October 11, 2012

Mean Girls: Q&A with Colin Johnson

Dr. Colin Johnson, an assistant professor of Gender Studies, is teaching a Themester course this semester called "Mean Girls: Feminism and Female Misbehavior." The film Mean Girls will be showing at the IU Cinema as a part of Themester on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. Here, Professor Johnson talks about the film and some of the issues raised in it.

1. How do you use the film Mean Girls in your class?

The film screening is situated right in between a discussion of Rachel Simmons’ best-selling book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (originally published in 2003, revised and updated in 2011) and historian Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002), which seemed like an appropriate thing to be reading and discussing in the weeks just before Halloween.  
Mark Waters’ 2004 film provides an interesting bridge between these two texts in the sense that Simmons’ book explores precisely the sort of social dynamics that play out in the film, albeit with a much greater sense of seriousness and urgency.  At the same time, Mean Girls is also a story about how the actions of a few people can throw an entire community into a state of chaos and disorder, which is clearly part of what happened in Salem Village during the late seventeenth century.  That the film provides a little comic relief in between discussions of two books that provide remarkably little opportunity for laughter is an added benefit, particularly to the extent that will allow us to think a bit about comedy and satire as a mode of critique.
2. Is the bad behavior in this film exaggerated or accurate?

To hear Rachel Simmons tell it, the film’s depiction of what is described by one character in the film as “girl on girl crime” may actually be significantly underplayed relative to what happens in the typical American high school.  Or, at the very least, most of what makes it into the film comes off seeming pretty goofy and absurd, whereas much of the cruelty that adolescent girls actually experience and mete out to one another seems terribly, terribly meaningful and real. 

That doesn’t mean that such cruelty always makes sense, however.  Indeed, one of the major differences between the variety of meanness depicted in the film and the variety of meanness that adolescent girls report experiencing is that the meanness in the film is clearly motivated by some kind of transparent logic—say, a desire to secure a position of dominance within a social hierarchy.  By contrast, many adolescent girls report that the meanness and cruelty they experience in the real world seems arbitrary, capricious and completely unmotivated by any discernible logic whatsoever—which is precisely what makes it so disabling to many young women and so difficult to address as a behavioral issue.

3. What is the role of feminism in this film?

Feminism actually isn’t very present in the film as an explicit theme or plot device.  In other words, feminism as such isn’t explicitly presented as a resource that characters in the film turn to in an effort to make sense of their experiences or their world.  But this is hardly surprising in a film that deals with the American high school experience.  After all, and as numerous feminist critics have noted, young women in the United States seem to have become very reluctant to identify as feminists, partly because many of them are under the mistaken impression that they live a world where sexism no longer exists.  

Plus, Mean Girls is a comedy, which means that the film sort of depends upon the absurdity of its characters, their motivations, and their approaches to resolving conflict.  In such a context, it’s not entirely clear where an explicitly feminist character would fit in as anything other than caricature or a joke.  So maybe it’s all for the best that the most discernibly feminist character in the film isn’t a high school student but one of the teachers, Ms. Norbury, played by actor and screenwriter Tina Fey.  This is not to say that the film is without what I would characterize as feminist investments, however.  In fact, Mean Girls goes out of its way to make visible and then mock some of the more disabling aspects of what Rosalind Wiseman refers to “girl world.”  For example, the film obviously critiques the excessive importance that adolescents and non-adolescents alike tend to attribute to physical appearance and brand-name things by depicting such obsessions as superficial, damaging, and sort of grotesque.  It is also addresses some of the alarmingly real ways in which young women have been known to undermine themselves in the service of “fitting in,” like actively minimizing their own intelligence and accomplishments in an effort to ingratiate themselves to young men.  

The film does have a tendency to depict meanness as something like a naturally occurring phenomenon among girls and women (just think of the lunchroom scene in which Cady imagines all the girls to be wild animals), and that is unfortunate since this age-old truism helps to obscure the fact that it is often men who benefit most as a group when women tear each other apart.  As such, men have historically had a real investment in leading women to believe that they are somehow obligated or destined to dislike one another, a point that Virginia Woolf makes very powerfully in A Room of One’s Own.  But again, I’m not sure how a film like Mean Girls could have incorporated this very serious feminist critique without coming across as too heavy-handed. 
4. Does mean-girl bad behavior disappear after high school?  How is the film relevant for college students?

It would be nice to think that such behavior disappears after high school, but I’m not sure that it always does.  Sometimes it merely changes form.  For example, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that women are much harder on other women in the workplace than they are on men.  Some of this is just garden variety sexism; remember, there’s no rule that says that women can’t be sexist toward other women in much the same that men sometimes are.  But from my perspective the more disturbing version of this might be double standards or forms of punishment meted out to women by senior female colleagues in the name of “toughening them up” so that they will able to survive in a sexist workplace and a sexist world.  While I understand the logic behind this kind of behavior, and while I’m certainly in no position to question the authenticity of the life experiences that often appear to give rise to it, I have to believe that there are better, more constructive ways to aid and support young women.  

As for the question of whether the film is relevant for college students, I would have to say that answer is decidedly “yes.”  Indeed, one of the things that I have most struck by in my discussions with students in the class is how little difference many of them report seeing between high school and college where social dynamics are concerned.  To be sure, colleges and universities are much larger ponds than most high schools.  And ultimately I know for a fact that women who attend college change a great deal during their time as undergraduates, usually in very empowering ways.  But there’s obviously also a lot of carryover from high school, particularly during students’ first year in college when many of them are struggling to find their place in a new social landscape.  

I also think the line between high school and college has gotten rather blurry over the past several decades as the cultural definition of “young adulthood” has expanded from being a few years during one’s late teens to period that is often described these days as ranging from age 13 to age 30.  Which isn’t to say that I think college students are necessarily less socially mature than they used to be, just more consistent.

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

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