Friday, May 25, 2018
Opinion

The lesson I learned at the 'Mean Girls' school

The movie Mean Girls just turned 10 years old. In honor of this anniversary, I have a confession to make: I am in the Mean Girls book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman. I am not one of the actual documented mean girls — not a Queen Bee or Wannabe or even a Floater, moving contentedly from group to group. But I am in the book. A poem I wrote about beauty shows up at the end of the chapter called "The Beauty Pageant." It is every bit as heartfelt and awkward as you would expect.

Mean Girls, the movie, came from that book, so it is, at least in part, based on my school.

I remember that Wiseman had been coming to our Wellness class and leading us in Apologies. A lady came with her. This lady seemed cool and approachable, so we spoke freely around her. She turned out to be a New York Times reporter.

A short while later, a piece appeared in the New York Times Magazine that began: "Today is Apologies Day in Rosalind Wiseman's class — so, naturally, when class lets out, the girls are crying. Not all 12 of them, but a good half. They stand around in the corridor, snuffling quietly but persistently, interrogating one another. 'Why didn't you apologize to me?' one girl demands. 'Are you stressed right now?' says another. 'I am so stressed.' Inside the classroom, which is at the National Cathedral School, a private girls' school in Washington, Wiseman is locked in conversation with one of the sixth graders who has stayed behind to discuss why her newly popular best friend is now scorning her."

I remember that when this came out, we were not enthused about it. The parents especially were not. This was sixth-grade health, not war crimes in Kosovo. Was our school actually so mean that it deserved national attention and, eventually, a book?

I never minded the book, though. I got a poetry credit! The only thing that I objected to was Wiseman's attribution of the poem to "Alexandra Petri, age 14." ("I wrote that when I was 12," I stewed. "My writing style has evolved TREMENDOUSLY since then.")

And once Mean Girls came out, the whole thing stopped being a Mark of Shame and became a badge of pride.

"Did you know?" we told people. "Our school was the basis of Mean Girls!"

Not that girl friendship is always and uniformly a picnic, but my own social experience was hardly the Dantean nightmare that Wiseman so carefully depicted, with its cliques and circles upon hellish circles. There were moments when I wondered if the softball team were excluding me or when I watched a friend depart in favor of another clan to the sound of mournful piping. On the whole, though, I was lucky.

By eighth grade I had been sorted onto my desert island of friends, and the last boat back to the mainland had departed. These were the folks on whose couches I would sprawl for the remainder of high school, whose home phone numbers would remain tattooed into my memory long after any of them even had landlines.

They're still friends. I never had to deal with the coworker-friend problem so succinctly described by Veronica in the movie Heathers: "It's just like — they're people I work with and our job is being popular."

At first we were friends because we liked the same things, read the same books and enjoyed the same Monty Python sketches, then we were friends because we were growing together, and now we're friends because we grew together.

The Times Magazine writer, Margaret Talbot, did a good job summing up the baffling part of the significance that Mean Girls has taken on, where she worried about adolescent "folkways" and noted, "If adults studied their folkways, maybe they were more important than I thought, or hoped. For me, the best antidote to the caste system of middle school was the premonition that adults did not usually play by the same rigid and peculiar rules — and that someday, somewhere, I would find a whole different mattering map, a whole crowd of people who read the same books I did and wouldn't shun me if I didn't have a particular brand of shoes. When I went to college, I found it, and I have never really looked back."

This anniversary is as good a time as any to look back. Humor is chaos remembered in tranquillity. Mean Girls is the chaos of adolescence remembered in tranquillity by those who made it out and found their real clans. The secret of Mean Girls was that it took everything seriously enough that you could tell it was ridiculous. On Wednesday we wore pink. Now we can look back on it and laugh.

— Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com

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