“Everyone in the English-speaking world” knows about the comedic legacy of Mean Girls— at least, everyone who came of age in the 2000s and 2010s. You’d be hard pressed to find a single online joke back then that didn’t contain some sort of Mean Girls reference or reaction image. More than just a fleeting piece of teenage nostalgia, though, the film holds up thanks to its wonderfully absurd style of humor.
Damian: My nana takes her wig off when she’s drunk.
Ms. Norbury: Your nana and I have that in common.
Writer Tina Fey and director Mark Waters took the unassuming self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes and created a pop culture phenomenon. Fey’s unique wit and sense of comedy are definitely to thank, as she wrote the plot of Mean Girls based on insights from the nonfiction source material. Much of the story was pulled from her own high school experiences, such as the biting “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?” line, adding a sense of authenticity to the comedy.
It’s the most absurd details in Mean Girls that make it feel like such a believable high school experience for Lindsay Lohan’s Cady and her various frenemies. Fey and Waters expertly use these instances to build the world of North Shore High, based on a real high school in a north suburb of Chicago, and as a result, the film becomes all the more memorable.
At times you aren’t even sure if a scene is real or imaginary, as Cady often re-contextualizes her first ever high school experience with what she is more familiar with — the wild animal kingdom. “Girl world” and the “animal world” are often portrayed in imaginary sequences, like when the girls go to the mall, imagined as a watering hole, and when Regina (Rachel McAdams) flaunts her relationship with Aaron in front of Cady. The lioness brawl becomes all too real at the end of the film when Regina releases pages from the Burn Book, and North Shore descends into chaos.
The absurdity of Mean Girls stems from its iconic quotes, as well, probably the most Fey-influenced parts of the film. Beyond the quintessential “You go, Glenn Coco!”, there is a myriad of one-liners that perfectly build up the noisy backdrop of North Shore High. Just as unforgettable are creepy Coach Carr’s health class speech (“if you have sex you will get chlamydia — and die”) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) yelling, “Oh my god, Danny Devito! I love your work!” at a short girl in the restroom. These add absolutely nothing to Cady’s journey but prepare you for how off-kilter her new world feels. Carr’s lecture is, in particular, hilarious yet sadly accurate for American public school sex ed.
Fey saved some of her best content for Amanda Seyfried’s character Karen Smith, the ditz who becomes more lovable after watching the movie as an adult. Moments where she claims to have a “fifth sense, like ESPN” courtesy of her breasts, and her Taco Bell line (not to mention Regina’s enraged response) are comedic pop culture staples.
Even the plot-critical interactions between Cady and the Plastics, again heavily influenced by Tina Fey’s own high school era trauma, contain their background antics. Notice how throughout the infamous group call, Regina is carefully examining the fruit in her kitchen — before moving onto a colossal baguette. She saws off a piece and then, neglecting her reasonable serving size, picks up the entire thing and goes to town on it.
Fey’s constant companion and co-star Amy Poehler also had a hand in the most recognizable parts of the film, the Winter talent show. The bizarre business card Kevin gives Cady earlier in the film (“Kevin Gnapoor, Math Enthusiast and Bad-Ass MC”) suddenly makes sense as “Kevin G and the Power of Three” take the stage to perform a very sexual rap, before being cut off by Principal Duvall. Incredibly, Poehler wrote and choreographed Kevin’s entire rap for the scene.
Poehler’s portrayal of Regina’s mom is remembered by the scene where her dog chomps on her implants and, most iconically, her dancing along with the camcorder as the girls perform. That moment alone has become almost as infamous as the movie itself. Honorable mentions during the talent show include Damian’s dramatic “don’t look at me” and when Gretchen accidentally sends the boombox flying during their performance of jingle bell rock, directly into sleazy Jason’s face.
The final blow of Fey’s iconic comedy is, of course, Regina getting hit by an actual bus at the end. It’s ludicrous and cartoonish, yet horrifying — “girl world” again is proven to be just as violent as Cady’s animal kingdom. The very last scene of the movie teases another “righting of the world” via bus accident when a new crop of Plastics arrive at North Shore. But thankfully, that’s revealed to be only a product of Cady’s (concerningly vivid) imagination.
Tina Fey used all of these nonsensical moments to create the all-around experience of Mean Girls that’s made it such a modern-day cult classic. This kind of comic world building is why so many of the film’s catchphrases have become such an ingrained part of our teenage years, and why the film can remain so surprisingly smart while appealing to our silliest sense of humor.