Before Tina Fey got stubborn—before sometimes thoughtful critiques of her occasionally limited perspective encouraged he reactionary, heel-in-ground attitude about the politics of identity and changing social norms—she was one of the most thoughtful writers and creators to engage with both of those subject matters, and how we talk about them.
A crucial part of what made 30 Rock one of the smartest sitcoms in history was its investigation of what we talk about when we talk about identity politics. From Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) arguing about who has it worse in America ([white] women or black men?), to Liz Lemon’s frequent struggles to “have it all” (“Murphy Brown lied to us!!”), to the way Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) goads Liz with his conservatism, 30 Rock understood that identities (political, racial, sexual, etc.) don’t exist in a vacuum.
A lot of that sharpness has its origins in Fey’s 2004 screenplay debut, Mean Girls, a dark comedy in the vein of Heathers and Clueless, scrutinizing the social dynamics of high school and, in particular, how young women treat one another and themselves. Through the eyes of new kid, formerly homeschooled Cady Harron (Lindsay Lohan), the film submerges the audience in the nasty politics of “girl world” as she tries to make friends, schemes against the popular girls, and loses sight of herself in the process. Adapted from Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence , Mean Girls has its own unique edge apart from 30 Rock, not just as a high school movie, but as a movie that dives into the operations of hierarchical systems. And for Fey, language is the key to unlocking how these high school cliques work.
Fey’s lauded for her film’s memorable lines (quotes like “stop trying to make fetch happen” and “too gay to function” live on, at least in meme form), but Mean GIrls is an impressive example of translating Rosalind WIseman’s nonfiction, sociological approach into narrative and fictive application. When Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese) introduce her to the various lunch room groups, they give her the vocabulary to describe them from then on. Taxonomical breakdowns of high school are almost blasé at this point, but director Mark Waters and Fey give a potency to the language of that social environment. The crudely drawn map that Janis gives Cady transitions into a virtual, nearly interactive tour, with Waters’ camera zooming around, pointing out the different groups: Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, etc. Word turns into image turns into representation, like a catty version of “The Treachery of Images.”
As Cady socializes into 2004-era high school life and finds her image growing in popularity, she must continually learn the nomenclature of high school and, effectively, of white femininity. Regina George (Rachel McAdams), a social leader of sorts, plays that game with her: “So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?” Regina jabs, establishing what the correct conversational and syntactical routine should be when someone compliments you. Later, the titular Girls—Regina, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert), Karen (Amanda Seyfried) and Cady—all look at themselves in the mirror pointing out their flaws. But the significance of this scene isn’t merely that Cady engages with the body politics of white womanhood, it’s that she is given the language with which to do so.
Fey liberally uses mockumentary aesthetics to illustrate how students conceptualize their statuses on the popularity ladder: Talking head interviews sprinkle the film, assuming the audience is, like Cady, learning about particular groups, even though most students confide into the camera, spreading gossip. About Regina George, one student says, “I hear her hair is insured for $10,000.” Another: “I hear she does car commercials…in Japan.” And another: “Her favorite movie is Varsity Blues.” It’s as if the nonfiction aesthetic, a curious departure from the narrative mode the film primarily takes, better establishes a rhetoric around Regina. She becomes less defined by her actions and more about what people say about the actions. Her wealth, her aesthetics (and relationships to femininity), her race and her power are given context and meaning, and her peers develop a vocabulary to describe it.
This makes sense. Regina George, emblematic of the kind of toxic femininity that weaponizes class and whiteness—that’s also in work like the Diablo Cody penned Jennifer’s Body (which Amanda Seyfried also stars in)—wants to give people something to talk about. And what people say about her is as revealing about them as it is about her. So, Janis’s tirade against Regina, unofficially introducing Regina and prompting the talking head interviews, is agile in its ability to both articulate Janis’s pettiness (justified or otherwise) as well as Janis’s hurt (“backstabbing slut”). Fey crystalizes this idea towards the end of the film, when Janis photocopies Regina’s “Burn Book,” slipping the pages around covertly and tactically, so that everyone is talking about each other, but, most importantly: Everyone is talking about Regina George—even if it means Regina has to write herself, scrawling “Regina George is a Fugly Slut” into her own Book, as stereotype in order to throw another under the bus. Cady, too, participates in an almost Foucauldian way: “I spent 80% of my time talking about Regina, and the other 20% praying for someone else to bring her up so I could talk about her more.”
Essentially, Mean Girls focuses on how the high schoolers codify social dynamics—how they articulate where they or other people fall taxonomically—via class, gender and race. As time passes, Mean Girls’s imitators seem flaccid by comparison. The film’s unpacking of the cruelty of internalized misogyny has, over the course of nearly a decade and a half, grown more acidic, its schemes and backtalking as scalding as it ever was.
Tina Fey’s background in improv once was the secret to how acute her comedy was, a clear understanding of how language shapes our way of navigating the world and negotiating the politics of identity. And though the recent seasons of her Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feel like they’re the product of someone firing back at an audience who has pointed out that Fey’s feminism can be myopic (doubling down on some more racist and transphobic material), Mean Girls proves that Tina Fey once had the power to make even “fetch” happen.