As women across the country — and globe — continue to build a movement for change , Thrive Global’s look back at Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, offers a blueprint for how women can be the change we want to see in the world.
The film follows the evolution of teenage girl Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) as she goes from humble homeschooler to vamped up queen bee of the Plastics, the most popular clique at her Illinois high school. After taking her rivals down with machiavellian mastery and cruelty, she eventually finds her way back to her original self and forms new alliances with those she formerly wronged, memorably shattering her Homecoming crown into pieces to share with all her classmates, including arch enemy Regina George (Rachel McAdams).
On Oct. 3, Fey surprised an audience at the Austin Wilson Theatre in New York City, where the musical version of Mean Girls is playing, with an appearance to celebrate the renaming of West 52nd Street, on which the playhouse resides, to “W. Fetch Street,” — fetch means awesome in Mean Girls speak — and New York City’s official declaration of Oct. 3 as Mean Girls Day, referring to the date protagonist Cady commences her courtship with crush Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett).
Fey reportedly told the crowd that the musical speaks to this moment in history as women unify for their collective betterment. Fey’s reflections on her iconic movie-turned-musical are inspiring, especially on this day:
The writer-actress, who admitted to Marie Claire that she occupied the mean girl role when she was a teen, called meanness “a bad coping mechanism,” whereby girls attempt to equalize the social hierarchy by attacking one another: “When you feel less than (in high school, everyone feels less than everyone else for different reasons),” she told the magazine, “in your mind it’s a way of leveling the playing field.” Tracy Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada, who wrote her dissertation on Mean Girls and has studied aggression between females extensively, says her research backs up Fey’s observation. Girls who are very competitive, in particular, she says, are prone to social comparison, but when they feel they don’t favorably measure up to a perceived competitor, they weaponize their jealousy against her. Over time, relational aggression — the practice of damaging someone’s social relationships or status — hurts the aggressor, Vaillancourt says. “Power and popularity in high school may be achieved and maintained by being mean, but eventually, you end up collecting a lot of enemies who never forget or forgive their mistreatment.” To cap the point, a study last year (although it only focused on men) demonstrated that those who bully are adversely affected by their bullying.
2) “It’s about how being cruel to other people is only a poison that you’re taking yourself. Right now, that feels particularly relevant because of the relational aggression we’re seeing spread across our society.”
Some experts argue that our attacks on each other are really attacks on ourselves. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., the clinical psychologist who wrote the groundbreaking bestseller The Dance of Anger, says girl-on-girl cruelty is an expression of self-loathing: “Girls who are mean to other girls of course reflect how badly they’ve been made to feel about themselves or how they’ve been shamed for some aspect of themselves.” Sara Gilliam, the daughter of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls author Mary Pipher, who’s been revising her mother’s classic for its 25th anniversary next year, agrees: “Without a doubt we tend to loath in others what we’re self-critical about. If you’re feeling down on yourself, it’s easier to lash out at someone weaker.” So halt the next time you’re tempted to tear someone down, and ask yourself: What sense of inadequacy are they triggering? What can you do about it? It’ll give you the opportunity to work on yourself and maintain a relationship with someone you could’ve turned into an enemy… because we need each other.
Over time, Vaillancourt says, the aggressions we inflict on one another as women not only harm the aggressor and the aggressed upon, it collectively “erodes trust and unity among women,” which brings all of us down and thwarts our ability to mobilize for our interests.
If there’s anything the current wave of women’s collective action has shown, Gilliam says — from #MeToo to BlackLivesMatter to youth-spearheaded activism around gun control — it’s that our greatest hope for overcoming inequality and self-denigrating inner turmoil is each other.