Two things surprised me when I learned teen comedy Mean Girls was based on Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes. First of all, the book isn't a narrative but a sociological study on teenage girls. Let's face it: A how-to-manual for parents of teenage daughters is unusual film fodder.

The second surprise about the comedic Mean Girls is that it's, well … comedic. True, Queen Bees is no stuffy sociological term paper. Wiseman, the founder of a non-for-profit group to stop teen violence, does write with a winsome, casual tone and sparks of humor. But it's odd to think someone read her chapters on what to do if your daughter is lying, drinking, or manipulating friends and thought, "Man, this sure would be a funny teen popcorn flick!"

SNL's Tina Fey wrote and starred in the film

SNL's Tina Fey wrote and starred in the film

That brings us to Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live writer and the show's Weekend Update anchorwoman, who wrote the Mean Girls screenplay. (Note: SNL producer Lorne Michaels is producer of the film, which casts at least three SNLers besides Fey.) It feels like Queen Bees was basically background material for Fey on the social dynamics of female popularity—where cliques rule with manipulation, judgment, and cruel harassment.

Readers of Wiseman's book might see various case studies in the film if they look hard enough. But to say that Mean Girls is based on Queen Bees would be akin to saying that background material on safecracking might have gone into the writing of The Ladykillers. The plot is Fey's own creation and weaves pieces of the book with 1989's Heathers and a stack of other high school flicks.

Lindsay Lohan in the lead role

Lindsay Lohan in the lead role

Fey's plot follows Cady (Lindsay Lohan of Freaky Friday, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) on her first day of public school. Cady has grown up home-schooled in Africa because her parents are zoologists—not, she says, because she's "weirdly religious." Because Cady knows nothing of American teenage culture, she's the perfect neutral guide to the world of teen politics.

Cady quickly makes two quirky friends (Janis and Damian), but is accidentally accepted by The Plastics, the school's most popular three-girl clique. Because Janis hates the group's queen bee, Regina, she talks Cady into being a Plastic spy. Eventually, Cady chooses to use her vantage point to destroy the mean, manipulative Regina by robbing her of her hot bod, hot boy (whom Cady likes) and hot followers. As she does, Cady forgets who she really is.

The good news: The film is fun and hip; it will attract lots of teen audiences. The story is engrossing. Perhaps most surprising is the level of the acting. Lohan is clearly on her way to establishing herself not as a bubblegum teen-movie princess but a legitimately talented actress.

Article continues below

Now, with the not-so-good. The movie's biggest problem is its uneven tone. Mean Girls tries to mix Queen Bee's poignant observations with dark comedy. Fey and director Mark S. Waters (Freaky Friday) bobble the combination. Yes, dark comedy can work in film when the tone is consistent, but Mean Girls wants to be both mean and touching.

Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert

Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Seyfried, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert

This results in mixed messages. The movie tries to make a statement about negatively treating peers based on appearance or social standing—while freely doing it for most of its jokes! Most of the comedy—like for any high school's popular kids—comes from mean teasing, cruel jokes, and easy jokes about homosexuals, Christians, and the handicapped. When the film then tries in the end to make an important statement, the audience is confused.

I saw Mean Girls in a screening with about 250 teenagers (mainly girls). They loved the movie, and laughed at everything. But some of the things they laughed at weren't intended. At the end of the movie, Cady realizes she's gone too far and "like a snake bite, I tried to suck all the poison from my life." She apologizes to those she hurt and learns an insightful, poignant lesson. She says, "Calling someone fat doesn't make you skinny. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you smart. The best we can do is focus on the problem in front of us day to day."

Rachel McAdams is the clique's queen bee

Rachel McAdams is the clique's queen bee

The problem? Because everything in the movie preceding this was built on easy, cruel jokes, the audience was confused about what was meant to be funny. During Cady's speech about what she learned, she's facing a horribly-exaggerated ugly girl. The audience thought it was a hoot. Later—in the movie's best scene by far—Cady focuses on an obese girl and says, "You know, you really look pretty tonight. I bet you spent such a long time on your hair!" The moment is meant to be sincere, but as soon as the overweight girl was shown, the crowd burst into laughter.

The current release 13 Going On 30 actually surpasses Mean Girls' effectiveness in showing the dangers and ugliness of popularity (even though it's handled mostly as a sub-plot). The difference? Sincerity. Mean Girls lacks it almost completely and instead acts like any teenage queen bee—setting rules, being cruel and picking on the weak—only to then break its own rules and be hypocritical.

Article continues below

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How does Mean Girls' high school resemble the one you go to or went to? How doesn't it?

  2. What causes girls like Regina, Cady and Gretchen to crave popularity? What other things do people use to fill these voids?

  3. At the end, Cady extends real care and kindness to those around her. What difference could actions like this make at your school? Is it naïve to think her school could become clique-less and happy because of actions like this?

  4. Put yourself in Ms. Norbury's shoes. Would it be easy to forgive Cady? What if you were Regina? Do you have friends who've hurt you like this? If so, how do you mend that?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The movie includes a great deal of sexual jokes, innuendos, and near constant cleavage and short skirts. Homosexual slurs are common. There's also a scene of implied sex between a girl and guy wearing their underwear. A male teacher is caught kissing a female student. Two long party scenes feature heavy drinking. Violence includes a comedic-fight scene, a more serious real-life fight and two very abrupt and shocking shots of buses hitting students.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 05/06/04

Last year, families found Freaky Friday to be an above-average comedy for teens and their parents. Now, director Mark S. Waters is back with Mean Girls, another comedy about an adolescent facing a crisis. Looks like he's got another hit on his hands—the movie was the #1 at the box office this week, and it was the best-reviewed new release as well. Written by Saturday Night Live "news anchorwoman" Tina Fey, Mean Girls is based on a work of non-fiction, a study of adolescent behavior called Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman.

The film stars Freaky Friday's Lindsay Lohan as a "wannabe" who is kept out of the popular circle by a particularly cruel group of peers known as The Plastics. SNL alum Tim Meadows is earning some compliments for his portrayal of the school principal.

Mainstream critics are fairly impressed, finding far more intelligence in the script than they expect from a film of this genre. Religious press critics also note the script's keen insights about contemporary adolescence. But some of them have a few reservations about its lack of substantial suggestions for how to avoid the superficiality and cruelty exhibited by these mean teens.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Fey's screenplay is blistering in its depiction of the social and political maneuvering that takes place in the 'girl world' of high school cliques. The insights and observations of high school life … will strike a chord with anyone who remembers the days of acne and lunchroom protocol. There is also a decent message being communicated to us. Spreading rumors, gossip, or even truth with the intent to hurt or belittle another human being bears a cost."

Article continues below

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "I found it involving, and although it contains some objectionable content … it does not rely on crudity to gain laughter."

Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) was reminded of Clueless and Never Been Kissed. "It has the same smart, upbeat tone, snappy dialogue and humorously thorny commentary on high school subcultures. Unfortunately, another similarity is that it's sullied by unnecessary language, immodesty, sexual themes and teen drinking."

Todd Hertz (Christianity Today Movies) prefers another teen-oriented new release. "13 Going On 30 actually surpasses Mean Girls' effectiveness in showing the dangers and ugliness of popularity. The difference? Sincerity. Mean Girls lacks it almost completely and instead acts like any teenage queen bee—setting rules, being cruel and picking on the weak—only to then break its own rules and be hypocritical."

Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says the film "will leave many parents feeling like traditional high schools may be the last place they want their teens." She adds, "The film ultimately falls flat. It's shockingly good satire that suddenly morphs into politically-correct shallowness."

from Film Forum, 05/13/04

Susan Olasky (World) reviews Mean Girls and says it's "an empowerment lecture embedded in a funny movie about girls, high school, cliques, honesty, and popularity. The movie transforms from 'slice of cruel life' comedy to earnest 'grrrl power' lecture. But since the movie caters to the worldview of its teen audience, the critique of teen culture is shallow—and delivered in an often crude, vulgar way that will bother some parents."

Raymond Anito (Christian Spotlight) says, "The film takes a straight-line secular trip through high school in America. Sadly some, or all, of the situations in this film occur in schools but, not surprisingly, a spiritual solution is not put forth to guide the characters to a resolution. Being raised in Africa, the main character mostly relies on her knowledge of the law of the jungle to guide her."

Mean Girls
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(3 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for sexual content, language and some teen partying)
Directed By
Mark Waters
Run Time
1 hour 37 minutes
Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, Rachel McAdams
Theatre Release
April 30, 2004 by Paramount Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: