Today is Wednesday. On Wednesdays, we wear pink. And “Mean Girls” turns 10 years old today.
In honor of the “Mean Girls” anniversary, I have a confession to make: I am in the Mean Girls book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees,” by Rosalind Wiseman. I am not one of the actual documented mean girls — not a Queen Bee or Wannabee or even a Floater, moving contentedly from group to group. But I am in the book. I wrote a poem about beauty that 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” is, at least in part, based on my school. I remember that Rosalind 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. Then 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, when this story came out, that we were not enthused about it. The parents especially were not. We had thought that this health class would not be the subject of national media attention. It seemed a logical assumption, based on the fact that it was our sixth-grade health class, not the evolving situation in Kosovo. But there it was, in print. Were we actually so mean that it was deserving of national attention and a book?
I never minded the book, though. I got a poetry credit! The only thing that I objected to was Wiseman’s intention to attribute the poem to “Alexandra Petri, age 14.” (“I wrote that when I was twelve,” I stewed. “My writing style has evolved TREMENDOUSLY since then.”)
And once “Mean Girls” came out, it 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’!”
To which people responded either, “That bad, huh?” or “Who was Regina George? Did anyone get hit by a bus?”
In answer to your question: no, I don’t know, and not to my knowledge.
Not that girl friendship is always and uniformly a picnic. One of my most fervent life beliefs is that anyone who actively enjoys middle school is a terrible person.
But even then, my social experience was hardly the Dantean nightmare that Wiseman so carefully depicted, with its cliques and circles upon hellish circles (“Here are the Bankers, who use information for currency in Girl World. They spend eternity buffeted by high winds.” “Here are the Torn Bystanders, who stand up to their ears in fire.”). I was, however, almost proverbially oblivious. I had pictures of Civil War generals in my locker, wore a pencil behind my ear and liked to dress in Scotch-garded, tapering khakis. There were moments when I wondered if the softball team were excluding me, or watched a friend depart in favor of another clan to the sound of mournful piping, but on the whole, 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, watching “The Lord of the Rings” over and over again, emitting a standard litany of “Your mom” jokes, whose home phone numbers would remain tattooed into my memory long after any of them had access to landlines. They’re still friends. I never had to deal with the coworker-friend problem so succinctly put by Veronica in “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.
As far as the actual poem goes, I cringe now when I read it. Asking the question of “What is beauty anyway?” it offers such suggestions as “a well-run sewer system, seen by a worker” and “the Declaration of Independence.” It is mortifying in the way that anything really heartfelt always is, after you grow: would-be authoritative, completely clueless, awkwardly sincere. The fact that I was able to write a poem like that in middle school and not get slapped out of the social calendar tells you how lucky I was in my friends.
In that same Times article, the writer, Margaret Talbot, did a good job summing up the baffling part of the significance that “Mean Girls” has taken on, where the writer worries about adolescent “folkways” and notes, “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 tranquility. “Mean Girls” is the chaos of adolescence remembered in tranquility, 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.