Pop Culture Intervention

The Magic Of 'Mean Girls' Is That It Lets Us All Sit At The Same Table

That is so fetch.

Today is October 3, also known as the day Aaron Samuels asked Cady Heron what day it was, also known unofficially as Mean Girls Day.

But if you're a member of a certain contentious generation, you don't need me to explain that to you. In fact, you were most likely already playing the aforementioned scene in your head as soon as you woke up this morning.


Since Mean Girls was released in 2004, it's become arguably the greatest cultural touchstone for millennials. Put a group of twentysomethings in a room together, ask them why Gretchen Wieners' hair is so big, and odds are most of them will have the same knee-jerk response: "It's full of secrets."

On the movie's 10-year anniversary, Complex called it "the Bible for millennials," not only because it offered an entire script's worth of GIF-ready dialogue at a time when social media was in its infancy (Facebook had just been founded two months earlier), but also because "it spoke to all teens."

I was in seventh grade when Mean Girls first hit theaters, but I didn't see it for the first time until two years later, at a ninth-grade sleepover. By the time I graduated high school, I couldn't imagine my life without it. I also couldn't imagine encountering someone my own age who didn't understand what "You go, Glen Coco!" meant.

Screenwriter Tina Fey told Us Weekly of the movie's enduring success, "I think we mostly have TBS to thank. It's always on TBS." This may be partly true. I'm not sure I'd be able to quote nearly as many lines if I didn't get a syndicated refresher every weekend. But I also don't make a habit of tuning in to movies I don't like. I really like Mean Girls, and I'm not alone.

No matter when we grew up, much of our identity as adolescents was tied to the pop culture we consumed, which often led to stereotypes. You probably wouldn't expect the head cheerleader, for example, to listen to the same music as the goth kids. When it came to Mean Girls, however, those same distinctions didn't exist, because there's no single "type" of person who enjoys it.

Despite the movie's title and focus on female characters, it isn't even a necessarily a chick flick. Complex writer Julian Kimble, who saw the film in theaters as a teenager, explains, "As a grown man, I can remember finding unexpected parallels to my teenage existence." He also points out that the movie's male director, Mark Waters, has said, "I felt like I was Cady, even though I was a guy."

In one of the film's most iconic scenes, Janis (Lizzy Caplan) shows Cady (Lindsay Lohan) a map of the school cafeteria that outlines which cliques sit at which tables, from "varsity jocks" to "sexually active band geeks." I can't say my school's lunch room got that specific, but there were definitely distinct groups of friends with different interests. While some crossover occasionally occurred, there were certain people you never expected to see at the same table.

During my senior year, a classmate piped up with a popular line from the film: "She doesn't even go here!" I wish I could remember the context, but I'll never forget the laugh that instantly erupted from every student in the room. It didn't matter where each of us sat during lunch, or what clothes we wore, or how good our grades were. In that moment, we were just a bunch of kids who loved the same movie.

So what is it about Mean Girls that makes it so universally popular?

Well, for starters, it's honest in a way that a lot of other teen movies just aren't. As Jessica Grose of Slate puts it, "Most unknown sophomore girls don't get asked out by supreme senior hotties, like Molly Ringwald's character does in Pretty in Pink. Most unknown sophomore girls do say mean but privately hilarious things from time to time, because they're just trying to survive the high school jungle, and they're only human."

It helps that the movie ultimately doesn't pick sides. Going into things, it would appear that Regina George (Rachel McAdams) is the villain and Cady is the hero. But as the story goes on, we begin to see that it's not that black and white. No one, no matter their social standing, gets off scot-free, and at the same time, even the meanest offenders are redeemable. Everyone at the gym assembly has felt "personally victimized by Regina George," but most of them also admit to committing similar "girl-on-girl crime." 

No matter how harsh the burn, we're all in on the joke, because we've all been there.

That realness is likely what makes Mean Girls so continuously beloved, even though its original demographic has grown up. We don't keep watching it out of the same nostalgia that drives our obsession with all things '90s — it's not a reminder of how much better life was back then. Rather, as we've matured, it's become even more apparent just how true the movie was.

Emily Timbol of Relevant magazine writes, "What made Mean Girls so great was its unflinching portrayal of how meaningless popularity is in high school. It took its high school subjects seriously by not inflating the value of high school's social hierarchy."

By the end of the movie, that hierarchy doesn't even exist anymore. Cady is named Spring Fling queen and decides to break the crown into pieces to share with her peers. After that, everyone seems to get along. As Cady says in the closing narration, "girl world was at peace."

Of course, real life isn't like the movies. Mean Girls didn't end bullying, and everyone who shared a laugh over funny references didn't instantly become best friends. I should also note that there are obviously millennials in existence who haven't seen the movie, don't like it, or can't quote it at the drop of a hat. And they certainly don't deserve to be treated like they're wearing sweatpants on a Monday.

Bonding over a popular movie isn't the snap-your-fingers answer to all teenage conflict. Still, it's fitting that a film about bridging divides between young people would end up, even in the smallest way, doing the same thing in real life.

What makes Mean Girls so enduring is that it isn't just for the Plastics, or the Mathletes, or the Desperate Wannabes. Much like the Spring Fling crown, we can all share it.

Cover image via YouTube


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