Study Guide

Mean Girls Analysis

  • Cady's Wardrobe

    While everybody's clothes in Mean Girls symbolize their social status, Cady's document her descent into Plastic-hood. She starts out in jean, tees, and flannels; she looks a typical high school student.

    Over the course of the film, she ditches her denim for short skirts and trades her tees for crop tops. In other words, she starts dressing like Regina. Cady's clothing is symbolic of her membership in the Plastics; it signifies to the rest of the school, "Hey, I'm with them."

    Cady's outfits are also an external representation of her internal. In other words, you can totally judge her book by its cover. She doesn't just start dressing like Regina; starts acting, and even talking, like her, too.

    "I had learned to control everyone around me," she tells us via voiceover, just before inviting Aaron over for a small, Regina-free get-together at her house while her parents are away in Madison. She purrs,

    It's just gonna be a few cool people, and you better be one of them, biotch.

    With such a classy invitation, how could Aaron resist? Manipulating people, especially Aaron, is straight out of the Regina George playbook.

    Cady also stops wearing the bracelet that her mother made for her. That bracelet was a symbol of the pre-North Shore Cady, a kid who was levelheaded and kind, and proud to light her wrist with a little homemade bling from Mom. Ditching the bracelet symbolizes that Cady's a different person than she was at the beginning of the film, one whose status as Plastic precludes her from wearing homemade trinkets.

  • Students as Animals

    Mean Girls drops three fantasy sequences on us, each one straight from Cady's head. One involves a trio of potential "junior Plastics" getting leveled by a school bus. In the other two, Cady pictures herself and her classmates going positively primal.

    These sequences, where Cady imagines North Shore students as jungle animals, symbolize Cady's struggle to understand their culture. Their rituals, like hanging out around a mall fountain and or being passive aggressive over cheese fries, seem completely foreign to her, so she relates them to what she's knows best: the animal kingdom.

    Cady's fantasies also symbolize her rejection of North Shore's tribes and traditions. Her classmates don't come across well in either fantasy. At the mall, they turn into monkeys, picking each other's nits, dragging their knuckles, and toppling one another into the watering hole, a.k.a. the fountain. Cady sees her classmates as less evolved than she is.

    In the cafeteria, Cady and her classmates are straight-up violent. Cady imagines herself pouncing on Regina like a jungle cat, trying to tear her apart, while Aaron bares his teeth, practically foaming at the mouth, and Gretchen claws at the table. Here, Cady's rejecting the underhanded way that Regina dangles Aaron in front of her like red meat.

    In real life, Cady has to be the bigger person and take it. In Cady's imagined animal kingdom, she'd settle things by going straight for the jugular.

  • The Plastics' Rules

    Being Plastic is hard work. There are a lot of rules you have to follow if you want access to their lunch table.

    Check out this incomplete list:

    You can't wear a tank top two days in a row.
    You can only wear your hair in a ponytail once a week.
    Jeans or track pants may only be worn on Fridays.

    Of course, they also wear pink on Wednesday.

    These rules, and their de facto Wednesday uniform are symbols of The Plastics' unity. All three of them (four, once Cady joins the gang) donning pink every Wednesday says to their classmates, "We're together. All for one; one for all. Oh, and also, you can't sit with us."

    To that end, wearing pink on Wednesdays also represents the fact that they're the only ones deemed worthy of being in the clique—kind of a "We're wearing pink, and you're not" deal. While it doesn't happen in the film, we're willing to bet that if Bethany or Jessica Lopez or—gasp!—Janis started wearing pink every Wednesday, too, Regina would blow a well-manicured gasket.

    The Plastics' code of conduct is also a symbol of Regina's control over Gretchen, Karen, and, for a while, Cady. In reality, the rules are arbitrary, but, as we noted a moment ago, following them means being part of the group. Gretchen and Karen are more than willing to follow whatever dumb rule Regina makes up if it means they get to remain part of the social elite.

    The rules' lack of actual meaning is reinforced when Regina wears sweatpants on a Monday, after her all-carb diet has caused her to pack on a few pounds, and Gretchen reminds her that sweatpants on a Monday are a no-no, and Regina therefore can't sit with him. "Whatever," Regina replies. "Those rules aren't real."

    Nope, they're totally not, but until Cady and Janis started carrying out their revenge, those rules were super-effective at keeping Gretchen and Karen loyal to Regina, and, in that respect, they represent her Incredible Hulk-level power.

  • The Fertility Vase of the Ndebele Tribe

    When is a fertility vase of the Ndebele tribe not just a fertility vase of the Ndebele tribe? When it represents Cady before North Shore sunk its claws into her.

    The vase symbolizes her old, uncorrupted self, the one she officially buries—or, technically, hides under the sink—when she throws a small get-together that turns into a huge party…and one of her worst nights ever.

    We're not saying the vase is cursed or anything (that's more Regina's game), but once Cady stashes it under the sink, her night gets worse and worse. She just keeps missing Aaron, which makes her anxious, which makes her pound shots. (Never a good idea.)

    Later, she accidentally insults Aaron and then vomits on him, just as Regina walks in. Finally, Janis—whose art show Cady blew off to try to mack on Aaron—shows up and gives Cady a verbal smack-down for the ages. None of this would've happened to Cady 1.0. Burning bridges and barfing on boys are the handiwork of Cady 2.0, the Plastic version.

    After the party, Cady forgets about the vase, a subconscious move that suggests her complete transformation into Plastic Cady. Then her mom finds it, chucked under the sink. Whoops.

    Check out the conversation that follows:

    CADY'S MOM: Why are my tribal vases under the sink?

    CADY: I don't know.

    CADY'S MOM: This is the fertility vase of the Ndebele tribe. Does that mean anything to you?

    CADY: No.

    CADY'S MOM: Who are you?

    Cady's mom knows what we're talking about. The Cady she knows—or thought she knew—would never toss the fertility vase of the Ndebele tribe into some cupboard. The Cady she knows would show some respect, and would think about others.

    Unfortunately, for dear ol' Mom, at this point in the narrative, the Cady she knows has been hidden away deeper than any vase, fertility or otherwise.

  • The Spring Fling Queen Tiara

    Pop quiz: who's the last person you saw wearing a crown? Maybe you watched The Princess Diaries for the 53rd time on cable the other day. Maybe it was Queen Elizabeth II.

    Crowns and tiaras symbolize superiority. They're worn by the ruling class.

    The Spring Fling Queen tiara symbolizes superiority through popularity. Cady didn't get those votes because she's good at calculus; she got them because she's really popular—in part because people think she shoved Regina in front of a bus. Cady being crowned Spring Fling Queen is the completion of her journey to usurp Regina.

    She's not just the Spring Fling Queen; she's the queen bee.

    When Cady then breaks the tiara—to audible gasps, no less—she's rejecting all that the sparkly headgear represents and making her own symbolic gesture. She's pointing out how silly this whole Spring Fling thing is, from ballot boxes to expensive dresses to cheap plastic crowns. The tiara is just one more way to create class warfare between the social strata at North Shore, and Cady's over it.

    As she redistributes the tiara piece by piece, she says:

    "I think everybody looks like royalty tonight."

    All it took for her to learn that was a violent brawl between the junior girls, Regina getting hit by a bus, police searching Ms. Norbury's home, failing calculus, barfing on her crush, and completely alienating her mother.

    So yeah, some lessons are harder to learn than others. The important thing is that we learn them.

  • Hero's Journey

    Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

    About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

    Ordinary World

    Cady's parents give her a pep talk on her first day of school. They've homeschooled her for her entire academic career, and they're a little worried about her.

    Call To Adventure

    Cady bravely enters the world of public school. It's just like the African jungle, but with hall passes.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Cady's first day of school doesn't go very well. She mistakes a classmate for the teacher. She's not used to adults not trusting her, and she's not used to having zero friends. When she tries to befriend a lunch table full of students and gets shut down, she gives up and eats lunch in a bathroom stall.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Regina intervenes when Jason harasses Cady in the cafeteria, and invites her to grab a seat at The Plastics' table. Then she interrogates Cady about where she's from and what she's doing at North Shore.

    Finally, The Plastics invite Cady to eat lunch with them regularly—provided she observes their rules about what to wear and how often. Janis convinces Cady to do it, so Cady can report back to Janis with all the moronic things The Plastics' say as Regina shows Cady the ins and outs "Girl World."

    Crossing The Threshold

    Cady crosses the threshold when she sees Regina kiss Aaron. After that happens, her potential friendship with Regina, her mentor, is toast. Cady then plots to destroy Regina's life, formulating a three-part game plan with Janis and Damian.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Cady's allies are Janis and Damian. They plot to take down Regina together—until Cady starts going rogue, that is. Her #1 enemy is Regina, although, to be fair, she's more of a frenemy, a fact that adds an extra level of difficulty to Cady's quest. By her own admission, as much as she wants to take Regina down, she also wants Regina to like her.

    Cady faces several tests on her journey. She and Janis try and fail to ruin Regina's appearance, for example, until they land on Kälteen bars that make the queen bee pack on the pounds.

    At Christmas, Cady's tasked with cracking Gretchen Wieners, which she pulls off with a candy cane-gram and, well, by being tall. Once Gretchen thinks she's on Regina's bad side, she starts spilling all her secrets to Cady. Cady turns Karen against Regina, too, by harnessing the power of the three-way call attack.

    Cady's also tested when it comes to Aaron. She tries, and fails, to get Aaron to catch Regina cheating on him with Shane Oman. Her willingness to degrade herself is also tested when she decides to fail calculus in order to get Aaron to tutor her just so she can talk to him more often.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    This stage in Cady's journey goes down at the huge house party she accidentally throws when her parents are in Madison. Here, her relationships with both her allies and her enemies are fractured. Janis and Damian turn on her because she blew off Janis's art show and didn't invite them to the party. And when Regina walks in on Cady just as she's about to kiss Aaron, she loses it and goes straight home to start her own plan to destroy Cady via Burn Book.

    Ordeal

    Regina frames Cady, Gretchen, and Karen for the Burn Book and distributes copies all over the school. When the junior girls see what was written about, they go crazy, literally fighting each other in the hallway over secrets shared and rumors spread. Eventually, the faculty breaks things up and tries to get the girls to communicate via workshop and trust exercises, but the damage is already done: Everybody hates Cady.

    Then, when Regina flees the workshop and gets his by a bus while chewing out Cady in front of the school, the whole situation goes from bad to worse, as half the student body thinks Cady pushed her.

    Reward (Seizing The Sword)

    Cady's reward is her humanity. When the Burn Book blows up, she's reached full Plastic status with regard to her appearance, how she talks, and how others view her. She reclaims her sense of self by taking the blame for the Burn Book, and not ratting out Regina, Gretchen, and Karen. "I'm trying this new thing where I don't talk about people behind their backs," she explains to Ms. Norbury.

    The Road Back

    The major event on Cady's road back from "Girl World" is the Mathletes State Championship. Sure, Ms. Norbury basically made her do it, but her participation in Mathletes, which both Regina and Damian agreed was social suicide, shows that Cady's not the shallow Plastic she once was. She's good at math, and she should flaunt it.

    Resurrection

    The hero's resurrection is all about purification, and, for Cady, it comes in the form of her totally unrequired Spring Fling Queen "acceptance" speech. There, she addresses her evolution in front of the entire student body. She apologizes all those whose feeling got singed by the Burn Book, and she reminds everybody of what's she learned: that we all have way more in common than we think.

    Return With The Elixir

    This stage is all about how the hero moves on after they've been changed by their journey. The film's postscript shows us that senior Cady is in a good place—and so is the rest of her class, for that matter. Cady still hangs with Janis, Damian, and Karen (Gretchen seems fine, too, BTW); she's reached a truce with Regina; and she's still dating Aaron who's conveniently attending Northwestern.

  • Setting

    North Shore High School, Evanston, Illinois

    It doesn't matter if you're the new kid or if you've been going to school with the same people since kindergarten: high school can be brutal. For many, those four years are a minefield of test anxiety, atomic wedges, and all-consuming crushes.

    Mean Girls' fictional high school, North Shore, takes the difficulty setting of the average American high school and cranks it up a few notches. The student body flirts, fights, and casts their Spring Fling votes in an affluent bubble. Chew on this: the real-life mansion that served as the George family's house was on the market for $14.8 million in 2015. (Source)

    That's a whole lot of candy cane-grams.

    The fact that Mean Girls isn't just a high school comedy, it's a clever satire, is aided by the fact that it's set in a wealthy Chicago suburb. The Plastics have spare time, and they have virtually unlimited resources. That deadly combo gives them power.

    While we'll give it to Regina that she is a master manipulator, her greatest asset is her dad's bank account. That's what funds her hair, wardrobe, and car. That's what boosts her popularity. That's what lets her rule not just any school, but one of the wealthiest. In other words, Mean Girls' setting is the perfect tool to exaggerate Regina and The Plastics' awfulness in all its bedazzled glory.

  • Point of View

    First-Person Voice-Over Narration

    The Voice in Her Head…

    Cady's position as not just the new kid at North Shore High School, but totally new to school, period, makes her a unique narrator. Her voice-over confessions and observations are those of an interested outsider.

    They're half science and half journalism. Fresh off the African savanna, she studies her new classmates like a pack of hyenas. Their customs are foreign to her, and she's ready to learn; all that's missing is the field notebook.

    Cady's voice-overs let us inside her head. She tells us directly what she's thinking and feeling. We know where she stands about everything—and everyone. To that end, the narration is used as a tool of direct characterization. For example, we don't have to infer that Cady's upset at Regina when Regina kisses Aaron at the Halloween party; we have Cady's screaming voice-over where she calls her a b**** to make things crystal clear.

    …Is A Narrative Thread

    The film's use of voice-over narration isn't just used to characterize Cady, her friends, and her enemies. It's also a thread that helps hold Mean Girls together. Structurally speaking, Mean Girls plays like a series of comedy sketches—which makes sense given writer Tina Fey's background as the first female head writer of the granddaddy of all sketch comedy shows, Saturday Night Live.

    While Mean Girls' scenes all share the same themes, like social class and femininity, they're all self-contained. The three-way calling attack. The Halloween party. Candy cane-grams. "Jingle Bell Rock." Another three-way calling attack. Rarely do the scenes bleed into one another or overlap. Mean Girls' narrative breezes through Cady's entire junior year of high school in a tight ninety-seven minutes, and Cady's inner monologue is what holds it all together.

  • Genre

    High School; Satire

    Mean Girls isn't just one of the most quoted comedies of all time; it's also a scathing satire of the kill-or-be-killed culture created, maintained, and endured by teenage girls. The film's comedy can be broad, like when Cady falls head-first into a trash can. It can also be subtle, like the fact that Janis isn't a lesbian, she's Lebanese.

    What makes it satirical is that Mean Girls' comedic laser is focused squarely on the ridiculous, cruel, and often ridiculously cruel ways that teenage girls like Cady, Regina, and Janis treat each other in order to draw attention to how messed-up that behavior is.

    To this end, the humor is often hyperbolic, which is a hallmark of satire. The characters are exaggerated, too. Take Regina, for example. She's such a master manipulator that she convinced her parents to give her their bedroom. Can you imagine that happening in real life? Yeah, us neither.

    There's also the little matter of her getting hit by a bus.

    All of Mean Girls' comedy, satirical or otherwise, is set against the backdrop of North Shore High School, and, in many ways, Mean Girls sticks to the traditional high school movie script. There are cliques. There's a "small get-together" while parents are away that magically turns into a massive rager. T

    There's even a school dance, just like in 10 Things I Hate About You and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Napoleon Dynamite and Sixteen Candles and She's All That and Teen Wolf and… well, you get it.

  • What's Up With The Title?

    Mean Girls is called Mean Girls because The Shawshank Redemption was already taken.

    Just kidding. Mean Girls is filled to the brim with girls behaving badly; that's where the title comes from. Regina's a self-absorbed manipulator. Cady turns into a shallow schemer and then back into a human being. Even Janis is a self-confessed mean girl.

    Mean girls rule North Shore High School, and the movie Mean Girls is an exploration of how and why that happens as experienced by Cady, public school newb.

  • What's Up With The Ending?

    Maybe you noticed that the ending of Mean Girls isn't like the seventy-five minutes that come before it. The film's chugging along as a snarky, Juvenalian satire of teenage girlhood, and then wham! Cady's giving an earnest speech about why it's cool to be yourself at the Spring Fling.

    Wait, what? And what is a Juvenalian?

    Juvenalian satire is a type of comedy that points out how messed up contemporary society is by using scathing humor and taking the moral high ground. In Mean Girls, Cady is an instrument of Juvenalian satire. After a dozen years in Africa, she enrolls at North Shore High School socially pure. She's levelheaded, smart, and uncorrupted by the materialism and thirst for popularity of her classmates. That allows her moral superiority over them.

    Then she meets Regina. Cady's descent into "Girl World" is filled with biting humor that critiques the insanity of what it's like to be a high school girl, and especially what it takes to be a popular high school girl.

    The end of Mean Girls breaks from this satirical approach and skews surprisingly traditional. For starters, it takes place at a dance, like roughly 4,328 high school comedies before it. The tone changes, too. Mean Girls drops its caustic sarcasm and Cady gives a speech that's designed to bring the feels. Ultimately, the film's conventional ending doesn't erase all the delicious satire that came before, but it does seem like the end of a different flick.

  • Shock Rating

    PG-13

    We're going to be short, sweet, and to-the-point with this one. Mean Girls is rated PG-13 because it's about teenagers. That means it has light to moderate amounts of swearing, bullying, partying, and references to sex and sexuality.