The 21st century is a period characterized by a fast moving environment that is influenced to a large extent by the mainstream media. The teenage population in particular seems to have evolved to become a little bit more complex when compared to the times of our parents and grandparents. Movies have been instrumental in highlighting this transformation through their portrayal of human social behavior in different contexts.
Mean Girls is a perfect example of one such movie that follows closely the life and hustles of present day high school students. According to Orr (2014), even though its storyline is entirely fiction, Mean Girls is a cult classic that the audience and especially the younger generation a somewhat false but tempting look into what high school is all about. Its memorable quotes and amusing characters depict a number of interesting social psychological concepts with the three main ones being prejudice, discrimination and conformity.
Mean Girls is a 2004 American teen comedy film written by Tina Fey and directed by Mark Waters. The plot of the film centers around the story of a young girl called Cady Heron as she struggles to embrace and fit into the American school system. All through her life Cady had never stepped in a school environment as she had taken all her studies at home (home schooling). Her parents had opted for this option during the twelve years they had spent in Africa on a research trip. In the beginning of the film, the family returns home in Evanston, Illinois and Cady is introduced to the school system for the first time after joining North Shore High (Priya, 2013). It is totally a new experience for and as expected, she requires a lot of time to learn the high school life and try to fit in. It is a transformation that she seems to like going by the amount of happiness she had joining the school.
North Shore High is a typical high school just like any other teenage school in the US. Being new to the facility, Cady tries to make friends and in the process gets introduced into many different social groups (Orr, 2014). Students nowadays are prone to grouping themselves in small cult like groups mainly based on their mutual interests, preferences and traits. Cady is specifically lured to the Plastics which is one of the most influential student groups in the school. She is attracted by the composition of the group as many of the girls such as Janis and Regina are the type of friends she seems to get along with. Similar, the socially accepted behavior as dictated by the group are attractive for and she too yearns to become a popular kid like the rest of the Plastics.
The recruitment to the Plastics is done over lunch time when Cady is invited over for a meal by some members of the group. She chooses to ignore all the warnings she had received from some of her other friends about this particular group. After the short engagement, she discovers that she gets along better with the Plastics than any other social group and hence decides to join them. Barely does she know that like any other girls’ group, this group too has its own politics and antics (Priya, 2013). Within a short time she becomes so involved in the groups affairs that she starts rubbing shoulders with the group’s leader Regina George. She is actually used as an infiltrator by Janis to bring down Regina. Janis is a social outcast who holds a grudge with Regina for some past slight. The movie ends with the Plastics sabotaged. At this point, Cady has come of age to realize that these social constructs should not matter. She therefore spearheads the efforts of dissolving them and uniting the student fraternity.
Social Psychology Concepts in the Movie
As highlighted earlier, there a number of memorable quotes and amusing characters in Mean Girls that help bring out different social psychological concepts and principles. Three of the most notable concepts include prejudice, conformity and discrimination.
Conformity is one attribute that defines present day societies. Reicher and Haslam (2016) define this term as the tendency of wanting to align with certain standards or behaviors so as to get along with people of groups that identify with the same standards and behaviors. Conformity is always a source of pressure for people who lack or have weak principles. According to Baron and Branscombe (2012) actually, many people have gotten into trouble or made gross mistakes in life because of the pressure acting in a certain way. This pressure comes along when one has to change his or her behavior so as to fit or go along with a particular group.
There are many scenes and situations that depict the concept of conformity in Mean Girls. First and foremost, Cady joins the American school system to learn the social norms of high school. It is totally a new thing for her have never stepped in a school setting before. She makes a number of friends including Damian and Janis. She also gets to join social groups such as the Plastics and starts feeling the pressure to change behavior and appearance so as to fit (Orr, 2014). This group represents ideally what every girl in the school wants to be; rich, pretty and famous. They are a mean clique and being part of them means one has to dress and behave in the exact way they do. For example, in one particular scene at the lunch table, Plastic members Karen and Gretchen do not let Regina sit together with them because she was wearing sweatpants for the second day in the week which breaks one of their social rules.
Cady does pretty well in conforming to the rules of the Plastics. For her case, she employs one of the most common and effective approaches to conformity called compliance. Griffin (2016) defines the term compliance as a situation where one purports to confirm to a particular behavior but still sticks to his or her own beliefs. The movie portrays Cady like a caning character who knows exactly what she wants. Her main purpose of joining the plastics was to help her friends Janis and Damian get revenge at Regina, the plastics leader. As such, she purports to conform to the group by acting and dressing in a similar manner perhaps to win their trust. From research, this compliance is a trick or strategy that is used especially in the world of politics to forge false friendships for political gains. As Kimble (2014) notes for instance, a politician may purport to belong to a particular alignment when all he cares is get his own political millage.
The grouping in North Show High clearly brings out the social psychology theory of social identity. This theory was developed by Henri Tajfel and seeks to explore human relationships and interactions and how they affect their personalities as well as perceptions of life and things around them. The theory holds that people often categorize themselves into ingroups and outgroups based mainly on common traits or interests. In other words, people who share the same preferences are most likely to belong to the same social grouping as the common traits make them get along better.
These social groupings in return affect their attitudes, perceptions and behavior. This theory is very apparent in the Mean Girls as we see the girls struggling to conform to different social groupings within them (Priya, 2013). The Plastics are perceived as a high end clique of pretty, rich and famous girls and every girl desires to belong to it (Orr, 2014). The ideologies of the group affect the likes of Karen and Gretchen who believe that for one to be their friend, he or she needs to dress and behave in a certain way.
Prejudice is another social psychology concept that is very apparent through the Mean Girls movie. With the social groupings among the school, there was bound to be this vice deeply rooted in the relationship of the girls. Reicher and Haslam (2016) define prejudice as the negative or hostile feeling that one is accorded mainly because of his or her belonging to a certain group or class. This feeling is often unjustified and may see one developing a negative attitude that has no tangible basis whatsoever. In some instances, it can be driven by other complex vices such as jealousy and hatred as one feels bothered by the fact another person belongs to a particular social grouping. According to Griffin (2016), prejudice is very detrimental as it directly affects the relationship between individuals making it extremely hard for them to relate or work together.
Prejudice is very apparent in the Mean Girls. First and foremost, the decision by the girls to separate into different social groups already establishes false statuses that form basis for this vice. The social groupings on their side endeavor to do whatever it takes to isolate themselves from all other groups. For instance, the plastics demonstrate prejudice through the self-belief and high standards they set for themselves. They actually judge all other girls based on these standards of which one has to attain if she wants to join them (Orr, 2014). They are so determined to isolate themselves from all other girls they find to be uncool and unattractive mainly because they do not make the pass mark for their standards. In addition, they are very selective in deciding who joins them and what role that person plays in their social group.
Prejudice wars are seen in the movie when the girls try to manipulate each other with the objective of establishing themselves. The hatred between social groups is very evident as they are always turning against each other at any given opportunity. According to Priya (2013) for instance, there is always a hostile expression between different cliques in the school. The softball team is always quarreling with the wannabe’s (Priya, 2013). The cool Asians on the other hand are always hunting down the band geeks to bring them down. It is indeed an interesting scenario especially considering this is a high school full of teenage kids. Ideally, this is not what school is meant to be. These institutions are very sensitive and thus a lot of efforts are put in place to ensure the student fraternity coexists as one functional society. However, just like in our very own societies, these vices still find themselves in schools.
The presence of prejudice is one of the features that have made the Mean Girls so attractive to the young viewers. Reicher and Haslam (2016) note that many of the social habits within generations start forming during this teenage age. Cliques and high school life are inseparable as young people start discovering themselves and aligning with the people they believe they share interests and preferences. Like in the movie, this social grouping can best be explained by the social comparison theory. Apparently, human being are prone to shaping their behaviors and opinion based on the comparisons they make between themselves and relevant others.
According to Baron and Branscombe (2012), social comparison theory holds that people gain a lot of information about themselves, and make deductions that are relevant to self-esteem by comparison to relevant others. In the movie, we see the girls perceiving themselves in line with the status of the groups they belong to. The plastics for instance see themselves as being cool, rich, pretty and famous perhaps explaining why many of the girls want to be like them. This notion of prejudice of cliques and high school groupings, even though might seem cool and fun to teenagers, it is greatly misinformed and sets precedence for other complex and immoral vices such as bullying and discrimination (Kimble, 2014).
Discrimination is the other social psychology concept that is clearly portrayed in the Mean Girls movie. Discrimination is a social vice that is deeply rooted in many of our social settings including schools, communities, workplaces and sports teams among others. According to Griffin (2016), this vice may take different forms depending on the perpetrator. A person may be discriminated upon because of his skin color, gender, religion, social status and even sexual orientation. Building on this therefore, discrimination can be taken to mean the kind of negative action or behavior that is accorded to a person mainly because of his status (i.e. sex, race or social class). To put it more literally, this same person would not be subjected to the same treatment had he or she belonged to another status or class.
The in-fights between the girls in Mean Girls movie clearly bring out the concept of discrimination. There are very many scenes where characters in the film openly discriminate on one another because of their status or identity. For instance, in the build up to Regina’s party, she adamantly refuses to invite Janice who she believes is a lesbian. In general however, the plastics that comprise of four girls: Cady, Gretchen, Regina and Karen are the most discriminating lot in the school (Kimble, 2014). They have grown to believe that they are the most prominent and elite group and thus have the right to dismiss any other person or grouping that does not match their status. They literally refuse to hang out with the likes of Janice because in their judgment, she is not at their level yet.
System justification theory plays a significant role in propelling discrimination in North Shore High. According to this theory, “people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo, in order to continue believing that their social, political, and economic systems are legitimate and just” (Baron & Branscombe, 2012, p. 127). In the movie, the girls believe that their cliques are legit and thus strive to protect them. Like in many of the societies, what they really do not know is that the discrimination that emanates from these groupings is demeaning to other students who get their self-esteem lowered in the name of upholding the social status of the plastics.
Mean Girls is an interesting movie that remarkably portrays a typical high school in American. It has numerous memorable quotes and amusing characters that help to illustrate how life is in these schools. Apparently, prejudice, conformity and discrimination are vices that are so synonymous with high school cliques.