Last night we enjoyed watching “Mean Girls.” Curled up in our Camp Sherman cabin around our substitute for a campfire, a TV/DVD combo that another owner blessedly added to our broadcast TV-less entertainment options, this movie stimulated Laurel and me to reflect upon our own high school years and compare them to how “Mean Girls” presents modern high school life.
“Mean Girls” is about, not surprisingly, a bunch of mean girls who are obsessed with looking good and preserving their social status. Led by a Queen Bee, Regina, “The Plastics” (as they’re called by other students with the eyes to see through their superficial charades) latch onto a transfer student, Cady, ably played by Lindsay Lohan.
Cady has been home schooled and raised in the African bush country by her zoologist parents. This offers several opportunities for the movie to make humorous parallels between how jungle life resolves questions of hierarchy and competition for mates, and how the “tooth and claw” world of high school accomplishes the same ends.
For example, in one scene Cady sees Regina flirting with a boy she has fallen for. Cady thinks to herself, “this is how it would be settled in the jungle,” and has a fantasy of leaping over the cafeteria table, painted fingernails at the ready, fiercely wrestling to defeat Alpha Female Regina.
In real high school girl life, of course, the wrestling is much more verbal than physical, as the movie shows. Cell phones, call waiting, and three-way calling are used to great effect as The Plastics jockey for position within their fashionable clique. At first Cady joins them only with the intent to learn their secrets and undermine their power, but eventually she falls under the Mean Girl spell and becomes one herself.
Early on in the movie Laurel observed, “Boy, we sure didn’t have any girls in my high school who looked like that.” Ditto for me, sadly. And even if my small central California high school had girls so beautiful and so exquisitely groomed, 1960s dress rules wouldn’t have allowed the low-cut tops and high-cut skirts displayed in “Mean Girls.” Ah, if I’m to be reborn, may I do my learning in a school with a much more relaxed dress code rule.
That detail aside, the clique-driven high school social structure depicted in the movie sure seemed familiar, though the variety of cliques in “Mean Girls” far exceeded those in Woodlake Union High School. The main cultural divide in my high school was between the Anglos and the Hispanics. We Anglo boys, though, didn’t call fellow students of Mexican heritage “Hispanics”—much rougher names were the norm. And the unfavor was returned to us. About all the Spanish I picked up in high school had to do with locker room sexual insults directed at my mother, madre.
Looking back, naturally I’d act differently, just as I hope Larry, who made a career discovering my locker combination and stealing my gym clothes, would do the same. But being boys, our quarreling was acted out either physically or exceedingly directly verbally. “F__k you!” “No, f__k you!” Such was the sophistication of most of our boy vs. boy banter.
One of the central themes of “Mean Girls” is that young females (and often older females too) use language and social interactions in a much more complicated fashion to compete with each other. Cady learns that “I love your bracelet!” can mean just the opposite, depending on who is saying it and what her motives are.
“Mean Girls” forcefully points out the power of cliques, how they keep high school students confined through both external and internal pressures. Like a modern-day caste system, you can only eat at certain tables in the cafeteria reserved for “your kind.” And if you break the clique rules of conformity (such as, for “The Plastics,” wearing the wrong outfit on a certain day of the week), then you run the risk of being rejected by your caste.
Cady, while mathematically astute, chooses to flunk calculus because being smart isn’t compatible with being beautiful and sexually desirable in the high school social equation. I remember falling into the same deluded trap myself, though for boys of my era the incompatibility was between being smart and being athletic. Actually, I was both. But my high school athletic career was limited to tennis, because I had convinced myself that this was the only sport a guy with glasses, near straight-As, and high test scores should play. And my classmates reinforced this belief.
I vividly remember a day in my junior year when the wall that erroneously separated “brain” from “brawn” in my mind was shown to be exceedingly flimsy. In gym class, wearing tennis shoes and without the benefit of starting blocks, we were getting timed in the hundred yard dash. One by one we ran down the track. I think my time was 12.1 seconds, not bad given the circumstances.
One of the last boys to run was a senior, Jerry, a “jock.” Quarterback of the league champion football team, a letterman also in baseball and basketball. When he finished the PE instructor, who also was the coach of the football team, yelled out to him, “Time, 12.1 seconds, same as Hines!” Everyone laughed. Jerry wasn’t amused. I got challenged to a mano-a-mano race.
We lined up. We ran at the word “Go!” We ended up…neck and neck. Crossing the finish line with Jerry running like crazy right at my side, I immediately had the feeling, “I’m not the person that I’ve been telling myself I am.”
I’m still trying to figure out who I am. And I don’t really believe that being able to run fast has anything to do with my essential self. But that moment in my high school gym class helped me realize the message that “Mean Girls” preaches, and which all of us, even us 56 year-olds, still need to take to heart: You can’t raise yourself up by knocking others down, and, even more, you can’t raise yourself up by knocking yourself down.