Mean Girls: Regina George - The Psychology of a Dictator
Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is turning 15! Did you know Regina George (Rachel McAdams) actually tells us a lot about how dictatorships work? Watch our take and find out more about this iconic character and her North Shore High “regime.”
Janis: “Evil takes a human form in Regina George.”
Mean Girls icon Regina George is the undisputed ruler of North Shore High. The Queen of the Plastics has all the trappings of a monarch—her name Regina is Latin for Queen, and she wears the Spring Fling Crown. But in fact the tyrant Regina is not a Queen by rights. As her arch-nemesis Janis Ian tells us when we’re first introduced to her:
“Regina George is an evil dictator.”
If we break down Regina’s techniques of controlling her fellow students, we get insight into the anatomy of a dictator—she’s power-hungry, manipulative, glamorous, angry, and totally compelling. And, in fact, it makes sense that Mean Girls chooses to offer up this portrait of a despot in a high school setting. After all, for most of us, adolescent social scenarios are defined by terror and tyranny.
So if we look closer at Mean Girls on the 15 year anniversary of Tina Fey’s iconic comedy, we can discover a fascinating analysis of how dictatorships rule, why people help them maintain their power, and how we can overthrow the Reginas in our lives, in high school and beyond.
Dictatorships thrive on the cult of the leader. And when Cady Heron enters junior year at North Shore High, Regina George is a near-mythical figure in the school. Right after we first see her, from afar, we hear from different members of the student body spouting the many rumors that make up the larger-than-life legend of Regina. In addition to being hated and feared, she is revered, loved and admired. So she encapsulates the complex combination of feelings a dictator inspires in her subjects. When she’s hit by the bus, we’re told:
Cady: “It was proof that the more people are scared of you, the more flowers you get.”
Regina isn’t a goddess, though—her myth, and her rule, are entirely calculated. And we start to see the strings when Janis, a political dissident who was once in favor but has been oppressed by the current regime, decides to stage a campaign of nonviolent civil resistance. Janis gives us a logical dissection of this ruler’s key resources:
Janis: “Her high status man candy, technically good physique and ignorant band of loyal followers.”
In fact, academics Johannes Gerschewski and Wolfgang Merkel also frame dictatorships as resting on three key pillars, which are legitimacy, co-optation (or co-option) and repression. If any one of these is compromised, the regime becomes unstable and theoretically can be overthrown. So let’s look closer at how each of these three pillars operates in Regina’s reign of terror.
Since a dictator does not inherit power through a monarchy or existing laws, after taking control they need to establish the legitimacy of their rule. Regina’s “legitimacy” is accomplished through the first two items on Janis’ list: her “man candy” Aaron Samuels, and her “hot body.”
The ideal partner is an extension of the dictator’s carefully curated cult of personality. Dictators regularly choose attractive, outwardly gentle consorts to soften their public image and appeal to the masses. As a handsome, well-liked, athletic senior guy, Aaron Samuels functions like a badge of validity—if this perfect guy chooses her, that reinforces that she is the most perfect girl in the school. Regina doesn’t actually appear to be in love with Aaron Samuels. Privately, she’s more attracted Shane Oman. But Regina has evidently decided that Shane is a less ideal public partner to support her regime, so she makes a cold tactical choice to perform romance with Aaron while keeping her authentic whims private.
Regina’s “technically good physique” is also part of her legitimacy. It’s an accepted rule in this culture that the leader must be conventionally attractive. As she puts it:
Regina: “The Spring Fling Queen is always pretty.”
One of the first things that strikes Cady about Regina is her glamour. The student body finds Regina’s physical perfection aspirational. The other girls want to be her. In many authoritarian regimes, the appealing nature of the life of the dictator is part of what helps to keep them in power. And the way Regina’s leadership exploits glamour and good looks might remind us of the all-too-comfortable relationship that the media sometimes has with beautiful, photogenic leaders, and by extension, their oppressive regimes. Because she’s so successful at asserting legitimacy as a ruler, like many dictators Regina enjoys formal and ritualistic displays of affection by her public. She’s the uncontested winner of popular votes. And she creates continuity through traditions that her populace privately doesn’t really “like” but still feels obligated to exuberantly cheer.
The second pillar, co-option, is the act of dampening potential opposition by inviting prospective challengers to join forces with the dictatorship. And this is exactly what Regina does with Cady.
On first viewing we might wonder why Regina befriends Cady, but look at the context of this first meeting. Regina notices Cady being hit on by Jason, Gretchen Wiener’s crush whose lack of loyalty repeatedly embarasses Regina’s number two, and by extension Regina herself. Regina makes the snap judgement that Cady’s good looks and interesting backstory are a threat. So she subsumes this new girl into the Plastics to negate that threat and keep her under close control.
By absorbing potential opponents into the fabric of their state, dictators get insight into their preferences and weaknesses. So for example, when Regina finds out that Cady is interested in her ex boyfriend, Aaron, she realizes that this potential coupling, with Cady’s looks and Aaron’s cultural cachet, could usurp her spotlight. So she acts quickly to protect her cult of personality and stop this symbol of her legitimacy from being stolen.
Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith, too, are part of the Plastics because of co-option. Karen is another pretty face who could be a problem if not brought into the fold. Regina even says herself:
Regina: “The crazy thing is it should be Karen but everyone forgets about her because she’s such a slut.”
Since the Spring Fling Queen is expected to be pretty, Karen has a more legitimate claim to the crown, due to being even prettier than Regina. Meanwhile, Gretchen is a rich heiress. This reflects how dictators often give the wealthy prestigious positions to bring gravitas and resources to their regime, while minimizing any danger of competition.
The magic of co-option is that people feel invested in the despotic state the more they participate in it. So Regina even makes the regular citizens complicit in her rule by drawing on her immense charisma and ability to make people like her. The recipients feel special to be singled out by these brief moments of attention from the Great Leader. Even if people don’t like her, they still want to be involved with her as the only thing worse than being in the Burn Book is not being in the Burn Book.
Co-option has its risks, however. Once welcomed into the hierarchy of rulership, new members might use that status to overthrow the dictator.
And the third pillar is repression, the part we all remember about dictators. The despot keeps her subjects in line through means of fear, violence and punishment.
Regina tasks her enforcers with doing her dirty work, like digging for information and resolving conflicts. Regina’s #2 Gretchen knows everything about everyone in their society and this might make us think of a dictator’s secret police. The myth of Regina as “above it all” captures that idea that the popular kids in school don’t even know the names of the little people. But far from being royally removed from her subjects, the dictator Regina has a file on each of them. Regina is watching, all the time, assessing every movement amongst the ranks. And when a civilian acts out, her punishment is swift.
Regina’s rules are petty, and dramatically restrictive, passed down to others generally not directly, but by her underlings:
Karen: “On Wednesdays we wear pink.”
These rules are respected and recognised by everyone, even those far down the social ladder.
Refusing to bend rules is a vital part of Regina’s strict regime, but also her downfall—as Regina herself is the only one who remembers that these rules are artificial. And her rules are ultimately used against her.
Janis’ plan destabilizes Regina’s rule, but it doesn’t finish her off. We witness a violent power grab as Cady, however unconsciously, makes a play for Regina’s place. This challenge leads to a crisis of leadership. When Regina sees Cady coming for her spot and discovers Cady’s sabotage, she resorts to repression to punish the would-be usurper, framing Cady, Gretchen, and Karen as the sole authors of the Burn Book. She then starts a riot to punish her challenger.
But the chaos brings the people together, and Regina’s repressive practices are brought out into the light. Even more damaging is Janis’ public reveal of the plot against Regina. As Janis is carried on the shoulders of her contemporaries like a revolutionary hero, this truth bomb has punctured Regina’s leader-myth. Up to this point Regina has been a distant enigma; but when the girls hear proof that she’s a fallible human being like them, they no longer idolize her as an untouchable god-slash-monster.
The movie compares Regina to Caesar:
Gretchen: “Why should Caesar just get to stomp around like a giant while the rest of us try not to get smushed under his big feet?”
Just like Caesar, Regina ends up being the last dictator before a new form of leadership will emerge. And also like Caesar, she is so powerful she needs to finally be taken down by brute force. Regina isn’t actually killed, but the moment is symbolic. It represents that, while Regina the person survives, Regina the dictator’s rule is over.
Notably, a school bus also almost hits Cady on her first day, but Cady, careful and nervous, jumps back. Here Regina is so sure of her strength and power that she doesn’t even bother looking before crossing the road. The movie ends with the junior Plastics, new freshmen wannabe-Reginas, almost getting hit by a bus, too. So this ending foreshadows that one day, when they get so big-headed they stop being careful, their regime will meet the same fate as Regina’s finally did.
The student votes Cady in as Spring Fling Queen, signaling that she is now perceived as the most fearsome figure in the class. But Cady rejects this opening to replace Regina. Upon winning, she hands out pieces of the crown to her classmates. This symbolic gesture redistributes power among the people. As Regina takes a small piece for herself, she is reintegrated into the student body. Her meek “thank you” and regal wave signify that she accepts her diminished role as a figurehead, more or less just another student.
So what this elaborate tale of a dictatorship have to do with “Girl World” and the culture of American high school?
Sarah Davies writes that Stalin himself believed in the idea that, “Great individuals are only important to the extent that they reflect wider social forces.” And the unattainably beautiful, wealthy, coquettishly feminine Regina reflects the social ideals teenage girls in her culture are expected to live up to.
The name of Regina’s group, the “Plastics,” neatly encompasses the world of lavish consumerism these girls live in. These teenagers’ ‘mating rituals’ take place at the mall, where they pay on plastic; their Jingle Bell Rock outfits are slick and shiny, like plastic; Regina is lauded because:
Student: “She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.”
She is the epitome of conspicuous consumption; and both she and her mother have had plastic surgery. Once Cady fully becomes part of this world, Janis tells her:
“You’re not pretending anymore. You’re plastic. Cold, shiny, hard plastic.”
So to be revered as an elite in this culture, you must disdain the natural, the organic, the real, and be cold, shiny and hard.
But though she seems to have everything, it’s striking that Regina George is full of anger. Cady cracks Gretchen by making her think Regina is mad at her, which works because Regina just always seems to be mad. When she was preparing for the role, Rachel McAdams built the palpable anger of Regina George by listening to Courtney Love’s music and watching Alec Baldwin’s famous speech from Glengarry, Glen Ross.
Blake: “[BLEEP] YOU! That’s my name! You know why, mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name!”
So what exactly is Regina so furious about? For one thing, her plastic life doesn’t actually seem very fun. She feels she has to constantly be on a diet to maintain her physique. She doesn’t have any equals who can be honest with her. And this sharply intelligent, strong person doesn’t have much to do besides shop, work on her appearance, and manipulate people. So, essentially, she’s bored.
As we enter this teen “Girl World” through the naive eyes of the outsider Cady, we get a sense of all the things that might be confusing and frustrating for American teens, like antagonistic behavior from adults, parents who don’t know how to impose healthy boundaries, problems at home, and mixed messages about sexuality (which is a prized aspect of popularity), but also a source of shame and a feature of their lives from a shockingly young age.
Most saliently, Cady observes that in Girl World you’re not allowed to express conflict. So this culture of elaborate oppression is really caused by these young women’s frustration at not knowing how to let out their anger. Ms. Norbury identifies this problem when she tries to teach the girls:
Ms. Norbury: “... to express your anger in a healthy way.”
In the end, Regina learns to harness her anger into athletics. So the lesson isn’t that teenage girls shouldn’t feel angry. It’s that anger can be redirected powerfully, and for good, if we learn how to find appropriate outlets for our feelings.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” In other words, we don’t have to accept being underlings. We the people put rulers in power, and we can take that power away—whether that applies to real political regimes, or the mean girls who are making us feel like we’re not good enough.
All the same when we think of Mean Girls, it’s not subdued, final-scene Regina we remember—but Mean Regina who exists as a cult icon, celebrated by popstars, presidents, and everyone in between. There’s still something deeply compelling about Regina’s power, her mystery, her manipulation, her rage. She reminds us that autocrats can look a lot more seductive and charismatic than we might think and so, like a true dictator, her legacy lives on.