Because time is a human construct, it is now the year 2024 and the highest-grossing film at the box office is Mean Girls. This is the latest adaptation of the hit Broadway musical based on the beloved 2004 movie, which seems to be a prime example of the never-ending cycle of repurposing established intellectual property. (Similar to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but with even more financial success.) Despite receiving mixed reviews and multiple trailers that purposely avoided showcasing any musical numbers, the new Mean Girls movie dominated the MLK holiday weekend box office with a $33 million gross, surpassing the original film in terms of sheer profit (adjusted for inflation, the first Mean Girls would have earned around $40 million on its opening weekend). And in keeping with the essence of the original, the Mean Girls musical movie has spawned its own slew of memes – such as not realizing it was a musical or actress Reneé Rapp channeling her character Regina George to confront a tour bus company owner during a press event.
For those who doubt its appeal, the new Mean Girls ride must offer something different from the well-loved classic. During a conversation after a pilates class, one woman shared, “It’s not just a copy of the original. There are new songs and jokes.” This is partially true – the original writer, Tina Fey (also known as Ms. Norbury), has made updates to the script to reflect modern times, including references to slut-shaming and TikTok. Costume designer Tom Broecker stirred some controversy by drawing inspiration not only from the iconic “on Wednesdays, we wear pink” line, but also from the eclectic fashion of the teens in Euphoria. The musical numbers were composed by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics). Despite these efforts, the new version fails to prove its worth, often feeling like a polished but rehearsed imitation of an incomparable original.
The success and existence of the new Mean Girls show that the love for the original film remains strong, enough to make any variation of the concept enjoyable. Despite being released two decades ago and containing dated references, Mean Girls still holds a solid place in popular culture. The interest in the new movie only proves a point made by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in her book, So Fetch: The Making of Mean Girls (And Why We’re Still So Obsessed With It) – that arguably, no movie from the 2000s has had as much impact on pop culture as Mean Girls. Even after 20 years and countless references to iconic lines like “you can’t sit with us,” we can’t seem to move on from Mean Girls.
The movie has remained relevant because it is relatable. The complex rules and customs of the Plastics – the group consisting of Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams/Reneé Rapp), Gretchen Wieners (played by Lacey Chabert/Bebe Wood), and Karen Shetty (played by Amanda Seyfried/Avantika Vandanapu) – have always been exaggerated, and the ways in which cliques operate have drastically changed. However, the idea of a perplexing maze of highly specific social dynamics – one that would confuse even a theoretical alien to the world of teenage girls like Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan/Angourie Rice) – still exists. According to Armstrong, “Bullying and power dynamics within social groups have not decreased, and may have even become more pronounced due to factors such as social media and societal polarization.” He added, “We can all relate to this in some way, regardless of our age or gender identity.”
The film’s highly quotable nature has contributed to its enduring popularity. Many iconic Mean Girls lines have permeated pop culture, appearing in memes, gifs, and TikToks. These include phrases like “it’s October 3rd,” “there’s a 30% chance that it’s already raining,” and “get in loser, we’re going shopping.” If you were in any school setting, a girls’ locker room, or a mall between 2004 and 2014, you likely heard these lines. The title itself has become synonymous with a particular type of behavior that remains relevant in the current obsession with girlhood in the 2020s. According to Armstrong, this behavior is widely understood and referenced in various contexts, from teenage girls to boardrooms, reality shows, and even national politics.
The popularity of Mean Girls was greatly influenced by its timing, as it was released during the rise of social media platforms like MySpace and Facebook. This allowed the film to leave a lasting impression on millennials, who were just beginning to engage in online posting and content creation. Mean Girls was seen as a crucial part of the emergence of Web 2.0, with its easily shareable content and relatable themes making it a prime source for memes. The movie also tapped into the tabloid culture of the early 2000s through the fame of its lead actress, Lindsay Lohan. Lohan’s rise to stardom with Mean Girls and subsequent fall from grace made her a target for paparazzi and a cautionary tale in the era’s unforgiving and often mean-spirited blogosphere. In many ways, she represented the “mean girls” of the internet at that time.
None of this necessarily translates to the current digital landscape, which is heavily focused on video content and targeted towards generation Z and generation Alpha. The oldest individuals in these generations are currently in their first year of high school, which is quite terrifying. The new film attempts to cater to this media-savvy audience through the use of front-facing cameras, a nod to TikTok, and a plot point that becomes viral Instagram content, much to the ridicule of a group of high school students from North Shore. However, Armstrong’s research for her book reveals that even younger audiences, specifically those in middle school and high school, still connect with the original Mean Girls film. Even if they haven’t watched it, the iconic quotes continue to live on through memes and TikTok. The Y2K fashion featured in the film is currently on-trend, and the pre-cellphone era of high school life is seen as nostalgically chic.
According to Armstrong, predicting the longevity of pop culture items is difficult, but after 20 years, Mean Girls has proven to have timeless and universal themes. It is likely that the movie will continue to be viewed as a classic coming-of-age film, similar to works by John Hughes, Clueless, and Rebel Without a Cause. However, this may not be the case for the new movie musical. Armstrong acknowledges the existence of a new version, but speculates that audiences will always prefer the original.