The American high school movie has been an integral part of cinema since Grease became the word back in 1978, and arguably even before that. The agony and ecstasy of adolescence has proven a rich vein for writers to mine over the decades: whether it’s the spirit of rebellion in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the angst of high school life as the tormented outsider in Brian de Palma’s horror adaptation Carrie.
Since Michael Lehmann’s 1988 black comedy Heathers was released, it’s become a significant touchstone for almost every high school movie to have come out. Many have tried – and failed – to recapture that film’s deliciously dark, twisted tone, until 2004 when SNL writer and cast member Tina Fey’s feature writing debut, Mean Girls was released.
For the uninitiated, Mean Girls is the story of Cady Heron, a teenage girl (played by Lindsay Lohan), who finds herself moved from a quiet life in Africa to Illinois, and the politics and subterfuge of high school clique culture. Being from outside the system, she quickly ingratiates herself with the outcast kids, but soon she attracts the attention of the “plastics”, the popular, attractive yet eponymous mean girls of Cady’s high school.
From personal memory, Mean Girls wasn’t a film that was particularly well marketed, but the numbers suggest that it did well enough at the box office. What nobody was counting on, however, was just how long the film would live on after its box office run, thanks to Tina Fey’s instantly quotable script.
I mean, that trailer is…not great.
The film also boasts a really solid cast that were just about to hit their stride: Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried were still yet to break into the mainstream – this was Seyfried’s first movie – and Lindsay Lohan was at a level here that she would sadly never match. Combined with a great script, it’s no wonder that Mean Girls worked as well as it did – and still does.
It’s a film that wants its audience to break the rules of the game which previous high school movies have established, especially when aimed towards teenage girls. Fey challenges the idea of girls and women needing to compete to succeed in life – romantically and socially – and while there are some hiccups in the narrative and with some characters, Mean Girls generally hits its target. The climactic moment at the school’s Spring Fling celebration is the culmination of these themes, and Lindsay Lohan’s delivery of that big moment in breaking the crown is still very effective.
Arguably, Mean Girls has never been more relevant within popular culture, as girls and women are encouraged more and more to define themselves by their own self-worth, and not to appease some Aaron Samuels or other. Its resurgence as a Broadway musical only goes to reinforce how popular the film remains, and as long as there’s an internet, there’ll always be a source of Mean Girls inflected memes.
15 years on, Tina Fey’s first movie writing gig hasn’t done too badly, though if there’s one thing going against it, it’s still no closer to making ‘fetch’ happen.