HomeCultureFilm & TV

Why we're still obsessed with Mean Girls

BY Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

16th Jan 2024 Film & TV

5 min read

Why we're still obsessed with Mean Girls
From a successful 2004 film to a quotable cultural reference point and fan favourite, this is why teen comedy Mean Girls has enjoyed enduring success for 20 years
With 2024 marking the 20th anniversary of the iconic teen comedy film Mean Girls, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong takes us behind the scenes of the film’s creation, production and release with her new book So Fetch: The Making of Mean Girls (And Why We’re Still So Obsessed With It).
She examines how it shaped the Millennial generation and how it intertwined with meme, tabloid and LGBTQ+ culture. Here’s an extract from her book on why Mean Girls is such a seminal film phenomenon.

Growing popularity of Mean Girls

Mean Girls (2004) film poster
For the first few years after Mean Girls’ 2004 release, it seemed like a normal film with a normal trajectory. The story of 16-year-old Cady Heron, who moves from being home-schooled in Africa to a high school in the Chicago suburbs grappling with the nefarious social forces involved in hanging with the ruling clique known as the Plastics, had done well. People liked it. Some people loved it. Mariah Carey said in interviews that she was obsessed with it. Occasionally someone might reference it.
Now, Mean Girls has transcended generations to become a classic. The film’s influence has only grown with time, an unusual feat for any movie, much less a teen- girl-targeted one. It has spread far beyond its initial audience, and beyond the control of either of its main creators, Queen Bees and Wannabes author Rosalind Wiseman and screenwriter Tina Fey. Here we are, still captivated by it, 20 years later. With every Mean Girls meme that zips across the internet, its influence and legacy grow stronger.

Spawned a musical and a new film

Mean Girls brought a new, brash kind of humour, the quotable kind of funny usually reserved for male movies like Anchorman, to a girl-centric film. It made a slew of catchphrases, including “fetch,” happen. It became one of Web 2.0’s first massive cult hits, growing the film’s influence as its GIFs fluttered across the world. It spawned a successful Broadway musical that would be made into its own film, out January 19, poised to reach generations to come. It helped usher in a new era of mainstream feminism that brought the millennial generation into its fold. It made stars of its one-line characters.
This was, it turned out, one of the foundational purposes of the internet: to make Mean Girls happen. Again, and again, and again.

Social media’s role and Mean Girls Day

Something happened that made all the difference: the Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter/BuzzFeed feedback loop. As social media’s prevalence grew in the years after Mean Girls’ release, so, too, did the film’s presence in culture, strongly helped by the graphics interchange format, aka the “GIF.” This one little technological innovation would be the key to solidifying Mean Girls’ longevity.
"October 3 has become 'Mean Girls Day', designated by a throwaway line from the main character Cady"
Case in point: October 3 has become “Mean Girls Day”, designated by a throwaway line in the film: the main character, Cady, recalls that day as special because it was when Aaron, the object of her crush, asked her what date it was. Until the internet, pop cultural phenomena had no use for commemorative days. Online searches for Mean Girls memes rose steadily between April 2011 and October 2018, with noticeable spikes every October starting in 2014.

Why Mean Girls?

But why Mean Girls, specifically? The people who were teenagers when Mean Girls came out were now millennials in their twenties, the generation that defined Web 2.0 during the dawn of social media.
They fell in love with the movie in that special way that teenagers do when a film reflects their own generation. It had become potent nostalgia for them as they faced down adult life just a few long years later.

Effect on the cast and culture

No one feels this special brand of online fandom more than the cast, many of whom were blessed with one or several meme-able moments and lines in the movie. No matter where they go, Mean Girls fans will hunt them down. There are Mean Girls quote memes flying around the internet at any given moment. “The limit does not exist.” “You can’t sit with us.” “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.” There’s a Mean Girls GIF for almost every mood, from Rachel McAdams’s “Boo, you w***e!” as Regina George, to Lacey Chabert’s “That is so fetch!” as Gretchen Wieners. Chabert said, “Probably about a hundred times a day, people will write the ‘fetch’ line to me on Twitter.”
Jill Morrison, aka Crying Girl, remembers that years ago, when she was at an audition, the casting director said, “You’re a meme, you know.” At the time Morrison didn’t know what that meant. She would soon.
There are the more benign moments, too, like when Jonathan Malen’s “Mom, can you pick me up? I’m scared” trended with the Met Gala one year as celebrities in crazy outfits walked its red carpet.
But particularly in the last few years, meme moments have gone extreme and political fast. The Obama White House tweeted a picture of the First Family’s dog captioned, “Bo, stop trying to make fetch happen.”
"Daniel Franzese began to hear from gay fans of Mean Girls that his portrayal of Damian had changed lives"
There are mixed feelings among Mean Girls alums as to whether all this has been good, bad or neutral for their careers, at least for those who continued to pursue acting. Stefanie Drummond, who plays Bethany Byrd, reached a surpassing level of meme fame because she got more than one of the movie’s best lines (“army pants and flip flops”; “wide set vagina”) and delivered them flawlessly. It didn’t start until about four years after the movie came out, but now she’s one of the most recognisable stars the GIF form has ever produced.
Meanwhile, as Mean Girls took hold online, Daniel Franzese began to hear from fans that his portrayal of Damian had changed their lives. While he wasn’t overtly bullied in the movie, subtle moments landed with gay fans, like the time when someone throws a shoe at him during his rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” during the school talent show.

#MeanGirls

The launch of Instagram in 2010 was a natural fit for Mean Girls. There, 2000s nostalgia became a phenomenon in the late 2010s, and Mean Girls was at its centre. Khloe Kardashian posted a photo of her daughter, True, in 2022 dressed like an adorable little Plastic in heart-shaped sunglasses, a tank top, a jean skirt, and Crocs, all in the correct shade for her caption: “On Wednesdays we wear pink.”  #MeanGirls has more than 2.3 million posts on Instagram as of early 2023.
"Mean Girls took over Instagram and TikTok, which could help to maintain its relevance "
Just as Mean Girls took over Instagram, it has now made the jump to TikTok gracefully, which could help to maintain its relevance through at least one more generation. #MeanGirls had 11.8 billion views on TikTok as of mid-2023, a testament to its growing popularity with successive generations.

Criticism and possible future

TikTok has also allowed for more criticism of the film from a 2020s understanding of race, gender and sexuality. This is certainly fair. It reduced an entire continent to simply “Africa” and seemed to conflate African culture mostly with wild animals, an idea underlined by the fantasy sequences in which high school kids suddenly start acting like animals. It uses broad racial stereotypes like “Asian nerds,” “cool Asians,” and “unfriendly Black hotties.” It has some major body image hang-ups, making fun of both “girls who eat their feelings” and “girls who don’t eat anything.”
Will these concerns with its problematic elements eventually lead to Mean Girls’ demise in pop culture? Possibly, if our feeling that certain parts are unwatchable begins to outweigh its merits, or if future generations begin to sour on its close association with millennial culture and grow tired of the references. Or will its fade-out be the result of something else, some new social technology that isn’t as hospitable to Mean Girls? Maybe. But so far, it has survived.
Mean Girls’ legacy is like Cady’s Spring Fling crown—there’s a piece of it for each and every one of us.
so fetch book
Extracted from So Fetch: The Making of Mean Girls (And Why We’re Still So Obsessed With It) by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, to be published by HarperCollins on January 18 at £16.99
Banner credit: Paramount Pictures

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by 
subscribing to our weekly newsletter
Loading up next...