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17 January 2024

Why make another Mean Girls?

The musical update of the popular high-school movie is entertaining, but bewildering.

By Ann Manov

In November, the BBC published an article about the remake of Mean Girls, headlined: “Will a modern take on the cult classic win over Gen Z?” It is a legitimate question, but I certainly don’t think of the original Mean Girls as a “cult classic”. It was hugely popular (and well-reviewed) as soon as it was released. So much so that, every 3 October, a screenshot of Lindsay Lohan delivering the line “on October 3rd, he asked me what day it was” reliably fills my social media feed. Everyone recognises quotes such as “stop trying to make fetch happen” and “on Wednesdays, we wear pink”. That’s the amazing thing about it: dripping with writer Tina Fey’s acerbic wit, Mean Girls achieved mainstream success. It still feels like a miracle to see such an entertaining film about teenagers refuse to be stupid or condescending.

However popular Mean Girls is, though – or perhaps because it remains so popular – I was still bewildered to learn a musical remake was coming out. A sequel, Mean Girls 2, which no one seems to have watched, was released years ago, but a 2018 Broadway musical of the film has become extremely popular.

Mean Girls (2024) is a strange beast: with a nearly identical screenplay written by Tina Fey (who also resumes her role as the high-school teacher Ms Norbury), it’s brought down mainly by mediocre musical numbers. The film is provocatively marketed as “Not your mother’s Mean Girls”. (Though any teenage viewers from 2004 with teenagers now would have had to have had a kid, what, two years after leaving school?) That aside, this basically is the old Mean Girls, with a few interesting differences. The plot is the same: Cady (here played by Angourie Rice), an American home-schooled 16-year-old who has been living with her parents in Kenya, is a newcomer at North Shore High School, where she befriends outsiders Janis (Auli‘i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) before accidentally falling in with the “Plastics”: the school queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her minions Karen (Avantika) and Gretchen (Bebe Wood). Janice and Damian persuade Cady to infiltrate the group as retaliation for Regina’s past cruelty.

A few of the jokes are toned down (the line “I didn’t leave the South Side for this!” from Tim Meadows’ school principal in the original becomes “I didn’t go to graduate school for this”), and others updated (sometimes successfully, as when the sex-ed teacher warning, “If you have sex, you will get pregnant – and die” becomes instead the promise of an upcoming lesson on choking). Surprisingly for a musical aimed at teens, a light satire of pop feminism and therapy-speak is sprinkled throughout, as when Gretchen Wieners says, “Cady, if you don’t dress slutty, it’s slut-shaming us,” or when Regina George, seducing Aaron at the Halloween party, says, “I guess I have a lot of unresolved trauma about how everything ended with us.” Other changes are bewildering: why does Gretchen’s line “my father invented the toaster strudel” become the tepid “my parents love me”, and “you’re bad at math” become “you’re kind of OK at math”?

The cast of the new Mean Girls is also far more diverse, and quite excellent (though it’s a thankless task to be compared with the first film’s iconic performances). They reflect how actresses on screen no longer need to conform to “sizes one, three and five”, to quote the original script – which makes it even stranger that the new film preserves the weight-gain revenge plot, nearly unchanged. Janis is far more stereotypically feminine than in the original; and Regina, trading the bootleg jeans for black leather ones in a burlesque-like number, is more explicitly sexualised than in the first film. Plus ça change.

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Perhaps the film’s biggest defect – apart from the musical numbers, which have a sincerity that is at odds with the tongue-in-cheek script – is its inability to grapple with the experience of high school in 2024. Sure, there are a few little TikTok interludes, and iPhones pulled out to film cringe moments. But no one’s ever really “on their phone”, and the original party sequences are virtually unchanged. The way teens socialise today is radically different to how they did 20 years ago, but you’d never guess it. That makes this something of a nostalgia flick.

Mean Girls is a fun enough way to pass two hours, but I still wondered why it exists. Why have there been four versions of Mean Girls? Why are all films today sequels and remakes? Why do there seem to be so few new ideas? Why am I watching Tina Fey wear the same top she did 20 years ago? Why – looking around the crowded theatre – is everybody here?  

[See also: Poor Things is Yorgos Lanthimos’s best film yet]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge