Is 'Mean Girls' Feminist?

In Tina Fey’s 2004 hit blockbuster Mean Girls, Gretchen Weiners, a Jewish queen after my own heart, brazenly states “That's just, like, the rules of feminism!” The drama she was referring to, Cady’s crush on Regina’s ex Aaron Samuels, is not exactly the rules of feminism, but instead, it is what is commonly known as “girl code.”

Feminism—or the belief in equality of the sexes—is heavily supported or heavily combated by society. Whether Mean Girls is feminist or not is still heavily debated. The film passes the Bechdel test, but I’ve come to believe that some films that pass the test cannot be considered “feminist” while others that do not pass it (The Hurt Locker is a female-directed masterpiece!!!), are much more empowering for women (Ferris explanation needed).  

Mean Girls examines  “girl world,” as Cady calls it. When Cady says, "I used to think there was just fat and skinny, but apparently there's lots of things that can be wrong on your body,” she points out girls’ obsession with how their bodies look. Besides the pressure from society to keep up with skinny influencers on Instagram, girls put pressure on one another to hate themselves as well. When the Plastics pointedly look at Cady, expecting her to bash her own body, it is a clear example of the damaging expectations women put on one another. Cady’s confusion about this common practice pokes fun at the sheer ridiculouslessness of bashing ourselves. Self-scrutiny is so entrenched in womanhood that insults come down to how strange one’s hairline is just for the sake of ripping oneself apart.

Ms. Norbury should not have to deal with Cady’s drama, and she might be the only one in the film with their head atop their shoulders. She says brilliant statements against women shaming other women, a root of Cady’s “girl world.” In a world of slut shaming from men and scrutiny for every misstep, why should women contribute to hate? When girls do not defend one another, they allow men to shame them.

While Ms. Norbury is portrayed as a lost divorcee, she provides positive adult guidance for the girls. She encourages Cady to go join the Mathletes because it is something she can be successful in. Ms. Norbury represents the adult who is able to move past the pettiness of high school, and she encourages her students to think past social standing.

“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores, because it just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores”, Mrs. Norbury  says in the most poignant line of the film. Girls insulting each other waters down the meaning of the insults and brings it into the vernacular. Thus, by using insults like sluts and whores, it legitimizes slut-shaming and also makes men think it is okay for them to call women sluts and whores (there is no male equivalent. Fight me on it).

Cady is a women in STEM, so she’s a woman after my own heart. However, to gain the attention of Aaron Samuels, she must dumb herself down since he is queen bee Regina’s “property.” There’s something almost comical about the girls objectifying Aaron. It turns the stereotype of a woman who is the property of her husband. Instead of dull Aaron Samuels belonging to Regina, he takes on the role of the traditional female in this film: he’s ultimately boring, just like the archetype of the wife who sits still and looks pretty.

The meaning of this section can be misconstrued. It is supposed to teach young girls not to dumb themselves down for boys or play dumb in order to gain attention, but there are no repercussions for Cady lying to Aaron. In the end, they end up together, and honestly, that just is not right. I understand that it is supposed to present the image that a woman can have it all (and she sure as hell can), but this is not the way it should happen. Cady’s popularity goes down the toilet, but she never wanted that to begin with. She ends up with the prize she fought for the entire movie: Aaron. For someone who wronged everyone she knew, losing Aaron (who she has no chemistry with) would have given a semblance of realism.

The lack of repercussions for the movie’s “heroes” does not stop with Cady. Janis is arguably the meanest and most manipulative of the girls—she completely uses Cady to get sadistic revenge on Regina, going further than any of the other girls do, and relishes it at the end. However, unlike Cady, whose is portrayed as a “nice girl,” Janis never pretends to be nice. From the beginning, she is established as someone who was fueled by hatred and could not be trusted. Then again, all of this is justified in the film, and she is a prominent character who is funny, witty, insightful and resourceful.

The power of Mean Girls is rooted in fully fleshed out female characters and an air of empowerment against women shaming one another and against women downplaying their success. The lightness of the film makes it a fun watch, but prevents the film from reaching the real issues that it explores. The girls eventually begin to support one another, but the reasons on why girls are so mean to one another is never addressed. It plays into the trope of the reckless, hormonal teenage girl who needs to be mediated in order to solve their problems. The girls in this movie are dumbed down, not academically, but in terms of communicative skills, which is inherently anti-feminist.

Mean Girls is intended to be feminist, but there are some segments that reek of patriarchy, and that ruins what is a phenomenal film.

As much as anyone can say that Mean Girls is female-centric, all of the problems in the movie are derived from a man. The girls  are completely dependent on men, so the joke of the entire film feels kind of stale. The revenge plot across the  film is all because Cady meets a boy she finds attractive. She ends up playing dumb for the sole purpose of gaining male attention. Mean Girls revolves around what Mulvey describes as the “male gaze.” Cady begins to objectify herself by transforming herself into what she sees as sexually desirable for Aaron. But Cady is not the only female who loses sight of herself to the male gaze.

The entire idea of the Plastics, the name given to the most popular girls at the high school, can be boiled down to products of the male gaze. Their status is built on being the most attractive and not much else. The name ‘plastic’ comes from the idea of the perfection achieved from dolls or plastic surgery. Just like Barbie dolls these girls are objectified by those around them, but also objectivity each other and themselves.

In contrast, you have those who desire to be part of the Plastics. These girls are the antithesis of what Regina represents: they’re physically disabled, overweight, not traditionally attractive. Essentially, they become the “other”. Due to their inability to traditionally maintain the male gaze, they are used as the punchline of the joke.

The male gaze extends to the film’s representation of the “other” in terms of homosexuality as well. Damian, a man not interested in women, is also pushed into stereotype status. The male gaze is a male looking upon a woman, so someone like Damian cannot fit the mold. Thus, he is put into the archetypal ideas that are aligned with the females of the film, distinctly a member of a group. Damian, as a gay man, is unable to use his male gaze to ogle and thus is “too gay to function,” branded due to an inability to act upon what is deemed an appropriate action for a man.

Cady’s status as an outsider from the archetypes of high school, unlike Damian, makes her the only person able to be the protagonist of Mean Girls. Cady is an anomaly: a white homeschooled girl from Africa who is completely disconnected from American culture. It’s almost comical how little Cady knows about socialization, as if society and human interaction did not exist back in Africa. Speaking of Africa, no one ever says which country Cady lived in (apparently, the writers of the film think Africa is a country, not a continent), and insinuating that people in Africa don’t have basic social skills is extremely problematic and, quite frankly, racist.

In order to create peace in “girl world,” a character who does not exist must be created. A girl completely distanced from internalized society, gender expectations, and the beauty industry as a junior in high school. Cady cannot be a mean girl, or a nerdy girl, or a popular girl because she wouldn’t fit society’s archetype; she would be unable to combat the system because she is supposed to play a part in maintaining it. The fictional figure of the girl completely unaware of society’s hold on women allows the film to move away from the sources of misogyny rather than confronting them.

Mean Girls misses the societal expectations that push women to become like Regina. Mean Girls says the reason that Cady cannot be openly good at math is not because boys like Aaron Samuels do not like women who are intimidating and smart, but instead because girls tell one another the way to achieve the male gaze is to require a male to rescue them. The film does not blame the beauty industry, which tells girls that skinny is the only way to be beautiful, but instead places that honor on the Plastics. Those involved in perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women can watch Mean Girls and not feel that they are to blame, but instead, the blame is pushed onto teenage girls. In their minds, teen girls are mean to the extent of ruining one another’s life, so  internalized misogyny is theirs to deal with.

Once Cady becomes a Plastic, she must conformthe stringent expectations put upon women. As the Plastics apparently determine all the rules of being a “beautiful woman” Cady begins to follow every one of their whims. She wears what they tell her to, she adapts to their mannerisms, and they completely take her autonomy. In the end, Cady gains nothing besides Aaron and the reputation of someone who pushed another girl in front of the bus. Was Aaron worth it? Honestly, not really.  

Cady and Janis attempt to completely ruin Regina, but they are unable to do so. Regina is the #ladyboss with more power than anyone else. When they cut up her shirt to expose her bra, Regina doesn’t care. She struts outsides with her purple bra exposed because once again, she’s a #ladyboss. Then, all of the other girls at North Shore also cut their shirts and they look freaking ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter! Regina started the trend, so  everyone else follows.

While writing this article, I’ve realized that Regina George is a feminist icon. She’s a terrible person, but society made her that way. She laughs at those who try to demean her and gets what she wants. She needs to learn how to start supporting other women, but there is always room for growth.

Despite its many flaws, Mean Girls gets my feminist seal of approval. It’s a very 2004 type of feminism and definitely has its fair share of missteps, but the film has had an immense impact on millions of women. This movie has literally made people feminists; maybe that’s the real “rules of feminism.”