Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
[Some spoilers for the “Mean Girls” musical ahead.]
There’s a great joke about feminism in Mark Waters’ high-school comedy classic “Mean Girls,” smashed into a key dramatic exchange. Newbie Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), deep in her first invite-only lunch with the so-called Plastics, is pumped for information by the notoriously gossip-obsessed Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert). Breathlessly, Gretchen asks Cady if she’s seen any cute boys at North Shore High yet, and when Cady tells her she’s got her eye on Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett), Gretchen is overcome.
Turns out, Aaron is the ex-boyfriend of Regina George (Rachel McAdams), queen of the Plastics, and that’s just not okay. He’s off-limits, girls don’t date their friends’ ex-boyfriends. In Gretchen’s own words, that’s “just the rules of feminism.”
“Mean Girls” isn’t overtly about feminism (it’s mostly about just being a good person, a lesson for everyone), and Gretchen’s hilarious misunderstanding of its rules is one of the few loud-and-proud nods to the concept of equality between the sexes that pops up in the Tina Fey–penned comedy. That’s not to say that the film isn’t one rife with feminist ideals and concepts, including lessons about loving yourself (both your body and your brain), while also loving others (see: Fey in character as Ms. Norbury imploring her high-school students to “stop calling each other sluts and whores”). It’s essentially “The Golden Rule: The Movie,” told through the distinct lens of life in the American high school (and, yes, it holds up).
The film’s charms and lessons have now been translated into a slightly modernized Broadway musical — the influence of social media, not a big concern when the film was made in 2004, takes on a much more important role — which offers up the same story with an unexpectedly more heartwarming message, one that also includes a deeper and more genuine understanding of feminism. Whereas the film poked some amusing holes in misconceptions about feminism (no, Gretchen, those are not the rules of feminism, but good on you for trying) through its lunchtime joke, the musical (also written by Fey) doubles down on that kind of gag before delivering a timely and necessary lesson about what it actually means to believe in equality and self-determination.
Fey’s musical includes a number of jokes lifted from her screenplay (most of them favorites, from Damian-issued cracks about Danny DeVito and pink polos to a few choice Janis Ian chestnuts), including a Gretchen’s “rules of feminism” line, which is lifted verbatim and set inside a slightly different setting (Regina’s bedroom, not the lunchroom). It lands the exact same way as it does in the film — a clever nod to how poorly Gretchen understands what she’s talking about, using the character as a stand-in for scads of other people who also don’t know the real definition of the term but feel comfortable tossing it off in casual conversation.
The joke is told in a similar fashion later in the musical, during a banger of a song-and-dance number from Karen Smith called “Sexy” that visualizes Karen’s dream universe: one with world peace and in which Halloween is celebrated every day. Waters’ film has a lot of fun when it comes to upbraiding the trend of modern Halloween costumes to play into sexuality in deeply strange ways — “I’m a sexy mouse!” — but the musical spins it off into an entire sequence. Karen’s wish is to live in a world where she can “dress up and dream big, / Disguised as someone else who is not me, / But is still hot!”
She’s surrounded by other ladies who seem to harbor the same desire, including sexy corn, sexy Eleanor Roosevelt, sexy Rosa Parks, and a sexy doctor (hellbent on curing “sexy cancer”). Karen sings, “This is modern feminism talkin’: I expect to run the world / In shoes I can be / …And sex, sex, sexy!” As was the case in the film, Karen’s worldview is heavily informed by the expectations put on her by the world around her. She’s a sexy mouse because that’s what everyone else is doing, what everyone else expects.
And yet the joke has a canny stinger: later in the musical, Karen reasserts that she’s wearing what she wants to wear (albeit, topped off with a vest that Regina used to hate). “I’ll wear what I want, which is what I have on / And a vest!,” she sings. Maybe Karen does want to wear what she’s already wearing and still be herself while doing it. That’s a feminist lesson that the movie never quite got up the nerve to teach. So much of the film and the musical is about how Cady changes her outward appearance to better fit in with her new friends, and how that’s the wrong move for her. Karen’s “Sexy” song-and-dance gives her the space to get honest about what she wants, how she wants to express herself, and why it’s the right choice for her. And a vest!
“Mean Girls” the musical eventually moves towards the kind of feel-good conclusion that Waters’ film mostly avoids. While the film ends with everyone in a state of hard-won peace and equanimity (they’re essentially enjoying a high school–set armistice), Fey’s musical opts for super-happy-fun close that hinges on Cady and Regina moving towards something like friendship, or at the least actual understanding. And they get there by exploring the necessity of feminism in modern society (no, really).
In the musical’s big final scene, Cady confronts Regina — sporting one hell of a halo brace, thanks to injuries sustained after she gets plowed into by a school bus — at North Shore’s swanky Spring Fling dance. Regina is a little loopy on pain meds, but she’s also had to come to terms with how she treats people, and how that pushed Cady, Janis, and Damian to shove her out of power. And yet she has a strong message for Cady, the final feminist lesson of both “Mean Girls” the film and the musical.
“I know I have to change. I know I was harsh. And people say I’m a bitch,” Regina says. “But you know what they would call me if I was a boy?” Cady cuts in: “Strong?” The moment is cut with another joke, as a drugged-up Regina cracks, “‘Reginald.’ That’s what my mom was gonna name me if I was a boy, so honestly I’d rather be ‘bitch.'”
But the scene doesn’t end with that (very good) joke, because Cady goes back for one more apology, which Regina answers in the best way possible, by imploring Cady to stand up for herself, be true to what she wants, and never be sorry for striving for anything. “Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault,” Regina tells Cady. “And never apologize for being a boss.”