It only takes Mean Girls about 10 minutes before it breaks down its cliques. In a voiceover, Janice Ian (Lizzy Caplan) explains to new student Cady Herron (Lindsay Lohan), “You got your freshmen, ROTC Guys, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly Black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of The Plastics.”
Accompanied by a hand-drawn map of North Shore High, Janice’s intro becomes Cady’s survival guide to high school. It also becomes one of the reasons Mean Girls is one of the most iconic high school movies of all time, joining the ranks of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Heathers, and Grease. Like Heathers — and unlike Grease — Mean Girls has bite, thanks to a script by Saturday Night Live alumni and general comedic goddess Tina Fey. The film celebrates its 15-year-anniversary April 30, and for all the good it has done in the world (Halloween costumes, one-liners, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried's careers, and inspo for Ariana Grande's record-breaking music video “Thank U, Next”), labeling a group of 17-year-old girls “Unfriendly Black Hotties,” isn’t one of them. But, as the saying goes, that was then and this is now. It arguably doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s hard not to notice just how poorly that particular scene has aged. But it’s 2019. Gen Z doesn’t have to applaud outdated punchlines or play into stereotypes, racist and otherwise.
So, we asked contemporary teens to help us update the cafeteria scene. Here’s what a high school cafeteria room really looks like in 2019.
(To protect the identity of these teens and their current social standing in their respective high schools, we will not be using their real names. These interviews were also done over text because...they’re teens.)
On Exclusivity In The Cafeteria
In Mean Girls:
Cady finds comfort in the similarities between high school and the tribe in Africa she grew up with alongside her anthropologist parents. Multiple times throughout the movie, Cady finds herself replacing the social hierarchy before her with a literal Darwinian food chain. The lionesses roar, scratch, and bite when they’re feeling attacked (gossiped about), and no one strays from the pack (sits at a different table other than their clique-designated one).
Sarah: “There’s never that unspoken rule that there’s one table that is 100% off limits to sit. People typically aren’t very exclusive except for this one group of senior girls that are bitches.”
Erica: “There are definitely divides between the groups. There is a risen stage with four tables in my lunch room that is reserved for the cool seniors. Even though it’s an unwritten rule, no younger students dare to sit on the stage. It definitely feels like a hierarchy.”
Joe: "Yes, I think there were cliques, but ... It's just more groups of friends that met in junior high and stayed friends."
Laura: “The seating dynamic evolved throughout high school. I would say it was more rigid and ‘socially strict’ the first couple of years, but by senior year I felt it was more free.”
On Labeling Classmates
In Mean Girls:
The map is meant to be a dummy’s guide to high school, but in the hands of Janice and Damian (Daniel Franzese), it’s regressive, demeaning and full of offensive stereotypes. Beyond the map, it’s clear that those lunch table labels bleed into social life outside of school.
Mary: “At my school, I notice that friend groups would form their own tables in the lunchroom, but I never walked into the lunch room to see noticeably segregated groups. I’m lucky to have gone to a school with overwhelming acceptance! Mean Girls is more than a decade old, so I guess things were a little different then. If I saw a scene [in a movie] like that one now, I think I would be taken aback and even a little offended.”
Erica: “The labeling of the different groups is bullshit, but it definitely still happens. I do drama at school and am close with all of the drama kids, but I sit with the ‘popular table’ at lunch instead of with the drama kids. [It’s] shitty because a lot of the 'popular kids’ make fun of the drama kids and I am constantly reminding them I’m friends with those guys. People definitely refer to the different groups as the ‘band kids’ and ‘drama kids’ etc.”
Laura: “There are no queen bees, but there is a larger group of ‘more social and popular kids.’”
On “Social Suicide”
In Mean Girls:
After choosing to sit with The Plastics on that fateful day, Cady doesn’t dare stray from her new clique, even though she has friends at other tables. Similarly, she doesn’t explore her real passion in life — math — because she is told it is the equivalent of "social suicide.” Gretchen (Lacy Chabert) blurts it at, where else, the Plastics’ lunch table. Eventually, Cady does join Mathletes, and it’s where she finds the courage and clarity to finally *crack* Regina George, ridding herself of the anxieties around the toxic societal norms of the lunchroom.
Laura: “In the cafeteria, everyone does have their own set table. But if anyone random joins in or takes their set table, it’s not that big of a deal.”
On Acceptable “Clique” Titles
In Mean Girls:
Cool Asians? Girls Who Eat Their Feelings? Desperate Wannabes? Those targeted had no idea that their classmates were labeling in such regressive, insensitive terms until the Burn Book dropped, and we all know how that turned out. (Chaos. Total chaos.)
Mary: “Soccer boys, The Thespians, Partiers, Hippies, Anime Lovers, Artsy people.”
Joe: “Nice and Nerdy Seniors, the lax bros, the popular sophomores, the almost popular juniors.”