Deconstructing High School Social Hierarchies: Movie "Mean Girls"

High brow texts are viewed as high quality and advanced while a teen comedy amidst lingo such as “fetch” may not be regarded as a fit in that category, Mean Girls, the universal phenomenon transforms those conditions. The film, produced in 2004 with the screenplay by Tina Fey, is about Cady Herron, an innocent homeschooled girl whose family moves from Africa to the suburbs of Illinois. Cady finally gets to experience school with speculation that she knows all about the survival of the fittest but the rules of the jungle don't apply when she enters public high school she has to deal with unwritten social rules, psychological warfare and laws of popularity that divide her fellow students into tightly knit cliques. Cady goes from befriending 'outcasts', Janice and Damien to the 'plastics' a group of girls that are the epitome of superficial and live in a delusional world that everyone likes them, Gretchen Weiners, Karen Smith and the queen bee, Regina George herself. Herron helps Janice and Damien plot revenge for the 'plastics' but ends up losing herself and becomes plastic due to the constraints and conformity of belonging to a recognised group in high school and must discover herself in the midst of boys, friendships, disputes and petty pranks. Though it is categorised in the low brow category due to its language and genre of teen comedy, yet the film excels this category as it holds mass appeal and explores themes of coming of age due to its addressing issues of gender sexuality shaping identity, power and social ideologies that many teens in the society today still have to endure in high school. Fey achieves this through the use of symbolism, characterisation, Split-screen techniques and montage sequences.

Cady’s character is established throughout the film with the focus of how gender and sexuality shape her identity. The unwritten laws of school she faces in order to conform to high school guidelines are portrayed by symbolism and backed up by an array of scenes and character dialogue which focus on feminist stereotypes to display these personality changes from an “outcast” to “plastic”. Cady's innocence is symbolised through her clothing at the beginning of the film consisting of her long jeans and plaid t-shirt, conservative, naive and new to the world of Northshore High School. Her encounter of the plastics and introduction to the rules, including the infamous line, “on Wednesdays, we wear pink”, spoken by Gretchen when she spoke her monologue about the 'rules' to Cady. 'You can only wear jeans or track pants on Fridays, I mean if I was wearing track pants today I would be sitting with the arts freaks,' says Gretchen Weiners with the look of distaste clearly evident on her face, before switching back to the ever happy popular girl who wouldn't be caught dead breaking the rules as she's lucky to be part of the 'plastics', but most importantly the popularity and belonging that comes with it. The coordinated outfit for Wednesdays emits stereotypical femininity but it also acts as a militaristic uniform of conformity which is desired by many in high school. The relation of today's societal high schools' students coming of age and mean girls critiques on this, in this case, the rules of feminism further reinforce why the film excels its low brow categorisation.

The film uses social ideologies regarding women and in this case, correlates to the plastics, especially the changes she faces in order to conform to these ideologies. Such as the way they dress provocatively or tear down others to make themselves feel compelling to guide Cady's personality and values. The distinction between Cady's identity in the earlier stages of the film and plastics is recognised through the symbolism of her Halloween costume.'In the real world, Halloween is when kids dress up and beg for candy, but in girl world, Halloween is the one time of year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girl can say anything about it”. The narration is spoken by Cady during a montage of scenes and is seen as a message of the female ideal, girls are associating with dressing in skimpy, risque outfits. During the narration we see Cady preparing in her terrifying Halloween costume which makes her stand in stark contrast to every other girl at the party, while The Plastics are clear stereotypes and primarily interested in projecting a sexually appealing image of themselves, highlighting her lack of social understanding during the first half of the movie. Whereas further into the movie we see Cady conforming into the social ideologies of dressing more like the plastics and eventually Cady has different interests completely. Beginning of the film, Cady was originally interested in true friends, and spending time with family. However, Cady became more interested in becoming popular and having good fashion rather than her values of genuine companionship and family. Additionally, the film confers the change in Cady's personality solely to fit with the plastics and change in her priorities which is relevant in today's society as many in high school change their priorities in order to be able to conform to ideologies, with the single purpose of fitting in.

The rivalry between Cady and Regina display the power struggle in social hierarchy in high school, achieved through symbolism and characterisation as Cady tries to fight the conformity while losing herself in the passion for power. Regina, the queen bee feels threatened when Cady transforms into 'plastic' as we see Cady wearing more makeup, worrying about what she looks like, and starts to wear more revealing clothing. “Being a plastic was amazing, everyone just knew stuff about you”, Herron's narration while the scene of her walking through the school hallways, clad in her new “plastic” clothing and the broad smile across her face pushes her new found love of the power of becoming a plastic and the popularity that came with it. In high schools today this pursuit of popularity and the control behind it is still relevant. As Cady realises the rude person she's become, she sets on a self-resolution route and to end the social hierarchy system. Cady's decision to shatter the tiara symbolises her desire to break up the social hierarchies that had dictated the lives of North Shore students. Rather than be part of an exclusive group that is idolised by the rest of the school, Cady offers compliments to a number of peers and forsakes the title of queen in the interest of bringing the school together on more egalitarian terms. The film seen by many have an audience which is able to relate the social hierarchy and betrayal of friendship situations in the movies just for that bit of conformity in high school so this relation to society shows the high brow aspects of the movie.

Fey explores ideas of conformity in high school based on feminist stereotypes and characters shaped through gender and sexuality in relation to Mean Girls as the film repeatedly expressed many of the ideal attributes of a female high school student. The film successfully conveys these ideas through Cady and her experiences at North Shore and the “plastics” which many students can relate in society today, furthermore the relatable issues and themes of coming of age greatly exceeds the films lowbrow categorisation as the high school concepts addressed are relevant and sustain mass appeal to convey a connotation of school culture and situations that arise with the public high school experience.

16 December 2021
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