Since its release in 2004 Mean Girls has quickly cemented itself as a classic teen comedy. In the years since, the popularity of the genre has petered out into minor successes like Easy A and embarrassing failures like The Duff. In fact the last truly great teen comedy was Superbad, and that was released in 2007. But while the genre has dwindled in popularity, Mean Girls continues to gain new fans. It adorns many DVD collections and is re-watched again and again.
Of course being popular doesn’t make it the best. The film itself is a parable about the follies of popularity. But Mean Girls isn’t just a box office flash in the pan. It’s still quoted more than a decade after its release. Few movies have this impact and it’s because Mean Girls taps into something about people.
On the surface that something would be a universal plea to kindness. After 90 minutes of demonstrating the destructive effects of gossip, the film climaxes with an obligatory prom speech, in which Cady (Lindsay Lohan) emphasises the importance of compassion. “Be nice to to other people” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking insight, but this core idea is given layers of complexity by Tina Fey’s sharp script, which satirises an uncaring Western society.
Fey lays groundwork for satire by making Cady a home-schooled outsider who has recently moved from Africa. The American high school is therefore foreign to her. The film conveys this with fantasy sequences where students act like animals of the savannah. Through this lens Fey drops moments that satirise American culture and education: Coach Carr’s scaremongering, confusing, and ultimately hypocritical sex-ed classes for instance demonstrate the warped mindset that society foists on young people. An even more obvious indictment of society is the way Regina’s preteen sister is portrayed. In her two brief scenes she is in thrall to the television, dancing to Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ and lifting her top with Girls Gone Wild, sexualised well before it’s appropriate.
Through these two disparate characters Fey shows the mixed messages that young people receive from the adult world. The Plastics then serve as the end result of this culture. Their Burn Book shames girls like Amber D’Alessio for making out with a hot dog. At the same time they casually refer to each other as whores and sluts, while embracing their own sexuality. Such doublethink is crystallised in the Plastics, but it permeates every level of North Shore, culminating in a school-wide fight.
Aside from Ms Norbury’s (Tina Fey on her soapbox) speech in the gym, Fey sticks to the maxim of ‘show don’t tell’. It empowers the audience to figure out the message for themselves. This, combined with the quotable dialogue, is what makes Mean Girls succeed as a story, and why it is so deservedly beloved. But there are other contenders for the best teen comedy.
The 1988 film Heathers is not only Mean Girls‘ biggest competition, but also its clearest antecedent. Both films feature ultra-quotable dialogue and centre on a clique of evil popular girls as a springboard to examine culture.
The titular Heathers are a group of popular girls, so-called because they share the same first name. Their newest member is a girl called Veronica (Winona Ryder), whose boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater) kills the Heathers’ villainous queen bee Heather Chandler. When Veronica helps him make it look like a suicide, society shows its true colours.
Teenage suicide suddenly becomes a hot topic, resulting in romanticised media coverage and a shitty pop song. Similar to how Cady usurps Regina as mean girl, the meek Heather Duke takes Heather Chandler’s position and becomes just as mean-spirited. Veronica then comes to realise that bullying is systemic.
Despite its portrayal of society as fundamentally rotten, Heathers refuses to secede to nihilism. J.D. embodies this destructive cynicism, as he attempts to blow up the school. Veronica stops him, but the rest of Westerburg continues as it had before, just as a new generation of Plastics arrives at the end of Mean Girls.
Heathers portrays society with venom, while Mean Girls critiques it with a far more diplomatic tone. They differ further in that Mean Girls is about how to co-exist, whereas Heathers is a quest to find the best method of rebelling against an irreparably corrupt system. For example, the plea for compassion in Mean Girls is cemented by the heteronormative union between Cady and Aaron at prom. Meanwhile, Heathers provides a more radical conclusion by leaving Veronica single. Instead the film ends with her agreeing to skip prom and watch movies with the victimised Martha Dunnstock.
Both Heathers and Mean Girls are at the peak of teen comedy, because their sights are set beyond the halls of high school. Both films encourage audiences to critique the society they inhabit. The deciding factor between the two comes down to a matter of taste between polished convention, and rough rebellion.