Why the Limit to Mean Girls Does Not Exist

At the dawn of social media, Tina Fey created a (very funny) tale that could be remixed and shared endlessly.
Paramount

Mean Girls was released 10 years ago today. This means that Mean Girls was also released just weeks after Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com from his Kirkland House dorm room.

That is mostly a coincidence. In most ways, the now-classic coming-of-age comedy has had a lifecycle that is entirely typical of a successful feature film: theatrical release, DVD release, Netflix release, weekend-afternoon omnipresence on basic cable. (For the film’s enduring popularity, “I think we mostly have TBS to thank,” Mean Girls’ writer and co-star, Tina Fey, put it in a recent interview.) But Mean Girls has been exceptional in one notable way, a way that is tangentially related to Facebook: At some point, it stopped being simply a film. It became an Internet Phenomenon. It became a source of GIFs and Tumblrs and sassy webspeak. It became a movie that is also a meme. 

In the past month alone, a Tumblr rep told The New York Times, users have created more than 10,000 posts and 477,000 notes that are somehow related to the 10-year-old film. The @meangirls Twitter account, which tweets angsty commentary that has, on the whole, little to do with the movie itself, currently has more than 600,000 followers. “Probably about a hundred times a day,” Mean Girls co-star Lacey Chabert told The Times, “people will write the 'fetch' line to me on Twitter.”

When she accepted her People's Choice Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, Jennifer Lawrence expressed her gratitude for the accolade by referencing Mean Girlsultra-symbolic plastic tiara:

 "Thank you, fans, thank you. I wish this was like Mean Girls and I could just break this up and throw it at all of you, because you're all responsible."

In part, all this long-tail popularity has been a function of good timing, simple and serendipitous; Tina Fey and her fellow filmmakers, of course, couldn’t have known about the webby goings-on in that Harvard dorm room as they were developing their movie. (And it's worth noting, as well, that the long-term love comes to some extent in spite of the film itself: Mean Girls received decidedly mixed reviews when it was first released.)

Irregardless. Mean Girls did happen to establish itself at the same time that social media—and, you could argue, the Internet itself—established itself. Which meant that, just as people were figuring out this Facebook thing, and then this Twitter thing, and then this Tumblr thing, Mean Girls was making its own way through the entertainment ecosystem: It reached Peak TBS at approximately the same time as all those web-based platforms were exploding in popularity. “The generation that came of age when Mean Girls was released is the generation that has the reins of the Internet now,” David Hayes, Tumblr’s “Head of Canvas and Entertainment Evangelist,” told The Washington Post. “Just by chance, Mean Girls had the best timing.”

So, yes, it's chance. But it's more than that, too. Mean Girls, of course, wasn’t the only movie to have its release date coincide, generally, with that of Facebook. To attribute its success to timing alone undersells the particular genius of Mean Girls—or the genius, at least, of Mean Girls as it exists as fodder for the Tumblr machine. Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed, has argued that sharing—the kind that takes place on the Internet, the kind that is selfless and self-absorbed at the same time—is encouraged by content that leaves room for people to project their own thoughts, feelings, and identities onto it. This is partly why Buzzfeed's (in)famous quizzes and demolisticles have proven so popular. “I think the future is going to be about combining informational content," Peretti explained a few years ago, "with social and emotional content." 

Movies—and high school movies in particular—are in some sense the ultimate manifestation of "social and emotional content." They tend to rely on familiar tropes and plot twists: the popular-girl clique. The cafeteria geography. The swoony crush. The clueless parents. The those-parents-are-out-of-town house party. And, of course, the prom. The prom! (Or, in Mean Girls’ case, the “Spring Fling.”)

Mean Girls, as a typical High School Movie, appropriated all these elements for itself. As an atypical High School Movie, however, it did so in the service not just of storytelling, but of sociology. Fey based her script on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees & Wannabes; in writing it, she has said, she was as interested in teenage anthropology as she was in teenage angst. Mean Girls spins around the axis of its detailed taxonomies. "Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there," Cady Heron's first high school friend, Janis Ian, tells her.

You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don't Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics.

In all that, Mean Girls, essentially, combines informational content with social and emotional content. And as socio-satire, it performs the ultimate trick: It manages to be both rich and empty at the same time. Mean Girls’ North Shore High may be set in Evanston, Illinois; this is geographic coincidence. What we are made to assume, through the film's emphasis on cultural categories and learnable moralisms, is that North Shore could be any high school; its lunchroom could be your lunchroom. Its awkward health-class-teacher-slash-gym-coach could be your awkward health-class-teacher-slash-gym-coach. 

As a result, while the characters of Mean Girls are richly sculpted—that is another aspect of the film's genius—the universe it creates is sufficiently broad to lend itself to projection and metaphor. The film has a Joseph Campbell-like sensibility to it, with character types and story lines that are almost, aaaaalmost, universal. Almost, you could say, mythic. 

Compare that to the other films in Mean Girls’ class. They may also have the air of "morality tale" about them; their universes, however, tend to be much less empathetic, and much more self-contained. They create worlds that are distinctive both aesthetically and morally. Ferris Bueller Day Off's aspirational existentialism. Clueless's aspirational Austenianism. Heathers’ murdery satire. Juno's aggressive quirk. Sixteen Candles’ earnest ennui. Mean Girls’ fellow-travelers are generally movies that, like all high school movies, Have Something to Say about high school, about the assorted vagaries and victories of being youthful but no longer young. They say that through the unique, highly branded universes they establish. They offer, in that sense, cosmology as much as comedy.

That's why their hair is so big; it’s full of secrets.

But back to Buzzfeed. Because to the extent that Mean Girls is a kind of koan in the guise of a feature film—in its empty-fullness, in its full-emptiness—it is a movie that seems, in retrospect, almost genetically constructed for the remix culture in which it happened to launch itself. Recent oral histories of the movie have made a point of noting that its producers, at first, worried that the film—which co-stars, along with Fey, Amy Poehler, Tim Meadows, and Ana Gastayer—might be too reminiscent of other Saturday Night Live-driven films. But its SNL DNA, it turns out, served Mean Girls. Each scene has the feel of a sketch.

This makes Mean Girls uniquely suited to a culture that thrives on combinatorial creativity. The Buzzfeed theory of sharing holds that people share things that they can impose themselves on, and inject themselves into. By atomizing the tropes of the high school film—by focusing on its experience at the elemental level—Mean Girls primed itself, and its fans, for precisely that kind of sharing.

In web design, we talk about APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way, allowing developers to make use of information gathered by services like Facebook and Twitter for their own creative projects. As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal explained it: “What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet.” Mean Girls is in many ways a cultural version of an API. The elements it contains—the data it offers—encourage sharing. They encourage remixing. The film didn't make "fetch" happen. It left that to its fans.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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