Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Watching “Mean Girls” with my 12-yr Old Daughter

My husband felt that it was highly inappropriate that I watch this movie with my daughter.

“How can you think it might actually help her to watch this movie? You are just imposing your American neuroses about high school and coolness on somebody who has no relation to those neuroses whatsoever.”

Growing up in France shaped my husband’s perspective on high school and what it means to be a geek or cool. The most prestigious schools in France are public and those schools start to select students at age 16. The most nerdy kids are not only guaranteed the best jobs in the public and private sector, but higher pay than non-graduates of the Grandes Ecoles. They can also expect a fast-track career to the top of their chosen company or field. When you no longer interact with the subset of “cool” people in 11th grade and the reason for that is that most those people have been segregated into lesser tracks that prepare them for the second-tier opportunities they can expect in life…it’s easy not to be intimidated or impressed.

My fellow students in my private American preparatory school had other reasons to expect the choicer outcomes in Life.

“That’s alright. That’s ok, you’ll work for us one day,” they would cheer when we inevitably lost football games to the large county public schools. To the school’s chagrin, having the football team with the highest average SAT score in the state of Georgia did not translate into the winning-est football team in the state of Georgia.

Undoubtedly the “John Knox Institute” students behind that sour grapes cheer picked up the Class prejudice and un-sportsmanlike tone from their parents. Officially the school did everything to discourage such behavior. Along with the Protestant religious tenets underlying our education, the centerpiece of the school’s pride in producing morally upstanding young ladies and gentleman was the Honor Code – one of those pacts where you not only swear that you have not cheated on a test or assignment, you swear that you have no knowledge of such behavior on the part of your peers.

Well the TJKNI students weren’t perfect. Some of them did cheat. And, since time immemorial ratting out your peers (or “narking” as we called it) is about the surest path to social suicide -- it didn’t take long for your average student to figure out the Honor Code and the student Prefect System (basically a popularity contest) was a load of crap. If adults weren’t smart enough to figure to out the Honor Code wasn’t compatible with the emotional maturity of your average high school student, they were dumb.

Worse, if they did realize the flaws in these expectations, they were indoctrinating us in moral hypocrisy. The parents were often the administration’s willing partners. If TJKNI demanded that the students exhibit the same behavior off campus that they did on campus – basically don’t drink, do drugs, screw around and do the generally dumb-ass things teenagers do, the parents were often the first to lie on their child’s behalf.

The John Knox Institute kids not only felt superior to the children outside their school, many of them also felt superior to most of their classmates. My first introduction to the other students at The Institute, when I transferred in 7th grade, was a friendly “student ambassador”-type phone call from a girl I had vaguely seen around because her parents lived next door to my grandparents. She only had one question for me: “Are you popular?” My convoluted explanation of how, while I was not exactly popular, I did have a group of friends who didn’t think I was a loser didn’t convince her. I don’t think she ever said another word to me in the six years we went to school together.

Does that sum up my whole experience of TJKI? Of course not, I did make good friends in high school, I had some wonderful teachers and I received an excellent education. However, yes, I can definitely relate to the movie “Mean Girls.” Unlike the movie’s main character, the good girl played by Lindsay Lohan (how ironic is that) I never became close enough to these people for them to 1) notice me 2) think I was important enough to humiliate.

Regardless of how many times I watched “Sixteen Candles” in the hopes that I would come back in the fall and have it be my cool year or how many hours I babysat to buy that bitchin pair of acid-washed Guess jeans with the zipper on the ankles, I did not have what it took to be part of the cool group. They seemed to fall into two categories: DNA or attitude. Under DNA, appearance was most important for the girls and athletic ability was most important for the boys. Attitude was the trait that was more confusing for me to understand at the time. Self-confidence was central. Granted, it’s pretty easy to develop self-confidence as pretty girl or outstanding athlete in high school—people just naturally want to be around you. However, not all the girls in the group were that pretty and not all that boys were sports stars, yet they still managed to dominated people with their attitude. Sometimes, this was with good qualities –they might have had a great sense of humor or who were genuinely nice to everybody; sometimes they dominated with negative attitude.

“Queen Bees and Wannabes” explores the negative strategies girls use to intimidate their peers; often with the perverse outcome that the meaner the dominant individuals are, the more people want to be liked by them. This experience is not limited to high school and junior high girls. My work experience in the online mostly male-dominated, geeky software blogging world had its share Queen Bee and Wannabe behavior too. In "Sixteen Candles”, Anthony Michael Hall’s nerdy character isn’t any nicer to his geeky friends than the cool kids are to him. He humiliates and dominates them in his bid to be “King of the Dipshits” or, better yet, increase his social standing by leaving them behind.

Enough of me, I’ve gone way off course. How did this movie help me communicate with my pre-teen daughter?

She isn’t really acting like my friend.

No kidding. This girl constantly undermines you to make herself feel better. Her only interest in having you around is to have a courtier for her queenly presence.

But she can be so nice.

Yes, they can. It’s known as a “frenemy”. Or sometimes the nice girls in elementary school morph into little snots when they hit Junior high. In that case, she used to be your friend.

She’s so full of herself

Take a preteen girl and have enough adults tell her: “You should be a model” enough times. It’s a miracle if it doesn’t go to her head.

But she told me to do it.

Grow a spine. Evaluate the consequences of your actions. Learn to say no.

Everything about my appearance is wrong.

Let me spell out. There’s a downside to everything you claim you wish had.

Want be taller? Well, so and so is shorter than you and I’m also pretty sure that hasn’t stopped her from being a kick-ass dancer. Try finding a date in high school if most the boys are shorter than you.

Think your hair is too curly; well I’m sure plenty of girls complain that their straight hair is too limp and stringy. You want boobs? Do you really want “that” kind of attention from a bunch of Junior High boys? Want to be a well-endowed adult woman? For you, most the heterosexual “men” will morph back into good old Beavis and Butthead. Oh and do you really want to go jogging with two sports bras and have to worry about back pain?

You look just fine. And, anyway, its not like you can do anything about it, you got all that stuff before you were born, in your DNA. And, don’t dare think about blaming your father and me, because those same genes make you good at Math and a great runner. Stop worrying about how you look. You want people to look at you? Why don’t you DO something worthy of that attention?

The adults around me are less mature than I am.

Mean Girls don’t always happen in a vaccum. In the movie, the Queen Bee’s mother is portrayed as the “I Just Want to Be My Child’s Friend” archetype. We all know this type of woman. She is more invested in her daughter’s popularity than the girl is, herself. This is the kind of woman who boasts about a social life that involves partying like a 19-year old college freshman. Sorry Mrs. “She’s still pre-occupied with 1985,” the rest of us have left the snake-skin mini-skirt and the 80s behind us. You are your child’s parent. By definition you are not cool to them, the fact that you try just makes it worse. They may not be able to express it now, but your kid doesn’t want you to be their “friend” they want you to be their parent.

Some parents simply check out of the child-rearing process altogether or choose to remain willfully clueless. I call them Ostrich Parent. Their child or other parents may try to talk to them, but they just bury their heads in the sand. “Not my child” is their motto.

Thank you Amy Chua. If it hadn’t been for you, the rest of us wouldn’t have a name for the other kind of emotionally immature parent we find so obnoxious (as does your child) – Tiger Mom or Tiger Dad, also known as Helicopter Parent aka that rude parent at some run of the mill kids’ athletic competition who shouts coaching instructions to their child the whole time and then gives the child a 15-minute public critique of their performance…after they win! So often, the person shouting, “You gotta master that back-hand slice” to their child is the person who couldn’t hit a backhand slice if their life depended on it.

Things I didn’t like about “Mean Girls,” the movie:

I love Tina Fey to death, but sometimes the Saturday Night Live humor is out of place in a movie, destined to appeal to teens.

Lots of swearing. I’ve always been a fan of a creative and well-placed swear, but not when it doesn’t add anything, and not in a movie for my children. The girls in the movie call each other “bitch” and “slut” a lot. On one hand, girls really do say these things. On the other hand, the movie barely addresses whether they should and how this might just be reinforcing the images that boys, and later men, use to put them down. I think some women view the word “bitch” like rappers view the n word: it’s ok if we use it among ourselves, but wrong if a man calls us this.

The underlying connotation of “bitch” is a woman who stands up for herself – positive—but does it in an off-putting way – negative. I prefer bitch to slut. At least a bitch does. A slut is done to. The most negative thing about “slut” is not so much the sexual mores of the girl in question, but the fact that she doesn’t respect herself enough to make men respect her. It’s not just a question of her actions but the how and why, behind her actions. Boys in my high school were a lot more creative. They didn’t just call a girl a slut, they said things like “When X gives you a bj you have to pull the sheets out of your ass” or “She’d jump anything, even a whittled stick.”

The sad thing is I can remember those associations if I run into or hear about those girls years after high school.

Not only did the swearing not add anything, but the scene where the football coach gets caught having sex with two different high school girls did not add anything either. It wasn’t particularly funny. The most positive thing I can say is that I don’t think my daughter really caught what was going on, in that part.


In conclusion, did I use Mean Girls to exorcise some of my own memories of high school? My experience at The John Knox Institute did have an impact, even when I use it to define the things I don’t want for myself, or my children. I remember a conversation where The JKNI name came up as it inevitably would in a state where they are the academic reference – send more than 20 kids to the Ivy League a year, etc. My husband got tired of what he calls “people gargling themselves with their moral imperatives” and summed it up: “Yeah, yeah I get it: your mission is for these kids to get a good education like TJKNI, but not be dicks!”

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