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Spot the difference: how Bad Moms borrows its emotional climax – and everything else – from Mean Girls

It won’t reach the sanctified pop culture status of Mean Girls, but the influence of Tina Fey’s film is obvious, over 12 years on.

“I’m not, like, a regular mom. I’m a cool mom.” Amy Poehler’s turn as an overly-permissive, desperate to be liked mother in Mean Girls is one of those culture moments burned into our brains. Her role was brief, but threatened to upstage the film’s younger cast. A few years ago, it emerged that a film based on Queen Bee Moms and King Pin Dads, (the sequel to the book Mean Girls was based on, Queen Bees and Wannabes) was in the works, called Mean Moms. And now we have Bad Moms.

In the words of Alison Herman at the Ringer, Bad Moms is the summer’s latest “Wokebuster”: a “lightly feminist” blockbuster that is “theoretically about social progress and dismantling gender norms”, but in practice reinforces the same premises it claims to challenge. It follows a group of three women, Amy, Kiki and Carla, as they realise that they can never meet societal expectations of “good” motherhood, and decide to embrace being bad mothers. (If Amy is meant to be a representation of a bad mother, it fails abysmally – instead Mila Kunis, an archetypal Cool Girl herself, actually plays a Cool Mom like Poehler’s, driving her kids to school in a sports car, feeding them fast food lunches, absorbing piles of nachos and excessive amounts of alcohol, while staying perfectly skinny and fucking the hottest dad at school).

If Mean Girls’ tepid message was, “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores”; then Bad Moms’s is, “In this day and age it’s impossible to be a good mom.”

Of course, the villain of the piece, and the embodiment of all the gendered bullshit women are subjected to, is still a woman. In Mean Girls it was Regina George. In Bad Moms it’s Parent-Teacher Association president and self-proclaimed perfect mother Gwendolyn James. Even the name, ludicrously, sounds like an imitation: let’s take a slightly obscure, regal-sounding name and pair it with a common male first name. Ah, perfect. (Later in the film, Gwendolyn even pulls up to the girls in her posh car, yelling “Hey, bitches, get in!” – the parallels are obvious.)

If the enemy of the piece is hypocritical patriarchal expectations (the people yelling “slut!” and “whore!” at all teenage girls or “bad mom!” at all mothers), both films choose sisterhood, honesty and vulnerability as the solution. We all remember the “All junior girls report to the gymnasium! Immediately!” scene from Mean Girls:

The girls take part in a workshop – supposedly in order to own the mean things people have said about them, disregard them as ridiculous, admit their own human failings, and learn not to judge people in return.

So, too, do the women of Bad Moms gather in a school auditorium and confess their sins. After Amy delivers a speech in support of her run for PTA president urging the parents not to judge themselves for their quirks, a barrage of mothers spill their secrets in order to reject the expectations of perfections thrust upon them by the PTA and beyond. “I can’t tell my twins apart!” says one. Another: “I like my nanny more than my husband!” Every one of these mothers has felt personally victimised by Gwendolyn James. “I don’t even have kids!” one finally yells into an awkward silence. The scenes match right down to the “she doesn’t even go here” punchline in Mean Girls.

Bad Moms is watchable, mostly funny for the ridiculous slow-mo scenes of raucous behaviour from three great comic actors. It won’t reach the sanctified pop culture status of Mean Girls, but the influence of Tina Fey’s film is obvious, over 12 years on.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist