It’s been 10 years, and “fetch” still hasn’t happened.
What has happened, however, is that Mean Girls, the little Tina Fey-written movie that could, has turned into a catch phrase-sprouting, star-making, generation-defining phenomenon that far outlived its modestly reviewed and only sort-of successful premiere on April 30, exactly one decade ago. The movie, starring Lindsay Lohan as unsuspecting teenage prey Cady Heron set loose in the savage jungles of public high school, has done what only a few films have managed to do: become even more popular as it ages.
In fact, 10 years later, Mean Girls is so popular that it’s a wonder Janis Ian hasn’t hatched a plot to destroy it. A smart script, visionary casting, and some lucky timing (not to mention the rise of .gifs) have helped Mean Girls become the ultimate high school movie. It’s one that doesn’t just speak to the generation it was made for, but stands up against an entirely new one. Yep. Brace yourselves, because starting next year, kids who were born in the year 2000 and 2001 will be strutting through the hallways of high school for the first time (we’re old), and, when they do, they’ll be quoting the Plastics.
What is it about Mean Girls that’s made it last?
After all, when Mean Girls premiered, it only received OK reviews. In fact, there was no inclination whatsoever that the film would become this lasting cultural icon—or even, really, that it was remarkable in any way. It’s only in hindsight, after the endlessly quotable dialogue cemented itself in our lexicon and its untested cast of actors blossomed into bona fide Hollywood starlets, that the movie seems brilliant in any way.
But that’s the thing. It actually is. It’s a brilliant, refreshing, smart, and incredibly funny film. Tina Fey’s script was sassy and sharp and just the right balance of irreverent and wise. We couldn’t stop quoting it. We still can’t stop quoting it. As time passed, the dialogue even began being used to script our everyday conversations.
When a girl says thank you after being told she’s pretty, the response is now, “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?” When someone tries to figure out the race of someone they’ve never met, the reply has become “You can’t just ask people why they’re white!” So much of the script is quoted, so much of the time: “My breasts can always tell when it’s about to rain.” “Is butter a carb?” “You go, Glen Coco.” “Boo, you whore.”
But the film’s longevity extends beyond its script. It has to do with the fact that, for the first time since the John Hughes era, Hollywood gave us a high school movie we could identify with. It was fun to scoff “as if” and fantasize about Cher Horowitz’s wardrobe, but could any of us really relate to Clueless? And, while we’ve all had revenge fantasies, it’s not like we’ve carried them out to the point of murder, like in Heathers. And, certainly, a look back at those two films prove how dated they’ve become.
Too often, movies made about high school confuse hallways for fashion catwalks, teenage social lives for some non-stop bacchanalia of drunken orgies, and teenagers for chisel-jawed actors pushing 30. Mean Girls definitely had some of that, sure. But it, more importantly, also managed to capture the tension that’s at the heart of being a teenager—how we, at once, deplore, envy, dismiss, glorify, love, loathe, want to be, and want to kill the popular kids.
Mean Girls shows that high school is cruel, but plenty of movies get that point across. The thing Fey’s script does so well is depict how we’re all complicit in the cruelty, from the Plastics all the way down to the bottom-feeders. It illustrates the desperation there is to fit in, felt even by those who claim they don’t want to (the Janis Ians of the world)—and even more so by those who already do (the Gretchen Wieners of the world).
Lohan gets a great line toward the end of the movie, when she’s knee-deep in her covert operation to destroy Regina George’s life, retribution for the lives she’s destroyed during her reign of tyrannous popularity. “The weird thing about hanging out with Regina is that I could hate her,” she says, “but I still wanted her to like me.” Isn’t that something that we all, deep down, just get?
There’s so much to be said about the clever writing, but another key ingredient to Mean Girls’ longevity is the stellar casting. It starts with Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron, the stand-in for all of us. It was the perfect choice. Lohan, at the time, really did embody that Hollywood “type” of the Girl Next Door, in a way that all of those other impossibly glamorous, waifish actresses Hollywood tried to convince us fit that mold never believably did.
Lizzy Caplan’s delightfully weird Janis Ian hints at the delightfully weird career she’d carve for herself. And, as the Plastics, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, and especially Lacey Chabert all found depth in characters that could have been as superficial as the name in the hands of lesser actresses. It’s no surprise that McAdams and Seyfriend springboarded to megafame after Mean Girls. But given how good Chabert was in the movie, it’s always been a bit confusing why there’s been none for the girl who played Gretchen Wieners.
And then there’s Daniel Franzese as Damian, who was “almost too gay to function” and, yet, no one cared! It was kind of an amazing thing, a decade ago, that someone was too gay to function—but yet was still functioning, and kind of happily. There were kids like Damian in our schools who were out and proud. They were here, they were queer, and we were all, slowly but surely, learning how to get used to it. The significance shouldn’t be undersold that, in our ceaseless quoting of Mean Girls, Damian’s lines get as much play as any of the Plastics’.
As Franzese aptly put it in an open letter he recently wrote to Damian, “You became an iconic character that people looked up to. I wished I’d had you as a role model when I was younger.”
So much about Mean Girls has become iconic. The characters have. The lingo certainly has. Last summer, the White House even made a Mean Girls joke on Twitter, posting a photo of the Obamas’ dog captioned, “Bo, stop trying to make fetch happen.”
It’s the perfect illustration of how much a part the rise of the Internet—and the age of the people who use it—has played in Mean Girls’ lasting success.
In an interview with The Washington Post, David Hayes, Tumblr’s entertainment evangelist and head of its creative think tank CANVAS (this is a real job title, guys), says that Mean Girls has, in essence, become the language of the Internet. There aren’t just Tumblr blogs devoted to quotes and .gifs from the movie—and there is a glut of those—but ones that remix them and mash them together with other fandoms. (See: “Mean Girls of Panem,” “Where Harry Potter and Mean Girls Collide,” “Les Mean Girls.”)
The film has developed a sort-of omnipresence on the Internet that’s fostered its graduation from better-than-average high school comedy to reigning pop-culture icon. A lot of that is owed to timing. “The generation that came of age when Mean Girls was released is the generation that has the reins of the Internet now,” Hayes says. “Just by chance, Mean Girls had the best timing.”
The generation that shelled out the money to see the film in theaters during high school are the same kids who bought the DVD and watched it on their 9-inch TV/DVD combos in their dorm rooms, religiously screened it again a few years later when they could finally afford cable and stumbled upon a rerun of the film while channel surfing, and dutifully absorbed all of its catchphrases, eventually immortalizing them in .gif form. Now, they’re the Buzzfeed generation, overlords of the Internet, ruling with an iron fist of nostalgia-driven memes.
And they have but one decree: on Wednesdays, we wear pink.