Mean Girls is coming back, and as the trailer says, it’s not your mother’s Mean Girls! I saw the movie in theaters in middle school and am now an adult who doesn’t have children, so this marketing is maybe not targeted at me specifically. However, it did bring up memories for me of the book that the original movie was based on: Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. The nonfiction book was pitched at parents and teachers as a way to help them understand what teen girls were going through. In the 20 years since the movie, the landscape of bullying and adolescence has changed a lot. But the enduring legacy of Mean Girls shows it still has some relevance for today’s teenagers.
Two of the major points from the original Mean Girls movie are that being a teenager is rough and popularity is corrosive. There’s nothing necessarily easy about adolescence, but popular kids make it look like they have it all figured out. That’s one of the reasons Cady strives to be like the Plastics, even though she is secretly working against them. Despite knowing that they are mean, she wants to win at high school. She gets obsessed with outdoing Regina and feels joy when people see her as a member of the high school elite.
The original Mean Girls movie doesn’t write off the Plastics entirely at the end: all the characters are shown to have struggles that inform the way they act out towards other girls at the school. Teenagers lash out for a variety of reasons, and though some are inexcusably awful–Regina George using lesbophobia as a tool to exile Janis is gross–we can learn how to be better and be kinder to each other.
When celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mean Girls (Hi old!), you can read nonfiction about teens and how to raise kids in a way where they won’t be as mean and also read a variety of fun books about cliques and teen popularity problems.
Nonfiction About Teens
The Care & Keeping of You by Valorie Schaeffer
If you are like me, you learned about the particularities of body hair and the menstrual cycle through this book. Alongside Judy Blume, this was the most effective manual for understanding what was coming up for me with puberty. The author recently wrote an essay to celebrate the book’s 25-year anniversary, reflecting on her experiences as a young mother and the book’s continued relevance. There will always be questions while we’re growing up, and it’s important to provide a place for kids to find answers.
How to Raise an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
As a companion to his bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Kendi offers a practical, thorough guide for having important conversations from the beginning and encouraging an antiracist worldview. He ties lessons about how to guide an antiracist worldview into research about child development as well. By encouraging parents to model this behavior, he argues that parents will be more invested in building a just world for the future.
Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by Virginia Sole-Smith
Like much of the media in the early 2000s, Mean Girls has a pretty cavalier attitude towards disordered eating and body snarking. Instead of allowing this behavior to flourish, Virgina Sole-Smith gives an extensive account of how children develop anti-fat biases and how to give them a more peaceful relationship with their bodies. Conversations about bodies and health can still occur, but Sole-Smith sees a future where bodies are not stigmatized, and kids aren’t forcing themselves onto restrictive diets.
Teen media is wildly popular, and this book traces the recent history of how various shows transformed the cultural landscape. In a similar fashion to Mean Girls, the shows profiled in this book had huge fandoms that changed the way we engage with TV. Whether it was the unrestricted power of the Glee fandom or shows like My So-Called Life taking teen issues seriously, these shows have resonated with teens across generations because of their storytelling.
Young Adult Books About Popularity
The Exile of Gigi Lane by Adrienne Maria Vrettos
At an all-girls school called Swan’s Lake, with an unbelievably rigid system of cliques, Gigi Lane reigns supreme. She’s set to take on the role of “Head Hottie” at her school, which essentially means becoming the Head Plastic. But instead of becoming queen of the Founder’s Ball, she’s exposed as a mean girl and sent to Alaska for the summer to work for her redemption. When she returns to school the next year, her Head Hottie spot has been stolen by her former best friend, and she’s forced to grovel for a place in one of the school’s other cliques. No one accepts her, and Gigi finally understands what kind of cruelty she inflicted on others. Like Mean Girls, this book takes place in a totally heightened high school reality to satirize the intensity of high school cliques.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
When Frankie started high school, she was geeky and awkward and trying to figure out her life at a boarding school with very rigid social strata. After she goes through puberty, she starts to get attention from boys and finds out about an all-male secret society that she’s not allowed to join. Her new boyfriend is a member, and she couldn’t be angrier about the boys and their patronizing behavior. Instead of letting them have all the fun, she takes over the secret society from the outskirts and coordinates the best pranks the school has ever seen.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Wanting to be popular is a pretty common teen experience, but for a girl like Bri, wanting to succeed as a hip-hop artist carries much more weight. She’s not only trying to pursue her art — she knows she has to make it to make enough money to support her family. After she records a song about being attacked by a security guard, Bri goes mega-viral and has to deal with all the competing interpretations of who she is from her new fans and haters. Social media fame is an important way for young rappers to make a name for themselves, but Bri also has to deal with the fallout and find a way to make it mean something for longer than 15 minutes of fame.
Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi
When Pablo, who is an anonymous normal person, meets the pop star Leanna Smart at the bodega where he works, he’s not expecting it to last. Leanna wants to keep this one part of her life to herself, as opposed to the way she’s expected to share everything with the world through her pop career. When it becomes public knowledge anyway, both Leanna and Pablo have to make hard decisions about their futures and what they mean to each other.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston
Is Shara Wheeler the Regina George of her school? She’s far too nice, but her mystique and appeal are just as wide. Shara disappears a month before graduation, right after kissing her arch-rival in academia, Chloe Green. She leaves behind clues, so Chloe begrudgingly goes on a mission to find Shara. She teams up with Shara’s boyfriend, Smith, and Shara’s neighbor, Rory, both of whom she also kissed before disappearing. Like Cady’s obsession with Regina, Chloe’s obsession with Shara is driven by spite and a desire to win. However, there’s more going on with her than meets the eye, and Chloe eventually realizes that Shara isn’t as perfect as she presents herself.
Make Fetch Happen
Two decades on from Mean Girls, its popularity seems to keep growing. The Broadway musical and the movie version of the Broadway musical will extend its legacy and provide even more content to engage with at a sleepover. I can’t count how many times we watched Mean Girls at my sleepovers growing up: it was so easy to put on, dip in and out, and say your favorite lines along with the characters.
I have a ton of affection for Mean Girls and probably will forever. The movie came out at a time when I was going through some bullying at school, and it made me feel so seen to know that everyone had tormentors, and maybe those people could realize the error of their ways.