my friends. Instead of a crisp white uniform I wore a smelly green t-shirt. I was not a Midshipman on the rise in Annapolis, but a Reservist going on ten years post-grad. But I had a handful of yogurt raisins in my mouth and a belly full of optimism.

“Mean Girls”, let’s do this.

The beginning of the movie moves. The synopsis is simple: Cady (Lindsay Lohan)  is a fish-out-of-water student at a new high school and is trying to find herself and her social fitting in the jungle of post-pubescent adolescence. The movie doesn’t waste time delving into the plot. It wastes even less time with jokes. In the first scene in the movie, the principal Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows) comes into the classroom to talk to the teacher, Ms. Norburry (Tina Fey) and to address the class. He asks her how her summer went:

Ms. Norburry: I got divorced.

Mr. Duvall: (holding up a cast) My carpal tunnel came back.

Ms. Norburry: I win.

In addition to that joke, there is mistaken identity on part of Ms. Norburry, mistaking the lone African-american student as the one who just moved from Africa, mispronouncing, on the part of Mr. Duvall, of Cady which sends him on a rant about his nephew named “Anfernee,” and capped off with Mr. Duvall grabbing a peek at Ms. Norburry’s coffee stained and see-through shirt. The scene is less than two minutes long and contains four clever and laugh-out-loud jokes, each memorable and quotable in their own way. Much of the movie follows suit, scenes injected with one-liners and unexpected delights that help to lift the movie out of the depths of an otherwise beaten down genre.

The problems start when the machinations of the plot kick in. Even though the movie seeks to subvert the high school movie genre, it is still constrained by it. Cady’s friends, Damien and Janis, convince her to infiltrate The Plastics, a click of girls headed by Regina George (Rachel Mcadams) with the ultimate goal of Janis seeking revenge on Regina. But the plan goes awry. Regina promises to put in a good word with Aaron Samuels, the resident hunk and Regina’s ex-boyfriend, but steals him for herself. Cady seeks her own revenge while likening herself in Regina’s image, the potential heir to the Queen Bee throne…

Okay, and this is where, as a 31 year old, the movie starts to lose me, saved only by the steady integration of jokes, for example: right before performing a rendition of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilar at the winter talent concert, Damien admonishes Ms. Norburry, who is playing piano: “Don’t look at me.” I laughed out loud now just thinking about it.

I don’t remember the plot being an issue before. Perhaps my friends and I were too distracted by the jokes and too struck by Cady, well, Lindsay Lohan, to be bothered by something as civilian as story. We were, after all, a handful of guys who had just spent a year in a form of legalized prison. Also, we weren’t that far removed from high school, so we could empathize with the four years of adolescence we had barely risen from while going through another four-year stage of arrested development at Annapolis.

I could see now that there are unexplored narrative threads, for example, the life of Ms. Norburry, who was divorced, and, in addition to being a teacher, moonlighted as a bartender. There is another movie to be made that, instead of 45 minutes of back-and-forth revenge between Cady and Regina, the relationship between Ms. Norburry and Cady would be developed, which could also be an exploration of feminism, womanhood, and coming of age, without being hamstrung by the obligations of high school narratives.

Also, I never thought I would say this, but: “Mean Girls” has made me understand, for the first time, the meaning of the phrase, “Male Gaze,” which is the way art depicts the world and women from a masculine point of view. At first glance, Aaron Samuels is nothing but a piece of meat to Cady and to the viewer as well. This made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t sure why, and it was more than just because of the way he moved his hair from one side of his head to the other. She was objectifying him. Maybe in the same way that my friends and I had objectified Lindsay Lohan. As the movie progresses, the nuances of Aarons’ character is explored, and he only ends up with Cady after she proves his character to him. It’s a small win for gender dynamics and the display of healthy relationships in Hollywood and is instructive for the way men should view women actors and celebrities.

I am older, wiser, and more cynical, so it’s nice to revisit a positive memory from the past and see that it holds up. I am critical of “Mean Girls” for different reasons, but I like it for different reasons, too. For comedies, the plot isn’t the point. It’s easy to see how “Mean Girls” was a precursor to “30 Rock, a show that exists primarily for the jokes, which, another one: at the end of a crucial falling out between Janis and Cady, with Damian driving the car, Damian screams in mock rage into the night, “I want my pink shirt back!” And on the metric of jokes, “Mean Girls” is as good as it ever was.

I like it not only for the movie, but for the experience. One of the “messages” of the movie is the importance of respect in all relationships, friendships and otherwise. After a major fallout, Cady finds a way to make peace with Regina, Ms. Norburry, her parents, Aaron, and Janice and Damian. It’s a little too cute, maybe, but I don’t go to “Mean Girls” for dark, I go to be uplifted. Save the depressing for “The Lobster.” The idea that I can find respect and happiness in the relationships in my life, friendships and otherwise. Honestly, that shit is important. I wouldn’t have nearly as much enjoyed watching “Mean Girls” by myself if I didn’t first enjoy watching it with my friends, some of whom I texted that I was writing a blog about the movie and whether it holds up. I’ll be happy to report to them that it does. This is, in part, because of the state of our friendship.

I still want my pink shirt back.


Night before the Air Force game, Plebe Year.

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