For a certain breed of millennial like me, Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” was gospel — a movie turned cultural phenomenon that put names and labels to the kind of bullying that any woman who’d been to middle or high school would recognize. The beauty of the film was that it got at just how vicious, but coded, the dynamics among girls could be: full of slights so subtle and underhanded that they had eluded social scientists for decades. For a long time, researchers just thought girls didn’t bully as much as boys.
Then in the early aughts, a handful of books brought the concept of girls’ “relational aggression” into the mainstream. And that kind of aggression, it turned out — with its manipulations and exclusions and rumor-spreading and death stares from across the lunchroom — also happened to make for great comedy: “Mean Girls,” in fact, drew on one of those books, “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” for inspiration.
But much has changed in the 20 years since the original “Mean Girls” movie came out. Adults and teenagers alike are more aware of the importance of inclusivity and more attuned to the seriousness of subjects that used to be treated as fodder for jokes. So when Ms. Fey returned last month with her musical movie “Mean Girls” — her latest twist on the original, starring Reneé Rapp — it was inevitable there would be some changes.
For starters, the social hierarchy. The cliques at North Shore High still include the theater kids and the Plastics, but they are no longer segmented by race. And, predictably, the sexual misconduct: Coach Carr, the P.E. teacher now played by Jon Hamm, is most definitely not making out with any students. Gone are the jokes about Janis Ian being a lesbian — because “even Regina would know what wouldn’t fly,” Ms. Fey said in an interview, speaking of her infamous Queen Bee, Regina George. Instead, the beloved goth misfit, whose sexuality was ambiguous in the original (she reveals at the end that she’s Lebanese, which she may in fact be, but that word has also long been code for “lesbian”) is now out as queer.
As the trailer announcing the new film put it, “This isn’t your mother’s Mean Girls,” and indeed, it isn’t. Regina no longer uses the R-word, nor calls her friend “dyslexic”; her followers are no longer derided as an “army of skanks.” Even the infamous Burn Book is now nicer — or, if not exactly nicer, at least avoids particular rhetorical land mines: “fugly slut” is now “fugly cow.” Dawn Schweitzer, once a “fat virgin,” is now a “horny shrimp.” (What is a horny shrimp? Don’t ask me. I spent way too much time asking teenagers if there was some joke I was missing.)
This is meant to be reflective of the real world, of course, where ostensibly we no longer say these words, where we accept all body types (yeah, right) and have learned to be attentive to people’s feelings, differences and “residual trauma,” as Regina says in the new film. And it sort of is: As someone who has spent a lot of time around teenage girls recently, it’s true that they don’t use labels like “nastiest skank” to describe one another, as Regina — and my friends and I — used to.