Trial by social media has turned an entire generation into Mean Girls

From left: Avantika, Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp and Bebe Wood in a scene from Mean Girls
From left: Avantika, Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp and Bebe Wood in a scene from Mean Girls - Paramount Pictures

The early Noughties was hardly a high point in youth culture. Bland indie-rock was ubiquitous, clothes meant cut-off camo trousers and miniscule denim mini skirts, and sexism was more pervasive than ever: cast your mind back to the corner shop shelves filled with lads mags or celebrity glossies, their pages filled with a combination of naked women or hit pieces aimed at actresses who didn’t fit into a Size Zero.

Tina Fey’s smash-hit social satire Mean Girls arrived at just the right time, making stars of its cast (Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried) who turned the ultra-specific confines of an American high school into a microcosm of the millennium. There was underage drinking, sex, pervy teachers and wearing lingerie as outerwear on Halloween, set against a number of artificial social codes (“On Wednesdays we wear pink!”) that divided students into suitable cliques.

My friends and I ate it right up. Quotes from the film became part of our daily vocabulary; fancy dress indeed meant shunning fabric (writing this, a horrific flashback came to me of when I wore a velvet unitard, with PVC cat ears and collar, to my secondary school’s leavers day – sorry Mr Fallon); but the biggest crossover was our ruthless desire to be raging, hormonal b--ches. There were maxims featured in Mean Girls that stuck with us: never, ever fancy a friend’s ex-boyfriend (until you did, in which case prepare for catfights and snide Facebook posts). How it was perfectly fine to spend hours ripping apart your best friends behind their back – but if an outsider dared to… attack! Maths was tragically uncool and trying at anything academic was always to be kept secret; the dumber you acted in front of boys, the better.

Mean Girls was gleefully un-PC, and despite reports that Gen Z are more interested in activism and wellness than drinking, partying or having sex, it’s held up remarkably well. Now, the Broadway version of the film has been adapted for the big screen (and is in cinemas now). Not bad for a movie adapted from a self-help book (Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes) for the stressed-out parents of toxic teenagers.

Back in 2004, Mean Girls’ villains, the vicious Plastics (led by McAdams’s Regina George), scrawled their opinions on their classmates (fat, ugly, sleeping with a teacher, you get the gist) in a neon pink “Burn Book” whose pages eventually get thrown around the school, sparking inter-girl warfare. It reflected the era’s newfound obsession with access-all-areas celebrity: borne from Perez Hilton’s notorious gossip blog and hit reality TV shows such as Big Brother and The Simple Life (featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie), we were becoming increasingly convinced that we had the power, and the right, to comment on the most personal elements of people’s lives just because they were famous. Then, thanks to social media, this privilege stopped being reserved for celebrities, and our attention turned to our real-life friends.

Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey in the original 2004 Mean Girls
Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey in the original 2004 Mean Girls - CBS via Getty Images

When I started secondary school in 2007, social media had started to dictate everyday life: popularity meant receiving “hearts” on Bebo or having hundreds of friends on Facebook, eventually giving way to the quest for thousands of “followers” on Instagram and Tumblr. The latter was the Burn Book in website form – the site consisted of individual “blogs” where some people shared photos of their favourite trends, bands, films. We took it a step further, using it to write thinly-veiled hit pieces on anyone who annoyed us. I still cringe at the thought of a girl in the year above storming over to me in the playground, asking if a recent (one assumes not very complimentary) post had been about her.

Tumblr got an evil companion in the form of anonymous feedback sites like Formspring and Ask FM (and, later, an app literally titled Burn Book) that showed the bitter commentary shown in Mean Girls had crossed over to everyday life. Teenagers (and weird adults) would hide behind the safety of anonymity to lay into people on these sites – personal insults, death threats. When a friend had nude pictures of her leaked online, these sorts of sites (plus Facebook) went into overdrive: brutal discussions of her body, fake profiles featuring the images. If you were brave enough to tell a parent or teacher, they would simply tell you to delete your account, not realising that – in the questionable mind of a teenager – receiving this kind of abuse was far preferable to not being discussed at all.

But in Mean Girls, the absence of social media meant that none of the bullying was ever that high-stakes. Lohan’s Cady could run away from a Halloween party in her terrifying Zombie bride outfit – after being the only girl there not wearing a PVC animal costume – content in the knowledge that the jokes at school would last only a few days. There’d be no pictures or viral videos shared on YouTube or TikTok, no digital footprint. When Cady is exposed later in the film for lying (she’s not really the Plastics’ friend, but an undercover saboteur recruited by outcasts Janis and Damian to destroy them) she’s rendered a social pariah for a mere few days, then welcomed back to the fold.

No such privilege is afforded to villain Regina (played by Reneé Rapp) in the 2024 film – to conform to the world we live in, populated by millionaire “influencers”, she has thousands of followers on social media, with her classmates forming part of her online fan (or, eventually, hate) club. While taking part in the Plastics’ annual strip-tease-slash-school talent show performance, dressed in a skimpy red sequin skirt and bra, she falls flat on her face, and the internet erupts: her humiliation recorded and played over and over for the whole world to see. Her misfortune only grows when her peers turn against her and turn to trial by social media – through a series of camera recordings – to detail her incessant backstabbing.

This has now been a daily reality for teenagers for more than a decade. Social media exacerbates every source of shame, every record of wrongdoing. Gen Z’s world is one big digital Burn Book, with stupid mistakes that used to be a signifier of growing up – regretfully using offensive language, experimenting with sex or substances, fights and arguments – turned into life-altering events that haunt them forever. Mean Girls, for all its silliness, understands this better than most.

‘Mean Girls’ is in cinemas now

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