Hello, internets! Been a while, hasn’t it?
The truth is that keeping up with these is taking more time than I thought from paying work, so I think it’s going to have to backburner these essays for a while, unless I can come up with some way to make them paying work. Tipjar? E-book with bonus material and some book-only essays, maybe? I’ll have a think. Any suggestions welcome.
Today’s teen movie is a recent classic, and possibly the most quoted movie in the circles in which I move, ie, on tumblr.
Yes, that’s right, it’s four for you, Glen Coco, with:
Cady Heron, the only child of two research zoologists, has spent most of her life in “Africa*” being homeschooled. Her first day of American high school is thus as a junior, where she is adopted first by art freaks Janis and Damien and then by the terrifying Queen Bee leader of the Mean Girl clique, the Plastics. Cady is convinced by Janis to observe and report on the antics of Regina George, but finds herself seduced by Regina’s charm and charisma, until Regina decides to reclaim her ex-boyfriend Aaron – who is also Cady’s new crush.
Furious, Cady vows revenge, and Damien and Janis assist as she begins her campaign. But Girl World is a treacherous place, and Cady’s shift from observer to participant has major consequences. As she deprives Regina of her “Hot Body”, “Army of Skanks”, and Aaron, Cady herself becomes a Plastic Mean Girl, losing Janis and Damien – and her sense of self – in the process.
When Regina discovers the extent of Cady’s machinations, she gets her own revenge. Blaming Cady and her two former allies for the creation of the horrific “Burn Book”, Regina spreads copies of the book’s vicious slurs and lies everywhere – and the school’s girls go wild, physically attacking each other. Cady’s feminist maths teacher Ms Norbury manages to give the girls some perspective, but one of the lies in the book is that Ms Norbury was a drug pusher – and that lie was Cady’s own.
To save Ms Norbury from the consequences of Cady’s lie, Cady finally confesses to writing the book, and takes all the heat. She regains a sense of priorities, and after winning the championship for the Mathletes attends the Spring Fling, where she gains back her friends, her self-respect and the boy. And as they become seniors, Girl World is at peace; the cliques have settled down and moved around and Cady has gained wisdom through painful experience.
“Objective” observational ethnography is a crock.
Cady’s first mistake isn’t throwing the party at her place. It isn’t faking being maths stupid instead of the brilliant mathematician she actually is. It isn’t wearing pink on Wednesdays. Cady’s first mistake is believing Janis when Janis says that all she has to do is observe Regina and report back – as if it’s possible to be an objective reporter of a human cultural group once you’ve embedded yourself in it.
At first Cady manages to keep some form of objectivity, both externally and internally. She recounts the words and actions of the Plastics to Janis and Damien (without more than a momentary hesitation over whether this is an ethical thing to do) and tells the audience, via voiceover, the rules of Girl World that she is discerning â€“ both the spoken rules, like only being able to wear your hair in a ponytail once a week, and the unspoken ones, like that Halloween is the one time girls can dress as sexy as they like without being other girls calling them a slut.
In Cady’s quest to destroy Regina, however, she abandons self-assessment and becomes more involved with the group she was originally observing. Despite having herself been hurt by their tactics, Cady uncritically adopts Plastic customs: a genuine interest in being Spring Fling Queen, the three-way emotional sabotage call, manipulating her parents, lying to her friends, and endless word vomit about Regina George. She also adopts their vocabulary; initially with her outraged “SLUT!!!” at Regina kissing Aaron, which also echoes Janis’s assessment. Later she goes uncompromisingly Plastic with “beyotch”, “shut up”, and Regina’s own catchphrase, “I know, right?”.
In abandoning her own subjectivity, Cady loses control of her external and internal situation (most significantly when her “get together” becomes a massive party and word vomit becomes actual vomit – all over her crush) and her self-respect. When Ms Norbury encourages the girls to assess their own “girl-on-girl crime”, Cady regains some of her critical thinking abilities. Though it means losing her fame (and, she believes, her crush) she is eventually able to own her actions and make amends.
The movie does a great job in demonstrating how objective ethnography isn’t, and sideways demonstrates that critical self-ethnography is an essential part of ethical research. But I think there’s some problematic stuff in the way we see this played in the movie.
Cady’s couched as being “from Africa”, which 1) way to be specific there and, 2) way to class Africa as being as far away from sophisticated, “civilised”, socially complex America as possible (“She’s like a Martian!”), and 3) is I think trying to play with the gross thing where usually white researchers go to usually not white pure unspoiled native cultures and record all their pure unspoiled native ways of being mystically in touch with nature or their proud noble savagery or their hilarious quaint ethnic customs ugh ugh ew.
So instead of someone from the USA going to an African culture and trying to observe the customs as an “objective” outside ethnographer, Cady is placed as coming “from Africa” to be an objective “outside” ethnographer (or really, because of her parents’ occupations, a “research zoologist”, but that gets gross in a whole other way I don’t want to go into) of Girl World. But she’s still a white American girl with a mid-western “neutral” American accent, and she’s still a “regulation hottie”.
“Foreign” researchers can’t ever entirely fit in; unless they’re passing, they’re always situated as Outsiders to the culture, as Cady Heron would be if she were a Namibian girl trying to understand the rules of American Girl World. But the actual Cady does fit in, almost instantly – she’s befriended by both the art freaks and the Plastics, and quickly starts reaping the benefits of Plasticdom, including increased social cachet and notoriety. Cady is able to be a participant researcher in a way that neither a white American observer of an “African” culture nor the reversal of that with a real African immigrant observing Girl World can adopt. And, not incidentally, a black Namibian girl researcher in the USA would be much lower down her environment’s hierarchy of power than a white American researcher in Africa observing cultures there would be.
It’s hard to make fun of gross foreign observer bullshit when your protagonist is both not actually foreign and ultimately sympathetic. I think having this participant researcher subject makes the movie super interesting (obviously), but I don’t think the movie gets to play it both ways, and it tries.
But what the movie does do very well is demonstrate the complexities of teen relationships. Regina’s fascination is not just her social power – it’s also her not inconsiderable charisma. Cady hates Regina, but can’t stop wanting Regina to like her. Gretchen tries to get closer to Regina even as she’s pushed away. Karen will talk about how Gretchen is “so annoying”, but she’s still the only one who will stand there, smiling, to catch Gretchen as she falls backwards. And all of these relationships can be resolved happily – not without conflict, but the movie’s ending points to these girls all finding something that works for them.
And then there’s the complex Janis+Damien/Cady relationship. Cady is, of course, entirely responsible for her own actions. But Janis, despite liking Cady, is not a particularly good friend to her at the beginning of their relationship. Instead, she treats Cady as a tool she can manipulate for her own amusement with little thought to the consequences for Cady herself, whether it be blowing off class so Janis can get to know the new girl better or joining the Plastics so that Cady can entertain her with “all the dumb stuff Regina said”. And Damien, though he doesn’t instigate any of these activities, actively abets them, by confirming that Health is taking place in “the back building” and lending Cady his pink shirt.
Janis justifies her actions by claiming that, unlike Cady, at least she’s upfront about being a mean girl, but she’s really not in the right here, and Cady is right to call her on it – although immediately destroys her case by claiming it’s because Janis is “in love with [her]”.
So all is not black and white in Girl World. The Mean Girls aren’t entirely Mean, and the friendly people aren’t entirely on your side. You can’t just be an observer, and it’s not wise to be an uncritical participant. What’s needed in Girl World (and every world) is critical thinking about what you want, and why, and how you can ethically get it.
– The book the movie is based on is called Queen Bees and Wannabes. I’ve read it, and I think it comes across as really good ethnography wrapped in a self-help package: Rosalind Wiseman, despite not being a teen girl herself any more, approaches the subject with compassion and empathy. She foregrounds the book with auto-ethnography (which I think is the first step of a decent ethnographer) recounting her own teenage experiences as a member of a popular clique, an experience that trained her for her first longterm – and abusive – romantic relationship. She doesn’t shy away from admitting she doesn’t have all the answers for every situation, and she treats her subjects (teen girls) with respect and understanding, including a number of statements in their own words.
Wiseman also pays attention to the way class, race, and sexuality intersect with impossible beauty standards and social power among teenage girls (not so much as regards how they intersect with levels of ability, which is a shame). She wants girls to grow up as critical thinkers, making smart choices based upon an understanding of their desires, interests, and options. And she encourages parents to engage in auto-ethnography and “check their baggage”; to consider how their own teen experiences might be impacting their parenting. So, you know, I love her and I want to marry her, but failing that I am cool with buying all her books and heroically stealing character points from them for my work.
– Can I get a shoutout for Kevin Gnapoor? He knows exactly who he is and what he wants, and is consequently the most secure person in the entire movie – and the one who is calmest about his position as a sexual being (Damien being a close second – he’s fine being queer, and only reacts angrily to other people being assholes about it). Despite Ms Norbury claiming that she wants Cady to join Mathletes so that they can “meet a girl”, Kevin is not only secure enough in himself to turn down one of the most popular and prettiest girls in the school, he has firm ideas about what he wants, which he has articulated to himself and others – including a personal policy to only date women of colour. Also he is a badass MC.
What have I missed, Internets? What have I got wrong? Let’s talk teen movies!
* You know, that really big country with the tigers.
**I found what looks an awful lot to me like the original script online, which isn’t nearly so problematic in this “Africa is a country” respect. There it says that Cady had actually spent the last four years in “a hut in Namibia”***, and also reveals that Cady had “lived in nine countries on three continents”.
*** The hut part, kind of problematic. Real estate listings in Namibia, y’all.