An Examination of Cultural Norms and the Science of Fitting as seen in “Mean Girls” The movie “Mean Girls” follows the story of a high school age girl who comes from a homeschooled background and is suddenly thrown into a typical American high school social environment. Her adjustment to this transition is shown through a story arc that chronicles her attempts to gain her peers’ approval. The way in which she attempts to do so is by consciously changing her identity to fit into whatever social scene she is present in at the moment, thereby making use of social indicators to change the way others perceive her.
The introduction of the Mean Girls/Plastics (Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, and Karen Smith) shows how physical attractiveness and money are the two most valuable traits that a high school student can have, and how possession of those traits means power for the individual. Gretchen comes from a rich family, Karen is considered to be beautiful, and Regina has both of these characteristics, making her the so-called ‘Queen Bee’. Her powerful role in the social structure of North Shore High School is shown not-so-subtly by depicting a crowd of admirers actually carrying Regina around on their shoulders.
Together, they are described as “ruling the school”. Their identities are built around having highly desirable traits, which is why they are popular and why popularity is so important to them. Janis lan and Damian Leigh’s depiction of the segregation of the school cafeteria into cliques shows how conformity and fitting in is desirable in the social context of high school. Conforming to a standard or grouping themselves socially according to superficial indicators (like ethnicity or extracurricular activities) allows ‘insiders’ to distinguish themselves from ‘outsiders’.
By creating that distinction, those who belong to a group feel safe and protected from the dangerous environment that is a typical high school. Cady is shown to suffer from not belonging to a group on her first day at school, when she cannot find a group to fit in with and sit with a lunch. Rather than sit alone in a cafeteria, surrounded by other people who are not alone, she prefers to hide in the bathroom to conceal the fact that she does not fit in, which she is very self conscious of.
She has no social identity at this school yet, and as such cannot claim membership to any group. Fitting in is a concept demonstrated by the Plastics’ tradition of wearing pink on Wednesdays. In this way, they differentiate themselves from others, and show that they belong to an exclusive group. Cady wearing pink with the Plastics signifies her inclusion in the group, and symbolizes her transition from outsider to insider. Now that she is officially part of a group, she can navigate her social surroundings with greater ease.
The horrified reaction of the Plastics to Cady’s announcement that she is considering joining the Mathletes exemplifies the social significance of belonging to a certain type of group to be able to project a certain identity. Since Cady already belongs to the Plastics, she cannot the merge the identity that that group gives her with the identity of a person who belongs to the Mathletes. They go as far as to call joining the Mathletes “social suicide”, signifying how strongly people feel about leaving their group and therefore changing how others see them; some groups are less prestigious than others, and associating with them is undesirable.
Moreover, it is not possible to maintain membership to two groups at once; the whole point of an exclusive group is that the individual belongs to that group alone. Demonstrating group belonging is important to maintain one’s membership within that group, and that means adopting the attitudes of the other members and picking up social cues from them to bond. The concept of “fat talk” as proposed by Robbins (2013) is played out during the scene where the Plastics begin to criticize themselves and their bodies.
When Cady does not chime in on her own, the Plastics actually turn to look at her, indicating that it is expected that she also find something wrong with herself. Compelled to fit in, Cady also participates, even though she is hard-pressed to find something to complain about with herself. If she had not done so, she would have been indicating that she did not fit in with the group (because she thought she was better than the rest of the group members).
The urge to fit in also compels Cady put aside her own feelings and beliefs and pretend that her values conform to those immediately around her, like a chameleon changing her identity at will. She first demonstrates this by skipping class with Janis and Damian because she is desperate for friends and to fit in, even though school is important to her and she knows that it was wrong. By giving up her values, she demonstrates to Janis and Damian that she prizes their friendship and the opportunity to belong to a group enough to do so.
She does this again when the Plastics are insulting various classmates in the Burn Book, by pitching in and saying that Damien is “almost too gay to function”. She immediately sells out her friend in an attempt to masquerade the fact that she does not feel that she fits in with the Plastics, and by doing so she shows that she highly values social acceptance. She does this once more in an attempt to ge Aaron Samuels’s attention; by pretending that she needs help on a math problem and that she is less intelligent than she actually is, she has a segue into talking to him.
She uses her identity as a malleable tool to gain acceptance. However, though Cady proves adept at manipulating her identity to fit in in multiple contexts, her actual lack of belonging is demonstrated dramatically in one particular scene. In the context of the high school social scene where fitting in is of the utmost importance, Cady makes a critical mistake by wearing a scary Halloween costume to a party where the girls are expected to be dressed ‘sexy’.
By doing so, she indicates that she is one of two things: either extremely socially comfortable, enough to be able to violate social norms without losing status; or socially inept, having ‘not gotten the memo’ and demonstrating a lack of understanding of the social scenery. This event is demonstrative of Turner’s (1975) proposal that “social dramas… are units of aharmonic or disharmonic process, arising in conflict situations” which are triggered by a “breach of regular, norm-governed social relations… between persons or groups within the same system of social relations”.
Given that Cady is a new student, obviously she is not comfortably settled in this social scene just yet, so that leaves her with only one option: total embarrassment. Regina makes note of this when talking to Aaron by calling Cady “kind of socially retarded and weird”. One example of a person who is socially secure enough to deviate from the norm is Regina; when Janis cuts holes in Regina’s shirt in an attempt to embarrass her, Regina simply wears the shirt as though nothing is wrong and ends up setting a new trend.
She demonstrates that her social status is so secure and that she is so confident that she is in fact above the social norm; she actually sets what is considered acceptable in this setting. In this respect, she is entirely unique; not even the other members of her posse have this much power. This is illustrated by Gretchen’s repeated failed attempts to “make fetch happen”. She is not Queen Bee; she does not possess Regina’s powerful identity and therefore does not have the appropriate influence over the student body to set trends in this way.
Cady’s identity changes wildly over the course of the film, leaping from ‘naive new girl’ to ‘popular mean girl to outcast to ‘normal. Each of these transitions is prompted by Cady’s repeated attempts to manipulate her identity in her efforts to fit in. Eventually, she bites off more than she can chew by trying to maintain several separate identities, which all clash and by their very nature cannot co-exist, due to the exclusionary and cliquey structure of high school.