Revisiting 'Mean Girls' with Rosalind Wiseman

The writer of the book that gave birth to Mean Girls talks to us about Tina Fey, Girl World, and how she never ever uses trust falls.

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Part of the reason why Mean Girls remains at the forefront of our pop-culture lexicon here on its 10th anniversary is, beyond its humor and its quotability, is because it rings so true about the high school experience. For as much credit is due to Tina Fey for writing the film script, Fey was operating from source material by Rosalind Wiseman, whose nonfiction book Queen Bees & Wannabes served as inspiration and source material for the movie.  

For those only familiar with the movie, parts of Wiseman's book, which culls anecdotes from teens and parents to dole out advice, will feel very familiar. She discusses girls' tendency to dress up in slutty costumes for Halloween. At one point she describes how she goes to classrooms and ask girls to close their eyes and raise their hands if they "have had a friend gossip about them, talk behind their back, force them to stop being friends with someone, or be exclusive." She explains that one girl will say, "Ms. Wiseman, maybe this happens at other schools you work at, but at this school we don’t have exclusive cliques like that." This girl is generally your Regina George.

In honor of the movie's anniversary The Wire asked Wiseman to reflect on Mean Girls and discuss how "Girl World" has changed.

In a New York Times article from 2002, you mentioned Heathers as a movie that portrays Girl World well. Did Mean Girls followed in those footsteps for you?

I was hoping it would in that it would be a smart ensemble movie that would reflect the kind of cynicism, the kind of social dynamics that were going on. When I was talking to Tina about it, I certainly didn’t think: and now we are going to do this version of Heathers. It was just that’s what I grew up with. For me Heathers was the smart comedy that didn’t [make me] feel like I was being pandered to or patronized. I guess in retrospect that [Mean Girls] is compared to that kind of thing is really cool.

I guess I was thinking, did you think it lived up to Heathers legacy?

Do I think that I did? Yeah, it absolutely did. 

The workshop that Ms. Norbury does in the movie is very similar to what you do…

Sort of. Sort of. I do not do trust falls, I have never done trust falls, I will never do trust falls. But yes there is a passing similarity. 

Trust falls probably have too much liability associated with them.

I just remember when I saw it the first time being like, “Tina, I do not do that.”

What do you think think the movie got right in terms of your research on Girl World?

My research is about working with girls and boys and what they are saying to me and what they are talking about—what we talk about together. I’m not sitting around in a dark room talking to kids, [saying] tell me your deepest darkest secrets and your conflicts. Not at all. That’s not what I do. I go to schools and I work in schools and I'm talking to kids day in and day out. So what I think it got right is the little tiny ways that girls go after each other, that if you actually said something about it you would feel totally stupid.

The second thing it got right is the play of sexuality and how girls are constantly sort of struggling with their sexuality. I certainly want young people to come into their sexuality in positive ways. There’s nothing pathological or horrible about that. What’s pathological and horrible about it is how we shame or codify young people’s sexuality. So what I thought the movie got right was that interplay of how girls are processing that, and how they are being co-opted by it, fight against it, talk about it, get jealous of each other about it, compare each other.

It gave archetypes of people’s behavior, and it sort of started off as stereotypes, but it got into the bigger and more complicated and more nuanced dynamics between all of the characters.

Was there anything that was in your work that you were surprised to see make it into the movie?

They weren’t the things in the book. Tina came down and hung out with me. The things that were surprising to me were things I said sort of off the cuff, walking around. I said to her, walking around my neighborhood, “the way I look at this is I look at this like a watering hole where you’ve got the predators they are hanging out and they are looking at the animals that are drinking water and they’re not sure if they are going to attack them or not, and that’s the way I look at group dynamics with young people.” I remember seeing that mall scene and thinking, "Jesus, I just said this to her." That made me laugh hysterically. I remember thinking, gosh I just said that to her off the cuff and then she takes that and makes an incredible scene out of it.

You still go to schools; I was wondering if the movie comes up. 

Oh my gosh, yeah, totally. I’ve been doing all this stuff about boys. I had a book come out six or seven months ago about boys. One of my high school interns was a junior lacrosse player. It’s out in Colorado, so it’s not like your lax bro kid out east, but he’s a hockey player and he's a lacrosse player. He said to me the second day, “you know Mean Girls is like my favorite movie.” “Really? Really.” And he said, “Yeah, like totally it’s my favorite movie. And all my friends — its our favorite movie.” Like, “Your lacrosse team, that’s your favorite movie?” He said: “Yeah totally.” I was like, “Okay. That’s cool.”

I was just meeting with somebody at NBC about something two days ago, and there was a woman who was 25 in the meeting and she said—and this happens to me a lot, young women when I speak at colleges they say—my mom got me Queen Bees and Wannabes when I was 12 and put it on my bed. Between that and Mean Girls I have this incredible connection to a lot of young women across the decade. It’s a really really cool thing.

Was there anything you think the movie got wrong or glorified? 

Yeah, sure. This is always a problem with my work. People latch onto it and it lodges into their brain. My goal is to be able to change the language that we have. But the thing that I respect about girls—well, the young people I work with, but certainly it answers your question about girls—is that they are always going subvert it. Always. No matter what I do there are always going to be some people that subvert what I do, and it’s going to be antithetical to the entire reason of what I do what I do. So I remember the first time that I heard that girls were dressing up as Plastics for Halloween. On one side I thought, well that’s brilliant: super obvious, brilliant, brilliant Halloween costume, and by the way completely antithetical to everything that I’m trying to get across.

Obviously you’ve added a lot to your book about technology. Looking back at the movie, there are parts that feel a little dated, like Regina photocopying the Burn Book, that seems like something that probably wouldn’t happen because we have social media. I was wondering how you think technology has changed this world and changes the context of the movie?

I think if you did the movie again you wouldn’t be having three-way calling. And even when it came out in 2004, I was like "That’s not going to work anymore." It’s changed in ways that parents certainly are anxious about. I am not as anxious about it as most adults, because I think there are a lot of cool things that come from technology. I think the Burn Book today—I mean, first of all it'd be smarter to have it as a physical thing because it actual has less ability to manifest itself. It would change fundamentally in the way in which it gets disseminated. One of the things I have to battle against is that kids will say to me in middle school or high school, the Burn Book or whatever it is, happens for the most two weeks on one kid and then it goes on to somebody else. One of the things I’m constantly saying to kids, just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t make it right. Second, living in a constant state of potential slander and liable against you to try to destroy you and make you feel like crap is also not cool, because it also raises the anxiety of everybody.

I think that it would fundamentally change the movie, but I think that the consequence of it would be the same, which is that some kids would feel terrible; they would feel totally exposed and vulnerable; they would be ashamed; they would feel like nobody likes them; they would feel like everybody’s against them. All of that would be exactly the same, just the methodology would be different and it would feel like everyone knows, because it would go to the other schools. It would be like 10 minutes of people looking going “oh my god that’s horrible" or "oh my God that’s so ridiculous” and then they would move on to something else, which is what we all do.

One of the things that I always thought was interesting and brave about the movie is the way it talked about sexuality. I was wondering if you could talk about your reaction to seeing that portrayed on screen?

I love the way in which sexuality was taught to the kids in school. You will get an STD, you will get pregnant, you will die, right? This is still going on today. There are programs where they are shaming children about sexuality and giving basically the same information: you will get an STD, you will get pregnant, you will die. I mean, actually giving that kind of advice to children. It makes me laugh in the way that the chasm between young people and some adults is so large. It’s like the theater of the absurd to me. So this person is going to teach these kids you are going to get an STD, you are going to get pregnant, you are going to die, and meanwhile, these kids see pornography by the age of 11, and if they have any questions about sexuality they can just google it. Of course that seems to be completely out of the minds of people who are presenting this information. I loved that part of it.

One of the things that was great about Mean Girls was people could discuss it afterwards and a lot of people did. A lot of people still use it in classes. The slut shaming or the lesbian shaming that happened were really amazing points to be able to talk about, because it was awful and it was one of the moments of the movie that I was just cringing, because I’ve so often seen kids kind of do that stuff. Thank God in a lot of places it’s getting better. We still have a long way to go, but it is getting better. The movie wasn’t lecture-y. It wasn’t after school special. That’s kind of stuff that’s so important for me both to be able to show that and to be uncomfortable with it, looking at it like, “Oh my God she sucks.” Regina sucks when she does that. Like when she said, I invited her to my birthday party and she had a crush on me, so....that whole thing. This is why Tina’s so good. As a teacher, I would have messed it up. Because I would have would have wanted it to be a teachable moment. I would have wanted Lindsay to say, “now, why are you saying that?" But the fact that Tina just left it there, so awkward and uncomfortable. You’re like, God, that sucks. It’s way way better.

What was you reaction when you were approached by Tina? Looking back on it ten years later, is there anything that would change in your reaction to it?

No. I have done well in my career working with smart, funny women. That’s one of the most important things for me. Now I’m working on Mean Moms. That will go into production soon. The people who wrote Mean Moms are two men, but they are equally funny and feminist actually in their interpretation of things. They wrote We’re The Millers, Sean Anders and John Morris.

I wouldn’t change anything. I had turned down a lot of people on Queen Bees and it was an easy no to all the other people, and it was an easy yes to her. I thought this is a smart woman, who is funny, who has sort of my sensibility, so why wouldn’t I? Both Tina and I seem to be trying to carve out space of how to give women voice in public. So it’s pretty cool to have a collaboration between two people who say, "Yeah, let’s work together to do this, because you’re smart, you’re funny, I think you’re going to do a good job let’s try." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.