30 Apr
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Is popular culture, through films like “Mean Girls”, polluting the minds of our high school girls?

With all the media coverage of teenage girls’ worrisome aggressiveness, rising crime rate, intoxication, drug abuse and irresponsible promiscuity, it should be asked how is popular culture dealing with this issue.

Education in this area is difficult when it is in the school environment this behaviour is fostered, however it is recognised that the most influential way to make an impact upon the teenage girl’s mind is through:

(1) Her model/singer/actress idols – well Hollywood is notorious in that respect. Earlier this year Miley Cyrus (16-year-old Disney actress and ‘tween’ super star) came to the defence of stars Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears as their public misdemeanours climbed.1 She claimed “I think most 21- to 25-year-olds go through this sort of thing… I mean, most of it’s pretty normal… If you went to most high schools, I could point out Britneys and Lindsays.’’ What sort of message did this give? It’s normal for teenage girls to aspire to having earned a criminal record, spent time in drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, lost their licence due to dangerous driving, been involved in a number of car accidents, had their children removed by social services, and been arrested for possession and transportation of drugs by the time they’re 25? This irresponsible mentality would lead to the majority of teenage girls in jail!

(2) Teen movies – Current teen movie obsession? Mean Girls, tag-lined “Welcome to Girl World – Watch Your Back” and “Survival of the Ruthless”.

Mean Girls has had a powerful effect on the teenage girl culture – the wrong way! The movie was based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, which was an effective expose of the nasty side of the girls’ culture with parental guidelines to counter the problems mentioned above. However the movie managed to almost completely destruct its solid foundations by presenting a nasty exaggerated reality play in which the producers had to tone down the porn and language for the movie to achieve its PG13 ratings by the censors.

Mean Girls2 was released in 2004 and was among the box office hits of the year. The film, directed by Mark Waters and scripted by Tina Fey, is particularly unique for a teen movie as it was inspired by the study of aggressive teenage culture and the potential danger of cliques in the aforementioned Queen Bees and Wannabes.3 The film remains hugely popular and influential among high school girls. Compared to a budget of $17 million, the film made a gross revenue of approximately $130 million.4 It was the number one film in America at its release, and enjoyed a long life at the box office.

The plot of the movie moves around the character of Cady (Lindsay Lohan), a 16-year-old girl who was home-schooled in Africa and is now entering high school in Chicago. She finds it difficult to adjust and is befriended by Janis (outcast female) and Damien (gay male). Cady’s introduction to the school protocols is via “the Plastics”, a group of girls- Regina, Gretchen and Karen- who are the most popular and the most malicious girls in the school. Regina (Rachel McAdams) is the ‘Queen Bee’ of the group, and is idolised by all fellow classmates, so much so that even to be hit in the face by her is considered an honour. Regina and Janis have a long-time feud due to Regina starting rumours about Janis’s sexuality, and so Janis plants Cady in the Plastics to get revenge. There is a struggle between Cady and Regina throughout the film over Regina’s ex-boyfriend Aaron. Through attempting to ruin Regina’s life, Cady becomes a clone of Regina and destroys her initial friendships. A “Burn Book” in which the Plastics wrote a litany of nasty gossip about all the other girls in the school, is copied and distributed throughout the school by Regina, causing a raging class meltdown as all the girls to turn against each other. An “attitude makeover” attempts to reconcile the girls’ differences, at which a number of public apologies cause consternation. Afterwards as Cady tries to apologise to her, Regina is hit by a bus. Cady is vilified by the whole school and goes through the long process of putting things right.

Such a basic plot summary does not seem particularly incriminating. However this film revels in teenage vulgarity for the vast majority of the film. Homosexuality and lesbianism are the subject of crude jokes. Girls fantasise about attacking each other in an animal-like manner. A character’s little sister suggestively grinds to and pulls up her top imitating commercials on the TV. A certain group of students are known drug addicts. There is rampant emotional bullying and consistent vulgarity of speech. A teacher is involved in sexual liaisons with two underage students. There are accusations of lesbianism made when a girl is upset because her friend turns her back on her. The upset mother of the girl accused of being a lesbian, is described as “retarded”. There are references to being “half a virgin”. A character regularly swears about her mother. One girl “made out with a hot dog”. A male character makes suggestive enquiries to a naive girl about whether she is a virgin or not (the scene is actually dubbed over as the original lines would have gained the movie a R-rating). Boys discuss nude women sightings. One girl regularly cheats on her boyfriend with another student. A girl describes passionately kissing her first cousin. Girls talk about sleeping with someone even though they don’t like it. A girl calls another girl’s mother and pretends to be from Planned Parenthood, turning the mother against her daughter. When two girls are fighting one guy gets excited and shouts at them to remove their tops. A character’s mother has had plastic surgery with rock-hard non-feeling results, so much so that she does not notice a dog gnawing at her. A teacher is accused of dealing drugs. Teenagers make out in their underwear, and dance suggestively during a school concert. And this is not an exclusive list! This movie has had the effect of manipulating girls into thinking that this is the norm for high school life.

This film has had the exact opposite effect intended by the book which inspired it.5 This is a great pity, as the original work has much to commend. Mean Girls was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s bestseller “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence”. Rosalind Wiseman is the co-founder and president of the Empower Program, a national US violence-prevention programme started in 1992.6 The core message of this program is that you have a responsibility to treat yourself and others with dignity. Queen Bees andWannabes is essentially an expose on teenage girl cliques. Wiseman talks about how the dynamics and characteristics of teenage relationships are likely to echo in future relationships. Her book details how intense, volatile and dangerous teenage cliques are. She claims that a girl’s place in the “social pecking order can affect whether she’ll be a perpetrator, bystander or a victim of violence when she’s older.’’ In light of this, shouldn’t we be doing our utmost in society to change the unwritten hierarchy of the teen world? Further on Wiseman makes the point that “constantly changing cultural ideals of femininity impact your daughter’s self-esteem, friendships, and social status and can combine to make her more likely to have sex at an early age and be vulnerable to violence at the hands of some men and boys.” She details frightening statistics such as nearly one in five teenage girls have been in a sexually abusive relationship. Wiseman explains that “Our culture teaches girls a very dangerous and confusing code of behaviour, about what constitutes ‘appropriate’ feminine behaviour (i.e., you should be sexy, but not slutty; you should be independent, but you’re no one without a boyfriend).” Wiseman notes the danger of trivialising and dismissing adolescent trials as ‘teen drama’. “Paradoxically, during their period of greatest vulnerability, girls’ competition with and judgment of each other weakens their friendships and effectively isolates all of them. This is what the power of the clique is all about, and why it matters so much to your daughter’s safety and self-esteem.” This book deals chiefly with the parent/daughter relationship maelstrom. It is an excellent how-to guide to these turbulent years. However, the efforts of parents to do the best for their daughters is challenged by the popular culture that constantly undermines their efforts.

Wiseman makes the point that we need to acknowledge that it is our teenage girls who are enforcing this code. In June, Joyce Benenson and colleagues, of the Department of Psychology of Emmanuel College in Boston, did a study on handing out prizes to 87 4-year-old boys and girls.7 When there was more than one prize to go round, the different sexes behaved similarly. But when there was only one given, the boys tended to ask, grab or chase the prize owner. Girls however excluded the prize winner from their group, whispered behind her back and even hid from her. At 4 years of age it is evident that these female social aggressiveness tactics are already implanted in the female physique. This will develop into an acute realisation of the clique nature of young female society. Girls themselves enforce the code that Wiseman writes on; it is a psychological fact that we are most judgemental of our peers. This mentality among girls needs to be changed, but it won’t be done by movies like Mean Girls.

Wiseman’s descriptions are not solely US problems. Maggie Hamilton has studied teenage girls in Australia, and in her recently published “What’s Happening to Our Girls? How our kids are overstimulated, oversold and oversexed” makes the point that what was “once the domain of adults has become part of the lives of our children”.8 She makes the claim that popular culture has become the “super parent”, as the onslaught of advertising, new technology, and bombardment by the media leaves parents behind in their traditional guiding role.

In light of the role experts feel that popular culture should play, it is quite ironic that this film inspired by Wiseman’s studies seems to have only reinforced the role of the clique in teen culture. Mean Girls has a cult teenage following with large numbers of girls watching it repeatedly and regularly. Children as young as 5 saw this film due to less than responsible parents who thought the film suitable simply because it starred Lindsay Lohan, a former Disney child star. As already mentioned, Mean Girls achieved very high box office and DVD sales. Such a popular film has had a definite impact upon teen culture.

Quotes from the movie are now mainstream in teenage girls’ vocabulary. One of the most used quotes is Regina’s “Boo, you whore!’’ Internet poll comments show that this line is extremely popular: “I say this to my friends all the time!’’, “Such an amazing line!’’ “I love it when she says this!” Take a trip on any school bus and the terms ‘whore’ (prostitute), ‘bitch’ (obscene woman), and ‘slut’ (sexually promiscuous woman) are bandied about as insults and compliments indiscriminately. These words are used throughout the film on occasions too numerous to count! When girls use these terms about each other it excuses guys to do the same.

There are many Mean Girls fan groups on networking sites such as ‘Facebook’ and ‘Bebo’. FANPOP’s Mean Girls fan site has well over 1000 members, and that number grows daily.9 The many polls on this site are telling of the general teenage perspective. For example; In one FANPOP poll Mrs George (Amy Poehler), Regina’s mother, came out on top as favourite older female character. Are today’s parents aware that their teenage daughters idolise a mother who offers condoms and alcohol to underage girls and delights in taking pictures of her daughter in provocative lingerie (to the anguish of her father)? Ms Norbury (Tina Fey) (the intended role model of the film) came second, the recently divorced and sexually-frustrated teacher.

Another FANPOP poll asked, “If you could be one of the Plastics who would you want to be?’’. Gretchen and Regina came out with top with 36% and 31% votes in their favour respectively. In these polls Cady, the ‘heroine’ of the film whom teenage audiences are supposed to aspire to, fares rather badly. The reasons offered are telling, particularly in Regina’s case; “Everyone likes her and fancies her and wants to be with her”, “The better you are, the more your popularity goes down”, “Why not be the queen bee?”, “I want to be her because she’s like Barbie”.

A poll on “Which Plastic did you like the most?” gave telling similar results. Regina once more tops, due to reasons like “She was the hottest’’, “I love her!”, “I’d do just the same as she does”, “Cady is fake”. In another poll an over-whelming majority voted in favour of being a member of the Plastics. “It would be cool to be a pretty, popular, slutty bitch.’’ Unfortunately this role of the powerful sexy woman appeals to a teenage audience who are marketed to consistently as radical feminists whose worth is measured in terms of sexual currency.

There is no doubt that many viewers did empathise with and aspire to Lohan’s character in the film. However, the above polls illustrate that ultimately the character of Regina was recognized as the teen role model by audiences, again illustrating how the film consistently undermined the moral it supposedly intended to convey.

Mean Girls, it would seem, was intended to deliver the message of treating yourself and others with dignity and taking responsibility for our actions and the failings in our society. Unfortunately, this film makes a mockery out of all the problems faced by young girls and the school system today.

For example, as previously mentioned, the character of Regina’s younger sister briefly features in the film imitating music videos on the TV by suggestively grinding and pulls up her top. Hilarious I’m sure. While the studio executives may have had a good chuckle, think about the young girls at whose expense they’re laughing. A very recent article in the Sunday Herald Sun, took an in-depth look at how music videos readily available on the TV may be affecting girls’ self-esteem and even contributing to eating disorders.10 Dr Vivienne Lewis, lecturer in Psychology at University of Canberra, commented in the article that she believes these highly sexualised music videos shouldn’t be watched by children under the age of 15. Again, teenagers are being influenced into not taking these important issues seriously.

The film portrays an impossible image of ‘perfectly groomed’ high school girls in designer mini clothes, heavy make-up, immaculately manicured nails and stylised hair every day. Teen audiences are too naive not to be deceived by this superficial imagery. During the movie Gretchen states that 7 out of 10 girls have a negative body image. Regina (the girl whom audiences are imitating) replies, “Who cares? 6 of them are right.” Here is another example of a cheap joke disregarding the severity of such things as chronic eating disorders affecting so many girls suffering from a negative body image. And worryingly this is affecting increasingly younger girls, according to Amanda Gordon, President of the Australian Psychological Society.11

The sex-education teacher’s comments about sexually-transmitted diseases were meant to be humorous; in fact they were highly offensive. “Don’t have sex. You will get pregnant, and you willdie! (Movie’s own emphasis) Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up, just don’t do it ok? Promise? Ok, now everybody take some rubbers?” (Hands out condoms). Further on “You’re going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get Chlamydia and die.” Statements like this make a mockery out of the seriousness of the STD epidemic in high schools12 and the gravity of teen pregnancies. To add insult to the injury, this is the teacher who is assaulting underage girls.

Originally, according to screen writer Tina Fey, Cady was to be an American home-schooled kid.13 However, the studio decided that was ‘too weird’ and so she comes from Africa. Are they blind to the estimated 1.5 million home-schooled students in America? (Australian estimates vary from 30,000 to 50,000 home-schooled students.) Even at an executive level this film makes a mockery out of the enshrined right of parents to choose their child’s form of education.14 As Cady describes her background: “I was home-schooled, not because we’re weirdly religious or anything” – scene cuts to group of young Middle American boys. The older one drawls, “And on the third day God created the Remington bolt-action rifle so that man could fight the dinosaurs, and the homosexuals.” The other boys bow their heads, “Amen”. First, making a violently degrading joke about homosexuals is rashly immature. Equally, this sick joke is used to mock the well-established values of home education should be highly objectionable to anyone who takes the education of young people seriously. For a film that ridicules home-schooling, it actually awakens in the adult viewer’s mind a realisation of how poisonous school culture can be. Any parent who home-schools now has justification in this film alone; what is so wrong in protecting your children from this sort of behaviour? Indeed a US study on homeschooling in 2003 found that 85% of parents cited “the social environment of other forms of schooling” as an important reason why they chose to home-school their children.15

Some (mostly adults) excuse the film by claiming that it is realistic. Teenagers say it’s slightly exaggerated. Tina Fey claimed that teenagers watch Mean Girls as “a reality television show”. Regardless, making out a crude and dangerous potential reality to be ‘cool’ for teenagers is irresponsible. And unfortunately, since this movie’s release, behaviour like that of the Plastics has become more common. Last year there was national scandal in the US after a group of 5 girls and their school were placed under a $40,000 investigation for their provocative pictures put online, underage drinking, and utter disrespect for teachers.16 (During this investigation the principal of the school, Linda Theret, whose daughter was one of the above girls, reached a settlement with the school board to resign for the sum of $75,000.) It is significant that the investigator noted in his 70 page report that he was shocked by the irresponsibility of adults in handling the case, including the school administration, teachers, and the parents of the girls involved. All adults involved with teenagers need to take responsibility for the behaviour of impressionable teens. Unfortunately, the advertising and media stranglehold fails to do this, and its negligence supersedes responsible society’s attempt to curb dangerous teenage behaviour.

Todd Hertz of ‘Christianity Today Movies’ judged that the film results in mixed messages.17 “The movie tries to make a statement about negatively treating peers based on appearance or social standing – while freely doing it for most of its jokes! Most of the comedy – like any high school’s popular kids – comes from mean teasing, cruel jokes and easy jokes about homosexuals, Christians and the handicapped.” These mixed messages result in confusion among the teen audience. Hertz details how he attended a screening for 250 female teenagers, where they totally missed the point in key areas. During the final scenes of the film Cady has realised her mistakes and resolves to be nice to the other girls in the school. Cady then faces an obese fellow student and compliments her on her hair. Built up on the easy, cruel jokes throughout the movie, the audience found it hilarious. Reconciliation at the end appears only to be a mere excuse for the crudity of the movie. The film lacks sincerity. As Hertz concludes “Mean Girls acts like any teenage queen bee – setting rules, being cruel and picking on the weak – only then to break its own rules and be hypocritical”.

In the US the film was originally given an R rating by the MPAA (Movie Picture Association of America).18 Editing took place to bring it down to the PG13 rating, which included dubbing over several lines and taking out oral sex and topless lead actresses. References to the rising cost of abortion, and additional scenes of underage drinking were taken out. There have been concerns that several films such as Mean Girls are not edited to a sufficient extent to classify them as PG13. Tom Carder, President of the Child Care Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture (CAP) has coined the term ‘R-13’ movies.19 CAP uses statistical computer models to gauge the relative moral value of films, and has constructed a range of values into which the various classification fall. 100 is the highest score, and their results show a general consistency in that G classifications receive a score between 100 and 87, PG between 86 and 68, PG 13 between 67 and 55, and R less than 54. They have found that the number of PG-13 classified films with traditional R-rated content has increased in recent years. Their findings were echoed by a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004.20

It would seem the movie industry is making no sincere attempt to provide guidelines for teenagers handling the mean, toxic culture they confront today. Indeed they may be contributing to an escalation of these problems. Public pressure is needed to make the industry to take responsibility for their powerful influence over young people. One film such as Mean Girls has already had an impact upon a teen generation of girls, and regretfully they are not the better for it.

Siobhan Reeves

Siobhan has studied law and science in Ireland and is currently a research assistant for the AFA.

Endnotes

1 Miley Cyrus Defends ‘Normal’ Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, 12 May 2008, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.hollywood.com/news/Miley_Cyrus_Defends_Normal_Br

2 ‘Mean Girls’ Movie Official Website, www.meangirls.com

3 Rosalind Wiseman, ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and other Realities of Adolescence’, 2003, Three Rivers Press, Canada

4 ‘Mean Girls’, 2004, BoxOfficeMojo.Com, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=meangirls.htm

5 Readers comments, Scrivener, L., The Cult of the Mean Girl, 05 May 2006, Toronto Star, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1591434/posts

6 Rosalind Wiseman Official Website, Retrieved 04 September 2008, www.rosalindwiseman.com/html/about_bio_formal.htm

7 Benenson, F.; Antonellis, T.; Cotton, B.; Noddin, K., & Campbell, K., Sex Differences in Children’s Formation of Exclusionary Alliances under Scarce Resource Conditions, 2007, Department of Psychology, Emmanuel College, U.S.A

8 Maggie Hamilton, What’s Happening to Our Girls? Too Much Too Soon, How Our Kids are Overstimulated, Oversold and Oversexed, 2008, Viking Press, Vic

9 FANPOP Mean Girls, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.fanpop.com/spots/mean-girls

10 Bounds, J., Outside The Box: Are Unrealistic Body images on TV Affecting Young Girl’s Self-Esteem?, 31 August 2008, The Sunday Herald Sun, Melbourne

11 Gordon, A. Submission to Senate Enquiry on the Sexualisation of Children in the Contemporary Media Environment, 2008

12 Ettinger, B., What Every parent Should Know About Teen Sex, 2007, Xulon Press, US

13 Johnson, T., Mean Girls: Interview with Tina Fey, April 2004, BlackFilm.com Features, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.blackfilm.com/20040423/features/tinafey.shtml

14 Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

15 US Department of Education, Homeschooling IN the United States, 2003 Statistical Analysis Report, National Centre for Education Statistics

16 Kovach, G., & Campo-Flores, A., Scandal: Cheerleaders Run Amok in Texas, 02 January 2007, Newsweek, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/id/37993

17 Hertz, T., Mean Girls Review, 20 March 2004, Christianity Today Moviews.com, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/reviews/meangirls.html

18 Mean Girls: Internet Movie Database, Retrieved 04 September 2008, http://www.imdb.com.title/tt0377092/

19 Updated 2004 Press Release, Child Care Action Project: Christian Analysis of American Culture, http://www.capalert.com/r-13.htm

20 Thompson, K. & Yokota, F., Violence, Sex and Profanity in Films: Correlation of Movie Ratings with Content, 2004, Kids Risk Project: Harvard School of

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