Mean Girls is the film equivalent of the hyper-closeted girl who let you make out with her in between boyfriends but snubbed you in the hallways in high school. She’s not gay, you’re gay, and sometimes you happen to be gay inside of her mouth, which isn’t really her fault, if that happens. You’ve got a big old lesbian crush on her, and if you tell anyone about what you two really do when you’re supposed to be tutoring her in pre-calc she’ll deny it. And who would believe you?
You’re familiar with Mean Girls, of course; you’ve been on the Internet. Its status as a camp classic among gay men is already assured, yet its queasy, fascinated relationship with girl-on-girl relationships keeps lesbian and bi viewers at arms’ length — close enough to make out with but far enough to push away if someone else walks in the room.
The specter of lesbianism is one that gets raised periodically throughout the film — supposedly for the purpose of shooting it down. Janis Ian is named after the famous lesbian singer-songwriter; Regina confesses to having been her former friend before explaining she disinvited her from a birthday celebration because “you can’t have a lesbian at a pool party.”
Did you have that best friend in high school? Readers, I did. Her name was Jessica and we spent every day together and I had never met anyone more beautiful and we ate lunch by ourselves on a bench and we made each other laugh. The week she stopped talking to me, she told the boy who had asked me to prom not to do it, “because she’s actually a man in woman’s clothing.” It broke my heart. I had a fever for days. I hadn’t even thought I was in love with her, until I found out she hated me for it. But you can’t have a lesbian at a pool party. You can’t like someone else too much.
It’s hard not to watch Mean Girls now without extratextual information coloring each scene — Lindsay Lohan went on, famously, to date Samantha Ronson, while the actors who played Aaron Samuels and Damien both came out several years after Mean Girls was released. There’s a frisson of gayness wherever you look. Cady’s first interactions with Janis and Regina — the girls who war for her heart and soul — read more like romantic meet-cutes than anything else. Regina rescues her from the unwanted sexual attentions of Jason “Do You Want Your Muffin Buttered,” swiftly putting him in his place, and gallantly pulls Cady under her wing.
And Janis — well. Janis is very excited to meet Cady.
That is the slouching, casually disinterested, smirking, hair-twirling pose of someone who’s just met her new girlfriend. Nothing about this says “Hey, nice to meet you; I look forward to our heterosexually-based friendship” and everything about it rumbles “Hello, Red.”
Janis proceeds to use her shiny new relationship Cady to keep tabs on her ex (and who among us cannot say we have done the same) and pushes her into dressing and acting just like her last, lost girlfriend. Regina, meanwhile, trots out a series of psychosexual power plays that would make the Marquis de Sade’s head spin in order to keep Cady close to her and desperate for her approval. It’s like a Beebo Brinker novel, with all the high-femme head games swirling around. Cady might like Regina’s ex? Then Regina’s taking him back. And Regina wants to see the look on Cady’s face while she does it.
Cady’s transformation into Regina is supposedly complete when she accuses Janis of being “like, in love with me or something,” which causes Damien to bring his car to a screeching halt:
I don’t love you, Janis tells her. No one loves you. Everybody hates you. Which, in the world of Mean Girls, is kind of the same thing.
(Must I accept the fact that Lizzy Caplan is probably heterosexual? I don’t want to. I don’t want to.)
What to do with Janis! The filmmakers don’t seem to know. Is she a cool girl lost in a parade of power femmes? A butch heterosexual? A misunderstood dyke? Regina is clearly wrong for using her purported sexuality for excluding her from that long-ago pool party, but the filmmakers don’t seem to want a lesbian on their hands any more than she did. They bring Janis right up to the Lesbian Line and then at the last minute snatch her back with the help of Kevin G.
Consider: one of the last scenes in the movie, Janis is in menswear and a gel-sculpted Dolly Wilde hairdo with a gay man as her date. They’re wearing purple tuxedos, a color so indelibly associated with visible gayness that it nearly got the Teletubbies cancelled fifteen years ago.
A truly daring ending would have had Kevin asking Damien to dance. Damien, I am so sorry you never got to make out with anyone in this movie because you were too busy being the Neutered Gay Best Friend. I hope your first college boyfriend was adorable and the two of you had sex all the time.
Tell me that this is the face of a woman who’s excited to dance with a heterosexual man. Go ahead. Tell me that. I will be here, waiting for you to look me in the eyes and tell me the greatest lie since “Jo and Blair were just really good friends.”
Cady gets Aaron Samuels and his bangs in the end, I think. He continues to exist, which I find mostly unobjectionable.
But here are Regina and Janis at their happiest, respectively, in the entirety of Mean Girls:
“It’s her dream come true,” Regina said snarkily of Janis during the trust fall sequence, “diving into a sea of girls.”
Regina knows because her dream has always been the same.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.