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‘Mean Girls’ and modern times

If the deepest fears of socialised humanity have ever been expressed better than “You can’t sit with us”, the most famous line in the movie Mean Girls, then I’d like to see the evidence.

Watching it with my 14-year-old daughter over the half-term break was a delicious bonding experience. The others were out, we had snacks and blankets and no one to sneer at our retro choice (the film came out in 2004). But my daughter’s wide-eyed thrill as tensions mounted at the fictional North Shore High seemed slightly bittersweet, given the real-life social terrors being visited daily on teenagers via the WhatsApp groups that organise their friendships.

Her amusement and mine were similarly based on recognition: who can say they didn’t — or don’t — want to avoid ostracism by the cool kids? In the movie, the maximally groomed, expensively dressed and acid-tongued trio known as “the Plastics” rule the school — even though wittier, grungier kids in the “out-group” poke fun at them in secret, their bon mots scripted by the comedian Tina Fey. Think of the immortal whispered comment: “That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.” 

My own school days were blessed with mutual support from belonging to a wonderful out-group. This seems very hard to find these days. I look at my daughter and her peers as they worry about how to respond to the latest drama pinging around the smartphones of the neighbourhood and wonder: is anyone offering them an alternative model to the Mean Girls method?

School Girls, a stage show about a Ghanaian beauty pageant rivalry, had its London premiere this week, advertised as “the African Mean Girls”. Fey is currently filming a screen version of the musical, a stage show which she penned as a spin-off from the original movie. It’s an industry, a cultural phenomenon, and the film is having a resurgence because of its themes — and a bunch of irresistible gifs and memes. Despite Fey’s character in the film attempting to talk the girls out of fearing the vicious queen bee and into a kinder way of relating to each other, it’s the terror of social humiliation and isolation that stays with you, however hilariously camped up. 

I’m not convinced that the Mean Girls behaviour is universal, though, and it is certainly not a constant. Communications in the analogue age were so basic that there was little opportunity for casual cruelty — it would have been hard to trash someone on the phone after a polite chat with a parent to get them on the line.

Nowadays, the emotional brutality saturates the air they breathe, conveniently modelled by celebrities using social media to pursue their vendettas. The moment after you express an interest in a song they’re playing, my daughters retail a stream of music-world gossip, down to girl-on-girl online revenge or “burns”. They know who has unfollowed whom on Instagram in the music industry as well as among the rival groups of popular kids at school.

In Mean Girls, the plot catapults forward with the surfacing of the “Burn Book”, a decidedly old-fashioned pen-and-paper affair where the Plastics write foul barbs and cutting comments about pupils and staff. The spite on its pages is photocopied and pinned up on the lockers. Nowadays, every WhatsApp group can turn into a Burn Book: all it takes is a screenshot and a copy to another group and secrets are out, the bile hits the fan and friendships built up over months go up in smoke.

Fear of ostracism is as old as civilisation — doubtless even older if you think of the way that being chucked out of the cave or left alone on the savannah would have messed with your chances of survival. It’s an atavistic threat to an individual’s existence. The democratic world can blame the Greeks, who gave the name to a process for expelling a citizen, even a leader, from the Athenian city state for 10 years. Sometimes this was done pre-emptively — if they were getting a bit too big for their sandals and threatened to become a tyrant.

So the threat of social death has always been with us. The difference now is that it has been weaponised by Silicon Valley — today’s teenagers can’t turn off the movie and think, “thank God I don’t live in America”. The obsession with social status has seeped into so many of their interactions. And their smartphones have become a source of tyranny, keeping much of the world’s youth miserably stuck in some sort of mass, global Mean Girls spin-off, students at Freak-Out High.

Who can save them? Not Hollywood. The summer’s anticipated big movie is . . . Barbie. Maybe it’s so ironic that it will banish the social anxiety that weighs down our girl-children. 

Or will it be the techies? American psychologist Dr Jean Twenge noticed abrupt shifts in teenage behaviour around 2012, when the data on depression, loneliness, even self-harm, dramatically ticked up. She blames smartphone and social media immersion and said in a recent interview: “We need social media companies not to be making billions from designing their algorithms to keep people coming back and on their apps as long as possible.” 

I won’t hold my breath. But my instinct, conditioned or otherwise, is to turn my back and practise a tiny bit of private ostracism. You know what, tech titans? You can’t sit with us.

Miranda Green is the FT’s deputy opinion editor. Jo Ellison is away

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