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Mean Girls - Janis and the Unpopular Mean Girl

Regina George and the Plastics weren’t the only Mean Girls in the movie. What about Janis? Is she a rebel working tirelessly to overthrow an oppressive dictator… or a vengeful, secret dictator herself? In this video, we take a look at how Janis embodies the Unpopular Mean Girl archetype and the kind of high school experience that made her this way.

TRANSCRIPT

Janis Ian — high school rebel, working tirelessly to overthrow an oppressive dictator… or secret tyrant hellbent on personal vengeance? Mean Girls’ resident social outcast may hate Regina George with a fiery passion, but she’s actually more like her nemesis than any other character in the film. She shares the Queen Bee’s gift for identifying a person’s most vulnerable spots and knowing exactly how to attack them. She’s driven by anger and the desire to make someone else suffer to make up for her own secret pain.

Interviewer: “In retrospect, do you think she was maybe a little bit of a mean girl?”

Lizzy Caplan: “Yeah! Of course she was — way craftier than the other mean girls. She was like a mean girl with uh, spy plans.”

Janis is the embodiment of the unpopular mean girl, who disproves the assumption that you have to be cool to be cruel. Her story also contradicts the unhealthy myth that being low on the high school totem pole is inherently good for your character. Janis is deeply scarred by being long mistreated by her peers, which has given her detrimental habits and issues she’ll have to overcome. Here’s our Take on Janis Ian’s Uncool Meal Girl and how easy it is to perpetuate meanness and social oppression, even when you think you’re the good guy.

The Rebel Who Upholds the System

When Janis outlines her plot to take down Regina, she sets herself up as the revolutionary to Regina’s autocrat. But the young women’s former closeness suggests they have compatible personalities. And when we look at the evidence, these supposed opposites are mirrors of each other. Both are fueled by a deep, ever-present rage. Moreover, they share a talent for psychological warfare. No sooner has Janis met Cady than she tricks this clueless new girl into skipping class. She makes it clear that being friends with her means doing things on her terms. And it doesn’t take long for Janis to start manipulating Cady into doing her bidding by infiltrating the Plastics.

Janis: “I just think that it would be, like, a fun little experiment if you were to hang out with them and then tell us everything that they say.”

And when Cady has doubts, Janis forces her to continue this sinister mission. Thus it’s Janis, not Regina, who’s truly responsible for corrupting Cady and turning her into a mean girl.

Cady: “You know what, you’re the one who made me like this so you could use me for your 8th-grade revenge.”

As much as Janis claims she’s out to tear down the system, she ends up just creating another Plastic to replace the old Queen, propping up this toxic hierarchy. So while Janis presents as an alternative, her value system clearly isn’t.

Janis: “Here. This map is gonna be your guide to North Shore. Now, where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial.”

Janis continues the meanness at Northshore High, and in the end, gets social capital as a reward for her victory. Meanwhile, it’s the less angry visionaries — Cady and Ms. Norbury — who actually make positive structural changes to the social scene.

If we look closer, Janis’ character arc is a tale as old as time: a rebel who sets out to crush the system ultimately is revealed to be a part of it or ends up ushering in a new order that’s fundamentally the same or worse than the original status quo. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pig character Napoleon (who represents Joseph Stalin) starts out leading his fellow animals in rebellion, but he’s morally bankrupt, and eventually, all his rhetoric of animal “equality” is revealed to be just a pretense for the pigs to become the new rulers of the farm.

On Game of Thrones, dragon queen Daenerys vowed to end the destructive power system— that’s made her and others suffer but she can’t overcome her rage and desire for personal vengeance and winds up just another tyrannical autocrat who has to be destroyed herself. We can find countless examples of this cycle in history and even our world today — like Nobel Peace Prize winner and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was hailed as a human rights icon before falling from grace when her leadership didn’t halt human rights abuses in the country.

Ultimately, Janis’ story reminds us how easy it is to fall back on self-serving ideas and justify your behavior when you get a taste of power. In part, Janis is vulnerable to these temptations because she’s not very honest with herself. She frames her mission against Regina purely as a noble quest to stop evil — leaving out her personal, emotional reasons for wanting to hurt her enemy.

The way she resists even talking about her past with the Queen Bee suggests she’s engaging in denial and emotional repression. More generally, Janis’ self-image stops her from fully recognizing the meanness in herself — and we see this practice of self-delusion get passed on to Cady. After Cady’s Plastic fame and status start affecting her personality for the worse, she continues to assume she’s on the right side, simply because she started out that way.

Cady: “I know it may look like I’d become a bitch, but that’s only because I was acting like a bitch.”

When it comes down to it, the real difference between Janis and Regina is that one is in power, and the other isn’t. But this simple distinction has shaped their personalities in significant ways. Regina has cultivated a Barbie-like glamour and physique because embodying her culture’s beauty standards is a key part of maintaining her regime. Janis rejects those ultra-feminine ideals. Interestingly, though, the script implies this wasn’t simply due to her individual style and tastes. The childhood rumor Regina started about Janis being a lesbian (which is why the friends fell out) wasn’t actually true. And we don’t get the sense Regina based this assumption on anything apart from Janis caring about their friendship. Yet after Regina marked her as “different” in this way, young Janis adopted a strikingly different look.

Regina: “And then she dropped out of school because no one would talk to her. When she came back in the fall for high school, all of her hair was cut off and she was totally weird.”

So Janis’ self-consciously alternative look may not even be true to who she really is. To an extent, it’s another way Janis is still upholding Regina’s insidious value system — because defining herself as the anti-Regina makes her own sense of identity dependent on her oppressor.

Significantly, it’s after Janis hears Regina reigniting this falsehood that she decides to finally get even by publicly outing her sabotage — proving that her true motivation isn’t noble justice, but individual revenge.

The Scars of Unpopularity

Part of what makes Janis more sinister than Regina in some ways is that because she’s suffered so much, she’s out for blood. She’s willing to play dirty — not only meddling with Regina’s intimate relationships but also ruthlessly exploiting her body image issues.

To this day, a narrative endures that being alienated or misunderstood in high school builds character. Countless teen stories reassure viewers that — if you’re not cool in school — that simply means you’ll go on to great things post-graduation, while the popular kids have already peaked.

Mitch: “Freaks never peak in high school. They never grow up to sell real estate… Drink heavily on the weekends and beat their kids.” — Dawson’s Creek S5 E4

But automatically elevating a less popular protagonist over the mean girl feels like an attempt to impose a moral argument, when in real life, your high school popularity or lack thereof doesn’t predict your success or personal virtue. As Ellen Willis put it in her essay “Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen,” “High school permanently damaged my self-esteem. I learned what it meant to be impotent; what it meant to be invisible. None of this improved my character spurred my ambition, or gave me a deeper understanding of life.” Ultimately, being socially burned or excluded in your formative years can do permanent harm. Psychology and neuroscience professor Mitch Prinstein explains, “When you experience unpopularity, your body responds in one of the most dramatic ways possible: The brain registers that social slight as pain.” This in turn can produce inflammation which may contribute to health problems like depression. So our culture’s often flippant dismissal of the lasting consequences of unpopularity does a disservice to teens like Janis who are deeply stung by exclusion and could be working through these issues for a long time.

Still, once you do make peace with that pain, there can be a powerful silver lining to being rejected from the mainstream with all its rigid and oppressive social norms. The art freaks of the school certainly seem to be having a lot more fun than the rule-plagued plastics. Until Regina discovers sports in the end, she’s deeply frustrated because she has no real outlets or serious interests in her life. But not being popular gives Janis more freedom to explore her artistic talent, and experiment with expressing her individuality. She gets to be friends with people she actually likes, rather than followers she feels are necessary to maintain popularity, over time, giving up on fitting into the popular crowd (whatever age you are) is an opportunity for liberation. Janis’ story sheds light on a lesson that’s gained traction in our culture in recent years: it’s laughably simplistic — and false — to assume all geeks are good guys and cool kids are villains.

Manny: “You guys are bullies!”

Luke: “They can’t be bullies, they’re nerds.”

Abraham: “Don’t pigeonhole us. We can be both!” — Modern Family S3 E8

Unpopular Ted in Sixteen Candles is a toxic abuser who jumps at the chance to take advantage of a popular girl when she’s blacked out. And geeky Robert Daly in the Black Mirror episode U.S.S. Callister may have been unfairly sidelined by his coworkers, but he punches back ten times harder by sadistically torturing digital copies of them.

Mean Girls writer Tina Fey has said that she was a mean girl in high school, a topic she also explored on 30 Rock. Cady’s eureka moment about the moral of her experience —

“Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier.”

— applies to Janis too. She eventually makes personal progress by choosing forgiveness over more obsessive retribution. We also see that the superficial honor of getting a piece of the spring fling crown actually seems to matter to her. This reveals that no matter how much she defines herself in opposition to the mainstream, what Janis wants deep down is something we all crave: acceptance. This feeling of togetherness with your peers, and happiness with yourself, is the antidote to meanness everywhere.