(Un)Popular: An Analysis of Mean Girls in the Real World

I wasn’t very popular in high school. I never quite understood what it took to be popular. I cared too much about everything: my grades, my family, what people thought of me… I thought being cool meant not caring and as hard as I tried I couldn’t do that. The weirdest thing happened when I started college, though. I became popular. People wanted me to eat lunch with them. I had classmates fighting over who would be in my group. It’s like the things that made you popular in high school don’t really matter anymore and your peers start to see the more important attributes, like intelligence and humor. I wish I could go back to  my high school self, to all the drama freaks and the nerdy girls hiding in the library during lunchtime and tell them, IT GETS BETTER!!

So I am interested in what it is that makes girls popular. I’ve analyzed Mean Girls, a movie that is all about popular girls and one girl’s rise to the top of the high school food chain. Specifically, I would like to point of the behaviors and characteristics that seem to be closely tied with popularity. After this, I will attempt to make some inferences about these behaviors and how they affect the dynamics of their relationships, and how that reflects both negatively and positively on teenage girls. 

Mean Girls, written by comedian Tina Fey, is all about Cady, an African transfer student, learning the ins and outs of high school and “Girl World.” On her first day in an American high school she meets Janice and Damian, who give her a run down of the different cliques, the cool and the not cool. On her second day she meets the Plastics, Gretchen Wieners, Karen Smith, and their “Queen Bee” Regina George. She is asked to join the Plastics, supposedly because she’s “like, really pretty” and told the rules, “On wednesdays we wear pink.” But when Cady falls for Regina’s ex boyfriend the tables are turned and she is sucked into an all out “Girl World War”. Throughout the movie Fey has brilliantly illustrated what it means to be popular through Cady’s transformation from Wannabe to Queen Bee.

Mean Girls does a great job of pointing out how terrible high school is. I mean, seriously, high school is the hardest part of life for many of us, including myself. One of the reasons I believe high school is so hard is that the strangest characteristics make you popular. I have catalogued several of these characteristics, directly observed in the behavior of the Plastics, and organized them into positive and negative attributes depending on their affects on the person and the people around them.

The positive characteristics are a much smaller list so I will start with them. First of all, being a popular girl, especially THE popular girl, the Queen Bee, takes great leadership skills. Take Regina, while she is an “evil dictator” she possesses great leadership skills. She successfully organizes the Plastics in a dance number (jingle bell rock) and her “loyal followers” indeed follow her almost blindly. According to MissRepresentation.org on 21% of girls believe they have what it takes to be a leader. Is society instilling the idea in our young girls that in order to be a successful leader you must also be mean and manipulative? Is leadership in young girls considered a negative thing along with the other attribute they must have to be the leader of the pack in high school? These are questions I can’t answer easily, but instead should be considered by all of us. According to The Representation Project,  9/10 girls have not given up on the idea of being a leader. There is still hope, but we must foster safe and welcoming places where girls can love each other without comparing or competing.

 Regina also possesses great problem solving skills, even if she does use them for evil purposes. An example of this occurs when she puts herself in the Burn Book to blame the other girls. That was a mean and hateful thing to do, but seriously smart. If Regina, and other girls like her were to channel that cunning into good means the entire world could be a little brighter. Being popular also makes you a trendsetter. When Cady cuts holes in Regina’s shirt where her breasts are Regina proudly wears it, and soon everyone has holes in their shirts. Regina was unafraid to try something new because she was popular, but this is a skill all young girls should learn.

The list of negative attributes are much longer. The Plastics are caught in their own web of peer pressure and manipulation. As Gretchen Wieners so eloquently points out, “You wouldn’t buy a skirt without asking your friends first if it looks good on you.” Cady learns quickly that in high school your friends opinions of you are the most important. How will young girls ever learn that their own opinion should be of the highest regard if they are so concerned with their friends’ opinions? This raises many issues in my mind. It is known that our young girls are suffering an epidemic of low self esteem. Clinical Depression in girls is double that of boys. I want to suggest that these facts are very closely related to peer pressure and the fact that in high school your friends are your biggest critics.

Another attribute that seems common with popular girls is they mustn’t have a good relationship with their parents. My parents were very loving and supportive my entire life. Family time was key and missing it meant no friend time. Regina, on the other hand, treats her mother like crap, while her mother tries so hard to be the “cool mom.” She uses her parents as a way to get what she wants and manipulates them as much as much as she does the other plastics. Cady’s transformation into Queen Bee shows her relationship with her parents deteriorating. On the first day of school they hug and kiss and take pictures, but by Spring she is ditching their family time in favor of a house party and a cute boy. A great relationship with your parents when you’re in high school may be unfeasible to some of us, but a healthy relationship with them is vital. Young girls need adults they can confide and trust in.     

Oh, if I could tell high school girls how little these boys matter. No offense, men, but in high school, you are really the last thing girls should worry about, and yet it seems you’re the only thing we can think about!!! A great example of this is when Cady lies about being bad at math, her best subject, to get the attention of Aaron, Regina’s ex-boyfriend. Perhaps it’s because every popular girl has her own personal man candy. The only thing important about the chosen man candy is his looks, and possibly his inclusion in the football team. We send girls’ messages their entire life, but never so strongly as when they are in high school. One message that is very clear is your partner defines you.

A really obvious characteristic of being popular, which, unfortunately, transcends age in many ways, is good looks. As Janice points out in Mean Girls,  when planning Regina’s downfall, one her most important allies is her “hot bod.” Janice and Cady even devise a devious plan to feed Regina protein bars that help her gain weight. From an age much younger than high school we tell young girls that their looks define them. Through agencies like cheerleading, pageants, and princess parties we drive home ideas about femininity and physical appearance. We forget to tell girls how smart they are, how creative, or how tough, and instead shower them with compliments about how cuuuute and how pretty that dress. Is it any wonder that 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.  By age 17 that number is 78%. Our society has built a direct connection between the success of a woman and how good looking she is.

 Popularity in high school means feared rather than well liked. In the beginning of the movie, when the “wannabes” talk about Regina George, they speak with a sense of awe and admiration, but they say terrible things. One girls even says, breathlessly, “One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.” There’s a certain sense of fear when talking about or to Regina. But not one of those girls says anything positive about Regina. Throughout the movie, one theme made abundantly clear is that to be popular has nothing to do with being well-liked, which brings me back to the question, Has society inextricably tied these attributes together, being feared and bitchy in order to be a successful woman?

After taking stock of several good and bad characteristics of high school popularity i would like to go back and look at them a bit closer. What do they have in common? What does this mean for girls as they are pushed into young adulthood? The thing I fear the most is that these girls have no clue how to be good, true friends. According to Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, studies show we are more confidant and are able to learn and accomplishment more in small groups. We, as successful women, need other successful women for support, comfort, and friendship. But the plastics have no idea how to be any of those things for each other. They constantly backstab, manipulate, and undercut each other. I fear that as the new generation reaches adulthood they will be isolated from each other, with no lifelines to help them step up to success. 

My second fear has already come true, it happened to me, and it continues to get worse every day. Girls hate themselves. We pick apart our bodies and our choices, we undermine our own prerogative and we don’t trust our own opinions. Self esteem hits rock bottom in high school for many adolescent girls, and there is very little reprieve in college or the working world. It’s no surprise to me that depression in women has doubled since 1970. We are constantly, from birth, being told to question ourselves, being told our worth is defined by our beauty, something that ebbs and flows, for most of us, over a lifetime. It is no wonder women make up such small percentages of leadership roles. It is no wonder women still make $0.63 for every dollar earned by men. Our whole lives we’re told we’re not worth it. By society, and as a teenager, by each other! 

Something has to change. Several things have to change. But in relation to my current topic i have a solution. I would love to see more movies depicting healthy female relationships. Whip IT! is a great example a group of strong females who can also support each other without having to compete with each other. Sisterhood of The Travelling Pants is another great example. We need to make more films and TV shows about how to be a good friend, not how to be a Queen Bee. We need to start admiring and honoring good qualities, such as loyalty, kindness, perseverance, and critical thinking and stop putting beauty and material objects on a pedestal.


 Works Cited:    

Mean Girls. Mark Waters. Perfs. Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried.  Paramount Pictures, 2004. DVD.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. First edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Cause and Effect. Digital image. Miss Representation. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

“The Representation Project.” The Representation Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

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