“She’s fabulous, but she’s evil.”
Thanks to Mean Girls, I am well aware that when I go to the kitchen to get to the box of Teddy Grahams for the fourth time in an hour, I am eating my feelings. This 2004 film – insert joke about how Lindsay Lohan used to not be so completely messed up – also gave us too gay to function, boo you whore, and that funny early moment about Man fighting the dinosaurs and the homosexuals.
We know that the film was based on a non-fiction book by Rosalind Wiseman called Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. But cultural representations work on many levels; does Mean Girls provide a survival aid, satire, or something worse – does it help enshrine the very behavior it purports to reject?
Regina George is hot, remember, as are her cohorts, and hot so often equals good that audiences are bound to be confused. As one girl says in the movie, “One time she punched me in the face…it was awesome.” Damian’s comment could just as easily be reversed: she’s evil, but she’s fabulous.
There’s a documentary that shows American soldiers in Iraq blasting “Flight of the Valkyries” late at night as they go on a raid. This idea is surely cribbed from Apocalypse Now, which may have gotten it from real life, but which broadcast and celebrated the idea in a uniquely cinematic way. Is that movie a criticism of the Vietnam War? Probably. But at least in one case it’s given more ammunition to psychological warfare and to terrorizing local populations.
Now think about Mean Girls. Was it created to provide a message that was anti-clique, anti-mean? Probably. Did it spawn imitation Burn Books? Surely. There’s a facebook page called “I have been personally victimized by Regina George,” liked by over 32,000 people, the front page of which is dominated by people recounting their favorite, mostly nasty, lines from the movie. On the subject of burn books, one girl says, “I wrote one” with a heart, and another says, “haha me and my friends made one…. we got in trouble as weel!!” You can jump from there to the page “i wish i had a burn book <3” which is only seven months old, but liked by over 600, and has these instructions: “hey! ever wanted a burn book? have you made a burn book? post some stories here of who (first names) you hate and why you hate them! (:”
There’s burnbook.com, and a wikiHow on making one.
Burn Books are at least on the same family tree as Columbine-era hit lists or death lists, especially when you consider that most of the latter are just the angry ventings of lonely or confused (usually) guys. But which is which? When is a burn book more than a joke, and when is angry web venting more than catharsis?
Dave Cullen’s Columbine is one journalist’s attempt to correct some of the myths that he, among others, helped create in the aftermath of that school’s shooting. Immediately after the shooting, the story of the Trench Coat Mafia took hold, and we believed that these killers were “outcasts” getting revenge on the jocks and popular kids who had bullied them.
Even though this story was not accurate, it still provided an ironic response from America, as schools cracked down on kids wearing trench coats and pretty much left everyone else alone. That’s a blanket statement, but I distinctly remember which two kids in my 8th grade class were the subject of post-Columbine controversy. Long coats, black fingernail polish, the rumor, and probably the existence of, a death list or something like it, and some angry outbursts.
Reading Columbine, I have been shocked by the amount of writing Eric Harris did which gave evidence of a very troubled, potentially violent psychopath (Cullen takes some time to explain how experts have characterized Harris as such). Some of it was turned in for school assignments. The worst of it was public on his website, “murderous rants” which targeted certain students by name and which local law enforcement had printed out and kept in a file over a year before the shooting. There’s more outrageousness; read the book.
Yet Cullen painstakingly paints a portrait of two young men who had friends, who did alright with girls (Eric better than Dylan, yet Dylan went to prom with a date three days before the killing spree), who drank and carried on, and who, in fact, bullied younger students.
Time out. What does “bully” mean? I’ve read that it has Dutch or German roots in words for lover or brother, and etymonline.com tells us this:
Meaning deteriorated 17c. through “fine fellow,” “blusterer,” to “harasser of the weak” (1680s, from bully-ruffian, 1650s). Perhaps this was by influence of bull (n.1), but a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” may be in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706).
Much as Teddy Roosevelt tried to keep it happy, bully kept descending from lover until it approached the jerks we all know today.
But while bully-ing surely exists today, do bullies? I haven’t been around elementary or middle schools much lately, but just as criminals don’t look like the Hamburgler, I have a feeling bullies can be difficult to pick out of a crowd (perhaps because everyone in the crowd is one, or potentially one, or sometimes one). Are there still kingpin bullies like we see on TV and in movies? And, again, beyond the obvious (the taking of lunch money), what constitutes bullying?
Georgia, like most states, has passed anti-bullying legislation, and recently even gave it a facelift. This is how the General Assembly defined bullying:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term ‘bullying’ means an act which occurs on school property, on school vehicles, at designated school bus stops, or at school related functions or activities, or by use of data or software that is accessed through a computer, computer system, computer network, or other electronic technology of a local school system, that is:
(1) Any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury on another person, when accompanied by an apparent present ability to do so; or
(2) Any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm; or
(3) Any intentional written, verbal, or physical act, which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass, or intimidate, that:
(A) Causes another person substantial physical harm within the meaning of Code Section 16-5-23.1 or visible bodily harm as such term is defined in Code Section 16-5-23.1;
(B) Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education;
(C) Is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment; or
(D) Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.
Is this thoughtful, or too expansive to be useful? Do we need another term? Does bullying feel too juvenile to accurately describe the adult-level abuse that happens in high school (and beyond)? The government campaign “Stop Bullying Now!” is clearly targeted at “tweens” and youngers, and probably just preaches to the bullied choir.
The bullying that I saw as a teacher, if I had to call it that, was like guerrilla bullying. It was almost purely verbal, and it happened very quickly and very often. Just little things that were said, especially in the halls or at lunch when fewer people were listening. But it happened in the classroom, too, which drove me up the wall. You try keeping a room full of thirty teenagers from never saying anything nasty about each other.
Let’s assume you define it and identify it and have the time to do something about it, and an administration willing to back you up on it. If you catch a bully, what do you do with him or her?
Newsweek, spurred by a recent rash of news-making teen suicides, asked “Should School Bullying Be a Crime?” Jessica Bennett discusses the case of Phoebe Prince, who may have been driven to kill herself because she was taunted as a “whore” and “slut” at school, but who also “had tried to kill herself before the epithets, was on medication for depression, and was struggling with her parents’ separation.” So then what? Are we to judge bullies by their actions or by their success?
Bennett seems to want to elicit sympathy for Prince’s bullies – some of whom now are being bullied themselves, the subjects of threats. Dave Cullen, in his book trailer, has a Capote-esque moment where he admits a fascination with and empathy for Klebold: “Dylan really had a big impact on me. He was a really, really depressed kid. I found out that I couldn’t really transmit who he was or why he did it until I understood his pain, until I saw the world from the same miserable perspective that he did.”
This all leads to another of the bully cliches, probably true: they’re all insecure themselves. But Regina George is never hinted to have a miserable perspective, never painted as a victim – savvy teen audiences can smell that kind of stuff out, and it always smells too forced. But what’s the alternative? That she’s just plain mean? Mean from a vacuum? Part of the axis of malignancy? Making her such lessens the chance of making the movie more than a morality play.
I once read an article by Karen Keely about teaching Anne Sexton’s Transformations, which is a collection of poetic adaptations of Grimm tales. Keely discussed the work of folklorist D. L. Ashliman:
Ashliman argues that “the greatest overall theme treated in fairy tales is the restoration of justice,” although, as he notes, “Fairy tales expose and correct individual cases of the misuse of power, but the institutions are never challenged” (47-48). The tales are thus essentially conservative, leaving in place the systemic structures that allowed for the initial injustice to occur.
It’s the paradox behind “the king is dead; long live the king!” The monarchy, and its cruelties, is eternal until you abolish the monarchy.
Yes, there’s that nice bit in the gym where some of the girls vent their feelings and perform trust falls, but humor ironizes even that sequence – Tina Fey will not be caught in a net of pure pathos. After all, doesn’t one girl say, “I’m sorry I called you a gap-toothed bitch. It’s not you’re fault you’re so gap-toothed.” We laugh because bitch remains in place. Regina gets hit by a bus, but the death of a wicked queen in a fairy tale only brings us a new queen – it does not bring about a more revolutionary power-sharing system. Mean Girls may have eliminated one Burn Book, but “bitch” isn’t going anywhere.
Except it’s alright, because the girls who say it to each other are friends, right? It’s a kind of reclaiming of the word – girls call each other bitch in jest, I suppose, to eliminate the sting of being called it by a non-ally. And why stop there? The Vagina Monologues has a section on “Reclaiming Cunt.” Of course reclaiming words is never easy – we are all to some extent familiar with the debates over the n-word – but it’s a well-intentioned enterprise.
But Tina Fey herself rejected this tightrope walking. In the movie, Cady has an epiphany when she realizes she was drawing too fine a line between “acting” a bitch and being one. Sometimes the act can be divorced of its intentions – calling someone bitch, or faggot, even in jest, may have the same psychological effect as doing it with malice. Dave Cullen shows us that most journalists called the Trench Coat Mafia story an assertion, or a theory, but that didn’t matter; the only thing that mattered was “repetition.” You hear something enough, it doesn’t matter if they’re calling it a rumor. You hear certain language enough, it doesn’t matter if the speaker is being satirical. A rumor floated around that the Columbine killers were gay, too, but that didn’t stick in part because it wasn’t repeated.
This brings us back to the question of representations. Cullen reports that experts, on examining the bombs made by Harris and Klebold, were relieved to find that the killers didn’t fully understand how to wire them. They did not want to be any more specific, lest copycats learn from Columbine mistakes. Artists should have comparable standards of responsibility, if only self-imposed.
You may think Mean Girls is harmless, or at least not making existing situations any worse than they are, and that’s probably true. Entertainment is allowed to be entertaining, and wisecracking irreverence is doubtless a more effective way to get any point across to a teen audience (see also making gay sex jokes while discussing the Supreme Court).
But with a rash of bullying/bashing/suicides comes a rush of news coverage, which provides us with new tactics and taunts which we may not have dreamed up ourselves, and this will almost surely lead to a new wave of cultural representations – Lifetime movies, Laramie Project-style earnest theater pieces, and so on. Just imagine how difficult it would be to responsibly represent Harris and Klebold, and how easily those images could be twisted to other effects and purposes. It can’t hurt to examine what movies and books and art really does – how it affects us, and if it promotes positive change, aids future bullies, or offers a false catharsis:
“Ding dong the witch is dead! (Long live the witch!)”
Any ideas on what can or should be done to abolish the bully monarchy?