Mean Girls 2024: How Far (Haven’t) We Come?

It’s been 20 years since Mean Girls was released, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood was eager to capitalize on the classic with a reboot—in this case, a musical version of the same name that makes very few changes to the original. The content may be recycled, but the themes are as relevant as ever: on the film’s opening day, The New York Times published a piece on Rosalind Wiseman, whose book Queen Bees and Wannabes inspired the film(s). There, Wiseman discusses how she’s now working with adults as well, trying to repair the same social conditioning that made high school a minefield for so many, now repeating itself in conference rooms across the country. Have we really learned so little in two decades—and are Gen Z and Gen Alpha doomed to repeat Millennial patterns of meanness, just with more TikTok dances?

They don’t have to be. 

The 2024 Mean Girls movie may not offer many significant changes, but our understanding of the social nuances that girls and all youth experience is better, and our tools to help them are better as well. As Millennial audiences experience this film as adults, many with their own children, there are opportunities to re-examine both films, celebrate what positive changes have been made, and make a point to correct for what’s still lacking in our own lives, whether as parents, educators, or just as former high schoolers ourselves.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the term “relational aggression,” you probably know what it’s referring to: it’s indirect fighting or bullying that’s meant to damage someone’s feelings, relationships, or social status. People of any age and gender can engage in relational aggression, but because girls are often conditioned not to express feelings like anger, they are far more likely to address their problems in this oblique—mean—way.

Though the title might seem like it’s only describing the popular clique, all of the girls in the Mean Girls movies act in this indirect way. This includes the protagonists, especially Janis, whose sweet coming out story is soon overshadowed by an incident between Janis and antagonist Regina, her former best friend. Regina took advantage of Janis in a social situation and then mocked her using her sexuality, inviting others to join in the bullying. When Janis couldn’t take any more, she responded with an overt display of anger, setting a previously cherished toy on fire—and only then did adults step in. Janis was punished for her (yes, admittedly dangerous but also very understandable) outburst with a suspension from school, while Regina faced no consequences. It makes sense, then, that Janis feels she has to resort to indirect methods to get justice. After all, the adults didn’t listen to her or take her feelings seriously.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that Janis is a queer girl of color and Regina is a wealthy White girl. Neither film goes far enough in examining the privilege at work here, especially the racial disparities. We know that girls of color, and especially Black girls, are overpoliced and punished far out of proportion: the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights showed in 2021 that Black girls are suspended at double the rate of their White peers.

When adults don’t take the time to listen, when they don’t examine their biases or protect BIPOC and queer youth, issues can spiral. What began as a problem between friends eventually engulfed the entire school, if not more: because of the internet, girls are no longer limited to their geographies, spreading social consequences even further.

The ostracization and mockery are not just spread but amplified by social media, a point the movie tries to make by inserting collages of reaction videos and posts. If anything, the movie doesn’t go far enough, given how much of girls’ lives are lived online. Likes, comments, views, and followers are now all ways to express relational aggression, and the 2024 Mean Girls does, at least, take them seriously as a source of power.

There are ways to mitigate the negative effects of social media. In fact, teen girls are aware of a lot of them. It falls to adults, then, to understand and enforce healthy boundaries, and to ensure that girls understand how to navigate social media and overall social life in a mature, direct, and healthy way.

A new scene with Cady and her mother presents a good example for how adults can support their kids, or any youth in their lives. Cady, devastated by her own mistakes and the larger social fallout, tearfully admits that she doesn’t want to face school again, and her mother listens gently. Sometimes, adults can’t or shouldn’t step in to fix what’s wrong. They can only provide the tools for girls to do it themselves, and the support to help girls be brave enough to do so. Cady’s mother doesn’t downplay Cady’s experiences, or solve them for her. She also doesn’t allow Cady to sidestep consequences or avoid responsibility. Instead, by just listening and being present, Cady’s mother gives Cady a chance to feel her feelings and decide for herself what she needs to do.

This scene stands in stark contrast to the scenes featuring Regina’s mother, who just wants attention from her child. What was previously a funny send up of the “cool mom” stereotype now in 2024 seems both pathetic and problematic: Regina’s mom treats her child as a proxy for her own needs and insecurities, making Regina’s behavior seem so much more clearly a consequence of this bad parenting than some kind of innate or irreversible meanness.

This is something we’ve been saying for years: there are no “mean girls,” not really. In fact, that’s a point of both the 2004 and 2024 movie that sometimes gets overlooked: the phrase “mean girl” is leveled not at anyone in the popular clique, but at the main character, Cady. And Cady’s narrative tries to show us that yes, Cady can be mean, but mostly she’s confused, overwhelmed, and uncertain. Given the opportunity to change, she stops her mean behavior. So do Regina and Janis. None of the characters—and no real-life girl—deserves to be reduced to a single negative descriptor. And it’s up to adults to ensure that every girl gets to be more than a label.

Educators & administrators (including school counselors, CBO staff, after-school staff, and other youth-serving professionals): You’re invited to join us on February 21 for the Brave Space Groundwork workshop. In this interactive and engaging couple of hours, you’ll learn how to create brave spaces and center the SEL needs of all the youth you serve.

Ready for in-person professional development? Join us March 4-6, 2024 in Oakland for Collective Belonging to experience and practice social-emotional learning tools and strategies that create communities where every student feels like they belong. Practices include a rich, interactive Girls Leadership curriculum with lessons and activities. Collective Belonging is designed for youth-serving professionals at schools, after-schools, community-based organizations, summer camps, or sports coaches. Scholarships and discounts are available.

Parents & caretakers: We have a workshop just for you! Girl & Grownup workshops (for grades K–8) offer brave and fun spaces for girls to explore the power of voice together. In these Girl & Grownup workshops, you’ll both learn practical communication skills to put into practice right away.

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