Mean Girls, A Total Analysis | Total Take

Mean Girls has solidified its place as one of the most iconic teen comedies of all time – but what is it about this movie that makes it so enduring?

This is the Total Take, where we break down the most analyzable films and TV shows of all time through visual storytelling, writing, symbolism, world, and impact.

What is “Analyzable”? When we talk about a story that’s highly analyzable, it’s not just about being “good” or “bad.” It’s about deeper meanings that can yield multiple readings; layers that make the story apply to different contexts; and incredibly memorable themes, imagery, scenes, or performances. They make you think, question, or even argue, perhaps long after the credits rolled.

So here’s our Total Take on Mean Girls!


Our first category is the WRITING: the originality, inventiveness, and insight within the script. What is the piece’s true takeaway?

For the 2004 classic Mean Girls, writer Tina Fey drew from her own high school experiences and the book Queen Bees and Wannabes to create a portrait of high school girlhood that was hilarious but also groundbreaking for how it dramatized the major problem of relational aggression in young girls’ social groups.

The story sheds light on the way that we all can get caught up in trying to be what we think we should be instead of trying to figure out what we actually want out of life – and the way that this problem is often heightened even more during our high school years when we don’t really have any concrete idea of who we are yet and fitting into the “right” group can feel like life or death.

Upon arriving to North Shore High in Evanston, Illinois, after being homeschooled in Africa for years, Cady is presented with numerous options of who she could become in this new environment, and everyone seems so sure that their choice is the right one… except for Cady – should she join the mathletes because it’ll look good on her college applications, the outcasts since she also doesn’t feel like she fits in, the Plastics because they’re pretty and everyone seems enamored with them?

Mean Girls is unique in that it really explores how this dilemma of having to figure out where you fit into the world while also on the journey of figuring out who you even are affects everyone. While we watch how the pressures of conforming rattle Cady, we also witness how they fill Regina with a simmering rage, break Gretchen, and make Janis turn into the thing she hates.

The film makes sure to avoid the pitfall of framing one character as being morally right and the everyone else as villains. No one person is set up as the movie’s true villain, instead Mean Girls correctly goes after the real issue at the root of all of these problems: society’s crushing expectations for girls and women. Mean Girls is important because it gives insight into these issues without looking down on or belittling young women. The film is aware that we all have the capacity to become the ‘mean girl’ when we’re forced to limit and diminish our true selves and don’t have any outlet for the rage that incites.

Of course, it’s successful in making these deeper points due to its entertaining and tight comic script, where nearly every moment is memorable and quotable.

And a key source of the script’s enduring relevance lies in how it perfectly captures and critiques the familiar “tropes” of teen movies – it has lots of fun labeling the classic “crowds” and types like The Mean Girl and The Pretty Airhead, but ultimately, it’s cleverly undermining our common impulse to reduce each other to oversimplified tropes, as it offers depth and sympathy to all its characters.


Now let’s take a look at SYMBOLISM. Does the film have a rich and original system of symbols, and can it work as a parable on multiple layers?

One of the most overt symbols in the film is the use of pink. The color has the obvious connection to femininity, but the film uses it to highlight how the societal constraints of “perfect” femininity actually hurt the Plastics. Pink isn’t a fun choice, it’s mandatory. They wear it to create the vision of a unified front as they work to keep control over the school and everyone in their lives. Often, girls aren’t given the same outlets or the same freedom to openly and honestly deal with their anger and competitive impulses. This leads to them feeling the need to hide their more negative emotions under a guise of niceness. The softness of the pink is similarly used as a shield behind which they can hide their evil, pretending to be sweet and innocent while actually being conniving and, well… mean.

The film’s costumes perfectly capture the style of the early 2000s era, and also subtly hint at the larger issue of the sexualization of teen girls. As Cady becomes more involved with the plastics her clothes get pinker, but also tighter and shorter. We also see how larger cultural influences normalize girls sexualizing themselves in this way – from Regina’s younger sister dancing in front of the TV to the older girls calling each other sluts. And we see that, in the end, once they’ve found their own senses of self, the girls no longer feel this need to buy into this type of societal pressure through their fashion or behavior. (And this doesn’t mean they have to give up looking cute – now they’re just more focused on what looks good to them.

The yellow school bus also has a surprising deeper meaning in the film. Near the beginning of the film, a bus almost hits Cady, and then does hit Regina during the film’s climax, and even jokingly comes back again for the new Plastics at the very end of the film. Cady herself even compares meeting Aaron Samuels to getting hit by a bus. Cady’s near-miss is certainly foreshadowing for Regina’s later accident, but the bus overall represents the death of the self – to be at the top of the social hierarchy, these girls have to give up their true selves. And while Cady narrowly avoids losing herself to enter Girl World, Regina must go through a difficult and lengthy healing process to fix her inner self.

Mean Girls also uses the seasons to symbolize Cady’s growth over the course of the school year. The story begins in Autumn, when everything starts falling apart – Cady, already on rocky ground, realizes that not everyone can be trusted. The cold of Winter follows, as Cady ices out her real personality in favor of becoming a Plastic for real, and starts acting colder to her original friends. Then we have Spring, when the ice finally begins to crack and Cady gets a new beginning as she comes to understand what’s really important. The film ends with Summer, when everyone, including Cady, is bright and warm with the new found confidence in themselves gained through their experiences. This journey through the seasons also helps highlight just how much your life can change in only a year.

The Spring Fling Queen tiara is one of the film’s most obvious symbols – a plastic ornament meant to symbolize rising to the very top of the social hierarchy. It’s something all of the girls in school desire, and something that the plastics – and Regina in particular – want to use as another marker of their superiority. But Cady is the one that has captured everyone’s interest, for better or worse. But when she takes the stage to accept her crown, instead of solidifying her place at the top of the school, she decides to break the tiara into pieces and share it with the others, shattering the symbol of dominance in favor of working towards a more equitable high school society.

As we’ve discussed before, the film’s plot can also be read symbolically to represent how dictatorships and effective cults of personality work in government and other facets of adult society. Regina didn’t become queen bee by accident, it was a very calculated climb to the top – and she works hard to make sure no one is able to usurp her. She legitimizes her rule by making sure everyone is aware that she is the ideal they should be striving for: she’s rich, she’s hot, and she’s dating the cutest guy in school. Her second and third in command help her keep control by doing her dirty work and putting on a kind veneer that makes their rule seem less harsh. When possible competition Cady appears in the cafeteria, Regina immediately moves to neutralize the threat, pulling Cady into her web so that she can more easily control her and make sure she never takes power. We also see how fragile the cult leader’s hold can be if anything falls out of place as Regina is replaced by Cady once she loses her hot bod and hot boyfriend.


The next category we look at is WORLD. How does the film use tone, atmosphere, performances, music, or sound design to build a particular world that’s memorable, evocative, or takes us somewhere that makes us feel something?

The world of Mean Girls is filled with big, unique personalities in which we can see facets of ourselves. The defined cliques of North Shore High feel like a reference to other teen movie worlds we’ve seen before, but with a couple of key differences: First, the movie adds another layer, inspired by Cady’s “wildlife” experiences in Africa, to observe the American teen “Girl world” as if it’s a foreign animal species – and these wild, larger the life moments serve an important purpose of revealing what’s going on underneath the surface in social interactions. Second, the performances elevate this world through extra dimensions of relatability, glamor, and nuance. Lindsay Lohan’s charisma brings audience surrogate Cady to life, and makes her believable both as an awkward fish out of water and the hot head girl in charge. Interestingly, Lohan originally auditioned for the role of Regina because – but the producers, director, and Tina Fey all pushed for her to be Cady instead. Amanda Seyfried also originally auditioned for Regina, but eventually was cast as Karen. But of course, in the end, the role of queen bee Regina ended up going to Rachel McAdams – allegedly Tina Fey thought that McAdam’s kind personality in real life would translate well to Regina’s ‘evil with a smile’ attitude. McAdams being 26 to Lohan’s 18 also made the difference between the two characters feel even more apparent, with Regina feeling so much more self-assured and put together than Cady. McAdams expertly plays the many layers to Regina’s personality, letting us see the sad, angry girl hiding beneath the hard plastic shell of evil. And Lizzy Caplan gives uncool mean girl Janis Ian depth that makes us able to sympathize with her even when her lust for revenge makes her just as mean as Regina.

The film’s soundtrack is a perfect time capsule of the early 2000s, filled with hits like Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch,” The Donna’s cover of “Dancing with Myself,” and “Milkshake” by Kelis. The music is exactly what so many teens were listening to on their iPods during that era, making it feel relatable at the time and nostalgic today.


Our next category is VISUAL STORYTELLING: the cinematography, editing, the form or style. How do the visuals tell, and elevate, the story?

Mean Girls’ cinematography and editing aren’t particularly innovative, but instead were more focused on making the film feel like an authentic teen movie. The colors are bright and fun, and the pace is kept pretty quick so that no one ever has a chance to get bored. The overall style is deliberately kept rather routine, which makes it fit right into the vibe of high school itself. There are a few moments of 2000s flare, like whizzing around the cafeteria and the split screens during phone calls, that add pops of visual energy throughout the film. We also get send-ups of long-time movie staples like the ‘slo-mo hot girl walk’, which here ends with Cady falling head first into a garbage can, a clue that her life as a Plastic isn’t going to be quite as bright and shiny as she might have thought. The film’s form and style take cues from earlier iconic teen movies like Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Can’t Hardly Wait – creating a heightened and occasionally over-the-top but still relatable version of the high school experience.


And our final category to discuss is IMPACT. Has the piece sparked debate, thought, and conversation – and has its influence managed to stand the test of time?

In the nearly two decades since its release, Mean Girls has become a cultural icon, people continue to quote it and use it for memes all these years later. But it’s had such staying power because the story and humor still hold up – even as times have changed, The film’s central lesson that you shouldn’t have to give up any important part of yourself to be accepted by the world is something that continues to resonate with people of all ages. The movie became such an important cultural touchstone because it examined the hardships of high school without looking down on teen girls – it treats them as the complex, difficult, amazing people they are. Mean Girls reminds us that, at the end of the day, we’d all be better off if, instead of trying to tear each other down, we focused on working together to smash the parts of society that want to hold us all back.