"Mean Girls" Is Everything (No, Really): How One Movie Summarized a Generation

Gretchen Weiners couldn't make fetch happen, but she did help make "Mean Girls" the go-to movie for an entire generation.

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Complex Original

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Mean Girls has become the Bible for millennials.

If you were a teenage girl in 2004, there’s a strong chance that you saw Mean Girls. To say that the film has a cult following is an understatement. The fact that "fetch" happened to the White House Twitter account last year is a testament to the film’s position as pop culture holy scripture. Given the themes, predominantly female cast, and Tina Fey’s inspired adaptation of Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabees, it’s clear why Mean Girls had such a resounding impact on teenage girls. But what helped a film with modest expectations flip a $17 million budget into $129 million of box office glory is the fact that it spoke to all teens.

I was one of the many people who saw Mean Girls opening weekend, contributing to the over $24 million it grossed on its way to claiming the top spot at the box office. As a then-teenage film junkie in a group of friends with similar predilections for cinema and pop culture, I went with a mixed gender group to see if the film would make good on the promise of the trailer. When those 97 minutes were over, we all knew we had experienced something exceptional. It was like watching LeBron James literally soar over his peers in the 2003 McDonald’s All-American Game a year prior—you knew the game would be forever different.

As much as I was into film back then, I’m not going to act like my movie-nerd status is the sole reason I came out of pocket to see Mean Girls in theaters. As a teenager with income and dismissible expenses, I didn’t mind paying to watch Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert. I took a second glance at that Fab Four of excellence and my young ass was sold, "Jingle Bell Rock" scene alone. Back then, Lohan was it. Less than a year earlier, she made everyone forget about the freckle-faced kid from The Parent Trap with the remake of Freaky Friday. For Mean Girls, she reconnected with Freaky Friday director Mark Waters and became the main attraction, a flame-haired ball of effortless, yet combustible, energy. She was like a young, real-life Jean Grey. While the promise of eye candy might’ve partially piqued my interest in Mean Girls, it was something else that held my attention.

On the surface, Mean Girls is a chick flick, but it succeeds because it speaks to real people. All of them. Cady Heron isn’t a caricature, she’s someone who got caught up in the moment, flew too close to the sun, then figuratively crashed and burned. A fool and his or her money are soon parted, and in high school, social status is wealth to some. Think about Cady and Regina George’s first interaction, and all of Regina’s insecurity-fueled, staged kindness. Your enemies often come with smiles, a lesson best learned early on. Gretchen Wieners was wracked by self-doubt and confused admiration; a modern day Brutus to Regina’s Caesar.

The paper-thin allegiance between the Plastics spoke to people "befriending" others they think they’re supposed to associate with. As McAdams told the New York Times earlier this month, "Tina hit a nerve about girl politics, but in a nonconfrontational way."

But it was about more than just "girl politics," it was about politics in general. Opportunists and social hustlers are born every day. There’s a hierarchy in high school, and a similar system of social order in the adult world. There will always be a Regina George, but everyone can’t be Regina George. Then, on the outside, there’s Janis Ian. Her defiant, outlaw aesthetic was legit, but it was also done to mask scars left by painful previous experiences. Who can’t relate to that?

These are all things I witnessed, or, to some degree, experienced. High school is a microcosm of  the real world, an unfriendly environment where only the strong survive. Mean Girls wasn’t just speaking to the girls in the audience, it was speaking to everyone by capturing the awkwardness of being a teenager. That’s exactly why the John Hughes flicks of the ‘80s are still held in such high regard.

Set in suburban Illinois, like so many of the Hughes classics, Mean Girls continued the tradition established by Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club 20 years earlier. It’s like Heathers chased with Clueless; nowhere near as darkly satirical as the former and more congruent with the average teenage experience than the latter, yet more powerful than both. Believe me, I love Clueless and know Murray’s lines from the freeway scene verbatim, but most teens aren’t living like that. But many are living with conflicted feelings, regardless of who they are or where they're from.

Though it’s a dive into the world of female social dynamics, Mean Girls was directed by a man, one who sympathized with Cady. "I felt like I was Cady, even though I was a guy," Waters told the Times. "In high school, I was a mathlete. But I also played basketball and tennis—not because I was interested in them, but because if you didn’t play sports or have a cool car, you were a geek. I remember that feeling of, nothing’s more important in the world than what’s happening to me at lunch today." I wasn’t a mathlete, but I was a Great Gatsby-loving basketball player. While it seems like I may have had a better connection with Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester (for the record, I did), I didn’t expect to find anything analogous to my own life in Mean Girls. We’ve all felt what Cady, Waters, and every high schooler feel at some point: your world being that small. Also, remember that it came out three weeks after the male-centric, Emile Hirsch-driven The Girl Next Door, and has fared much better over the years.

I own Mean Girls on DVD. Not because I bought it, because I stole it from my friend in like, 2007. Though Saturday afternoon reruns on TBS are part of why it’s become the doctrine for a generation, it’s a must-have for those of us—male and female—who were teenagers during its theatrical run. A recent Washington Post article said the film has become the "language of the Internet," enjoying perennial relevance thanks to Tumblr and a never-ending stream of memes and GIFs. Why? It came along at the right time. A time, as Jonathan Bennett (Aaron Samuels) told Entertainment Weekly, when "when Hollywood was still good," but also a time when the Internet as we know it today was only taking its first steps. The "Burn Book" was like the Old Testament of modern high school bullying, the precursor to the Internet harassment we see today. When I got to school the next year, there were Facebook groups called "The Burn Book" and "The Unfriendly Black Hotties." The impact of Mean Girls was immediate. It also allowed Daniel Franzese to come out through a letter to his character, Damian, this month. Ten years later, the film is still germane to the lives of fans and the cast.

Not only has Mean Girls helped shaped the social-media age, it’s been a defining moment in the careers of all involved. Lindsay Lohan has gone the way of former high school basketball star Lenny Cooke, plagued by Icarus Syndrome: too much, too soon. Like Jean Grey, it’s as if she’s been possessed by the Dark Phoenix in the years since Mean Girls, becoming a danger to herself and others while self-destructing. Like Cooke in 2001, this was her peak, and she didn’t even know it at the time.

Also like Cooke, she’s been surpassed by others who received second-billing (McAdams, Seyfried and Lizzy Caplan) similar to how a young LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony shot past Cooke in life. But just as Mean Girls serves as an unforgettable moment for its stars, it’s similarly frozen in time for the legions of fans who remember its original release. As a grown man, I can remember finding unexpected parallels to my teenage existence, and that—moreso than any memeable dialogue —is why there hasn’t been a teen movie as important since.

If you’re old enough to recall this, watch Mean Girls as an adult. By the time The Donnas cover of "Dancing With Myself" plays over the credits, regardless of whether you’re male or female,  you’ll willingly stumble down a rabbit hole of teenage nostalgia.

Julian Kimble still can't believe how fast that 10 years flew by. One day, he might teach a class about pop culture that stresses the importance of Mean Girls. You can follow him on Twitter here

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