Updated: Mar 18, 2020
How "Mean Girls" Subverts the Popular Mean Girl Trope
Mean Girls is a movie that explores, as the title suggests, how mean girls can really be. This iconic film follows Cady Heron as she navigates her way in a new school environment after being home schooled her whole life. Compared to what she's been used to, public school has cliques with complicated rules she must adapt to in order to "survive" her way through high school. Along the way she meets Janice Ian and Damion, the first group to offer her what seems to be genuine friendship. However, only on her second day of school, Cady is introduced to the most popular girl clique: The Plastics. The Plastics consist of Karen Smith, Gretchen Wieners, and the infamous Regina George.
Regina George is presented as the obvious mean girl and the movie's main antagonist. Regina initially sees Cady as a project she can mold, by taking her from a high school "jungle freak" to a popular girl who is envied by others. She is illustrated as the most stereotypical portrayal of what people expect a mean girl to look like, talk like, and act like. A blonde, rich, popular girl, who is controlling of her friends, passive aggressive towards other girls, and lies and manipulates others to maintain her social status.
However, one mean girl that remains inconspicuous throughout the film, is Janice Ian.
Upon learning The Plastics have accepted Cady into their highly exclusive clique, Janice concocts a revenge ploy to essentially tear down Regina's self-esteem, taking away her looks, her friends, and her boyfriend. She uses Cady to carry out her plan. Then, when Cady inevitably, almost forcibly, assimilates with The Plastics, Janice turns on her and makes herself the victim in a situation she created. And the gag is, she succeeds in getting away with all of it. Frankly, all the girls in the film are perpetrators of bullying each other, but Janice is one of the main mean girls who doesn't have to wear the scarlet letter when the social hierarchy begins to collapse.
Because of this, Janice is perhaps more sinister than Regina George, as she unsuspectingly manipulates Cady into bringing down Regina without ever having to apologize, repent, or change her behavior. It's also important to note, Janice used to be friends with Regina. Their past friendship is an important detail of Janice's character because it gives insight into why and how she is capable of pulling off the elaborate and seemingly impossible task of tearing down the school's top dog. Essentially, the two of them are exactly the same. The only difference is Janice physically presents herself as the anti-Regina. She wears all black, pretends not to care about her appearance, or care about what other people think about her. Janice's persona allows her to remain invisible to people's preconceived ideas of what a mean girl looks like. But just like Regina, Janice is controlling of her friends, passive aggressive towards other girls, and manipulates others to maintain her social status. It's just her social status, compared to Regina's, doesn't place an obvious target on her back.
Despite Janice being the mastermind behind the whole plot of the movie, Regina and Cady bear the responsibility for the destruction they've caused in other people's lives. Cady takes sole accountability for the events that happened throughout the film, even though she was a victim of Janice's manipulation. However, Cady will never be sympathized with because she better fits the stereotype of what a mean girl must look like to be mean. Janice, on the other hand, goes unnoticed by the teachers, administrators, the rest of the student body, and the audience because she doesn't look like a girl we want to villainize. Instead, she looks like the girl everyone wants to root for. Janice appears like the social outcast who we perceive has probably fallen victim to society's unrealistic expectation of women and been bullied by girls who are conventionally more attractive than she is. In reality, all the girls are victims of the same system that pits women against each other and forces them to compete. However, in the movie and real life, the popular girls are easier to blame because we deem them to be conformists of patriarchy and perpetrators of toxic femininity.
The film subverts the popular mean girl trope by conveying how mean girls are not monolithic. They don't have one look or one type of behavior. Mean girls are everywhere. "Mean Girls" also does well to recognize that being "popular" doesn't make someone inherently bad and being "unpopular" doesn't make someone inherently good. For decades, Rom-Coms and other teen films have fed audiences that faulty narrative that may have caused some girls to be unfairly demonized; while real mean girls, in other forms or cliques, hide under the guise of a "good-guy" trope. To what lengths will a patriarchal society go to pit women against each other? The limit does not exist (sorry, I had to). "Mean Girls" differs from its contemporaries because the movie illustrates how all girls engage in unhealthy competition and meanness towards one another. As Cady learns, every single one of us could do better toward uplifting one another because the system that seeks to tear women down is an illusion. Fake, like plastic.