Author Judith Viorst once wrote about a little girl who looked over at another child and reported on her assessment. “Her dress is very pretty,” she said, “but mine is very prettier.”
She was clearly on her way to becoming what we now call an “alpha girl,” one of those impossibly perfect beings who mask ruthless domination with artificial sweetness. Just as everyone else seems to be a hopeless mess of hormones in the midst of an ever-changing and incomprehensible world, there are these creatures who seem to have understood and mastered whatever they do not actually control. Queen Bees and Wannabes, a non-fiction book by Rosalind Wiseman about alpha girls and the impact they have on everyone else, has been adapted by Saturday Night Live head writer (and Weekend Update anchor) Tina Fey into a movie about a girl who takes on a ruling clique called “the Plastics.”
Cady (Lindsay Lohan) arrives in Evanston, Illinois after growing up in Africa with her zoologist parents who taught her at home. So everything about the high school experience is completely new to her, and she ends up as something of a zoologist herself. She brings an outsider’s perspective to the social interactions of the suburban teenager, drawing a social network map based on the seating selections in the school cafeteria. And she compares the teenagers to African animals, seeing mall as though it was a watering hole in the savannah. She learns about the difference between “animal world” and “girl world.” In girl world, she decides, you have to be sneaky.
Cady finds herself having a hard time understanding the social norms in the school. “I had never lived in a world where adults didn’t trust me,” she says. And the approach that had always worked for her in the past — assuming that everyone was sincere and meant what they said — turns out to be inadequate. Even dressing up for Halloween is more complicated than she thought. No wonder Cady is happiest in math class, where everything makes sense.
There’s another reason to like math class, a very cute boy whose desk is next to hers. Here, too, she feels like there is some rule book she’s never seen that everyone else has read. She does not even seem to know herself any more. “Apparently there are a lot of things that can be wrong with your body.”
Cady is befriended by two kids who are very comfortable being different. But she is also drawn to the queen of “the Plastics,” the aptly named Regina (Rachel McAdams). When her friends assign her to inflitrate the Plastics, she is filled with loathing but also with longing. Their plots to humiliate her backfire — Regina is such an undisputed style-setter that when they vandalize her shirt everyone else just adopts it as the latest fad. Cady’s real friends feel betrayed by what Cady has to do to make Regina think she is on her side. And even Cady starts to wonder whose side she is on, admitting that “I could hate [Regina] but I still wanted her to like me.”
Screenwriter Fey, who also appears as a sympathetic teacher, has a good sense of how girls like Regina operate to establish their domination, appearing to be sweet and supportive but in reality being competitive, duplicitous and manipulative, and always surrounding themselves with people who will add to their power and not challenge them. And Fey’s superb sense of comedy gives the script some biting humor. Her Saturday Night Live colleagues lend support to the cast, with Tim Meadows as the school principal, Ana Gasteyer as Cady’s mother, and Amy Poehler superb as Regina’s mother, who insists, “I’m not like a regular mom; I’m a cool mom!”
There is much that is fresh and sharp in this movie. But it has an uncertain hold on its plot and ends up pulling some of its punches and throwing in teen comedy cliches we have seen endlessly in dozens of movies that all blur together.
Parents should know that this movie has some mature material for a PG-13, including crude humor, sexual references, underage drinking, and comic violence. There is a prank involving a pregnancy test. Cady allows her home to be taken over by partying teens, gets drunk and throws up. A child watches “Girls Gone Wild” and imitates it. A girl refers to herself as “half a virgin” and there is a joke about girl-girl kissing. A strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of diverse characters, including disabled, gay, and minority students.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the elements that determine status for teenagers are different from those that determine status in the adult world, at work and with friends and family. They should use this movie to begin a discussion about the way that the girls they know treat each other, and what they can do to encourage them to be kinder and more supportive. They should talk about Wiseman’s book, which says:
Your daughter’s friendships with other girls are a double-edged sword — they’re key to surviving adolescence, yet they can be the biggest threat to her survival as well. The friendships with the girls in her clique are a template for many relationships she’ll have as an adult. Many girls will make it through their teen years precisely because they have the support and care of a few good friends. These are the friendships where a girl truly feels unconditionally accepted and understood — and they can last into adulthood and support her search for adult relationships.
On the other hand, girls can be each other’s worst enemies. Girls’ friendships in adolescence are often intense, confusing, frustrating, and humiliating, the joy and security of “best friends” shattered by devastating breakups and betrayals. Girls’ reactions to the ups and downs of these friendships are as intense as they’ll later feel in intimate relationships.
Find out more about Wiseman’s Empower program and workshops to help teenagers and adults learn better systems and techniques for more constructive and satisfying interactions. And take a look at the Words Can Heal website for some ideas about stopping gossip and put-downs. Why does Cady say that she could hate Regina but still wanted her to like her? What do you think about Regina’s mother, who wants to be “the cool mom?” Does she get what she hopes for? Families should also discuss the idea that “there are people who do evil stuff and people who see evil stuff and don’t stop it.” And they should talk about why Cady thought she had to pretend to be less smart than she was to get a boy to like her.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed and the John Hughes high school classics Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. The ultimate alpha girl movies are Heathers with Winona Ryder (some mature material) and Election (extremely mature material).