Mean Girls and the lesbian menace

I saw Mean Girls a couple of weeks ago, and have been meaning to write about it ever since. It was funny in places, smart in others, and generally enjoyable -- I'm always interested in the representation of schools in popular culture, and thought in many ways this one seemed right on target -- some aspects are of course very "now" -- the slang, the clothes -- but the basic issues of hierarchy and competition are pretty timeless and familiar.

We've been watching episodes of Freaks and Geeks lately, (Netflix has all the recently released DVDs) which I never saw when it was briefly on television, because I didn't own one at the time. It's an excellent show -- great writing, acting, even the camera work is exceptional in places. Much less glossy than Mean Girls, and with a different kind of emphasis -- what the lives of the non-popular, non-plastic kids are like. Much more familiar to me, certainly -- and to many viewers who've made this show into a kind of cult thing after it was yanked off the air midway through its first season.

I suspect the production team of Mean Girls learned a few things from F&G -- the mathlete jokes seemed like a kind of intertextual reference to me. And some other things I can't quite remember any longer. (I'd never even heard of mathletes until I started watching F&G -- my high school had three levels of cheerleaders (varsity, junior varsity, and wrestlerettes), but no teams for the academically inclined. I just figured it was that way everywhere.)

But there's another aspect of Mean Girls that's been kind of bothering me, and which few reviewers seem to even have noticed. When Cady, who's been home schooled and raised by anthropologist parents in Africa, arrives at a typical suburban high school, she has to learn to negotiate a new kind of power structure that she's never seen before. Lots of laughs and social critique ensue as she is introduced to the cliques, the spatial arrangement of the lunchroom, and the clothes of American teenagers. She's first befriended by Janis and Damian -- "outsiders" marked by their appearance -- she's kind of goth and pierced, and he's overweight and effeminate. His homosexuality is embraced and accepted by the film: he's lovingly called "too gay too function" by his pal Janis; when Cady repeats this phrase to the Plastics, the uber-popular clique she's infiltrated at Janis's urging, they turn it against him and she realizes that she's betrayed her friends. It's only one of many such betrayals that happen as Cady realizes that she's no longer observing the Plastics, but becoming one herself. So our outrage at her behavior defends Damian, and his gayness is never an issue.

But Janis, on the other hand, is rumored to be a lesbian -- something so terrible as to only be whispered, and which she tries to hide from Cady, who learns the story from Regina, the head of the Plastics. Everyone in school believes Janis to be a lesbian -- reinforcing her outcast status. The film never challenges this underlying assumption, that to be lesbian is to be outcast, unlovable, unspeakable even: the words dyke & lesbian hover around the edges of conversation, whispered and growing in power to insult. There's a longstanding feud between Janis and Regina, who had been friends in junior high school -- and as part of this feud, Regina has told everyone that Janis is a lesbian who was attracted to her; at Cady's lowest point, she too assumes Janis is "after her" and refuses to attend her art show. Over and over again, the film reinforces the idea that to be lesbian is the ultimate threat in a world where the competition to be a girl's best friend is the route to social success. Eventually, in order to make the Plastics the focus monsters of the film who have to be taken down a few notches (in violently black-humorous ways) it is implied that Regina simply made up the story of Janis's attraction to her in order to put her in social purgatory. In the symbolic language of the film, Janis is thus "redeemed" by the flirtatious advances of the stylin' Asian mathlete, and the anxieties about the power of close female friendships (which are given beautiful but dangerous form in the Plastics) are finally put to rest. The lovable effeminate chubby guy who sings at the talent show is the gay stereotype the film embraces; the gothic pierced artistic lesbian is so disruptive as to have to be erased as a lesbian at the film's end.

Tina Fey, who wrote the screenplay, when asked about Janis's turning out to be straight, said "I loved that part, because in high school everyone thought that I was a lesbian," and "So I wanted to show that that's not always the case." So she gets to get her own revenge on her high school experience (how sad that she still cares after all these years) and give us yet another representation of the monstrous lesbian in popular film. Especially in a film that wants to prove it's gay-friendly and multi-culturally aware this is really depressing.

The best teenaged lesbian character I've seen in a non-lesbian themed movie: the younger sister of the athlete candidate in Election.