Not Too Gay to Function: Why Queer Women Love “Mean Girls”

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It’s been 10 years since Mean Girls came out in theaters and it still feels like one of the most relevant, smart and modern comedies about high school girl relationships in recent history, if not ever. That’s mostly due to Tina Fey‘s brilliance, creating characters that weren’t just stereotypes but expanded upon archetypes that had motivations, families and were truly not good or bad people. Instead, they were teenagers.

Coming out of a decade of films like She’s All That, Clueless and Bring it On, Tina sought to tell stories about why girls are insecure enough to turn against each other and pretend to be people they are not instead of going through beauty, popularity makeovers to find boyfriends. Aaron Samuels was part of the deal, yes, but Mean Girls was not all about Cady finding romance. It was about young women figuring themselves out without having to drag their peers (“friends”) down in the process. (Well, that was the eventual lesson.) Tina Fey was able to make a film with several teachable, feminist moments hilarious with quotes we are still GIFing and putting on T-shirts today.

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So what do queer women get out of a film like Mean Girls? There aren’t any explicitly lesbian characters, only innuendo about the aptly-named Janis Ian (after the lesbian singer, natch), so perfectly played by Lizzy Caplan. As a fan of the film (and a lesbian), I think the combination of Tina Feyisms, spot-on casting and underlying feminism came together at the right time in pop culture. Right before the huge anti-bullying push came to be part of the vernacular, Mean Girls made it look severely uncool to be cool. Cady was undercover with the queen bio trio, The Plastics. Although this kind of surveillance plotline can be a teen movie trope, it works, as Cady finds herself becoming the kind of bitch she was at first fascinated with and then eventually abhors.

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Mean Girls came out four years before star Lindsay Lohan (then 17) came out about her relationship with Samantha Ronson (although they were friends because SamRo had a song on the soundtrack), but she held appeal to all women at this point in her career. She was undeniably gorgeous, healthy and smiling with her red hair subtlety highlighted with some sun-bleached blonde. Her instant on-screen friendship with Janis, a Lebanese goth-tinged artist who excels in sarcastic wit and comes complete with a gay best friend, appealed to us queer women as outsiders. Their conversations passed the Bechdel Test, and Janis was able to shut down any ill-willed asshole who called her a dyke. On that list of assholes: Regina George.

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Regina (as played by Rachel McAdams) was the ultimate Queen B (b for Bitch). She was the one who started rumors about Janis, telling everyone she was a lesbian after Janis expressed her sadness in being ditched for a dude. As Regina tells it:

“She’s so pathetic. Let me tell you something about Janis Ian. We were best friends in middle school. I know, right? It’s so embarrassing. I don’t even… Whatever. So then in eighth grade, I started going out with my first boyfriend Kyle who was totally gorgeous but then he moved to Indiana, and Janis was like, weirdly jealous of him. Like, if I would blow her off to hang out with Kyle, she’d be like, “Why didn’t you call me back?” And I’d be like, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” So then, for my birthday party, which was an all-girls pool party, I was like, “Janis, I can’t invite you, because I think you’re lesbian.” I mean I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party. There were gonna be girls there in their bathing suits. I mean, right? She was a LESBIAN. So then her mom called my mom and started yelling at her, it was so retarded. And then she dropped out of school because no one would talk to her, and she came back in the fall for high school, all of her hair was cut off and she was totally weird, and now I guess she’s on crack.”

As queer women know all too well, it’s hurtful to be disallowed from anything based on our sexuality. No matter how Janis identified, it was homophobic bullshit and highly likely every straight girl there would have been A-OK in her bikini.

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Watching a movie where viewers are in on the joke (being able to see how ridiculous Regina George truly is), it felt like the filmmakers were on our side, and so we were on theirs. Janis Ian came out looking the best out of all of the characters, the vapidness and backstabbing of Karen and Regina providing laughs but also a little bit of pity. Cady, in comparison, never cared about the gay rumors or even if there was truth to them. Even in her becoming a Plastic, there was at least that redeeming quality.

Janis Ian was nominated for Spring Fling Queen, although it was a total joke on behalf of her gay BFF Damian. Still, it was a small victory for those of us who felt as uncool as Janis likely did at North Shore High School.

Would we have loved Mean Girls as much without Janis Ian? It’s hard to say because, personally, she’s the one I identify with most, even at age 30. She would never wear pink on Wednesdays, and she might look tough, but she’d never look at a friend and say, “You can’t sit with us.” She might give you a ton of flack for turning into a plastic, but it’s for your own goddamn good. Her otherness was innately queer, even if she might not have been.

This week, Entertainment Weekly reunited the main cast of Mean Girls, and I was sad to see Lizzy Caplan wasn’t a part of the piece. But the awesomeness that is Tina Fey is, who went on to be our #1 pick in the Hot 100 in 2008, and grow even more successful in the years to come with 30 Rock, a banging impression of Sarah Palin, a memoir, several acting gigs in films and now a new show with Fortune Feimster. Tina has never wavered in her support of the queer community, which is inherent in her work in TV and movies alike. Even her Mean Girls character Ms. Norbury was more focused on helping the young women be successful in school and life instead of hurting each other and dumbing themselves down for dudes. She would probably have been the head of the school’s GSA if she wasn’t so busy with the Mathletes and a┬ájob at PJ Calamity’s.

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I should note it also doesn’t hurt Mean Girls‘ Sapphic legacy that Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried went on to play queer roles in films like Passion and Chloe. (Your turn, Lacey Chabert!)

And although Janis Ian ends up necking with Kevin Gnapoor on the lawn outside of school, I’ll always have a big lesbian crush on her.

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