Mean Girls: Regina George, The Psychology of a Dictator

Mean Girls: Regina George, The Psychology of a Dictator


“Evil takes a human form
in Regina George.” ‘Mean Girls’ icon, Regina George,
is the undisputed ruler of North Shore High. The Queen of the Plastics
has all the trappings of a monarch – her name Regina is Latin for Queen,
and she wears the Spring Fling Crown. “They’re teen royalty.” But in fact the tyrant Regina
is not a Queen by rights. As her arch nemesis, Janis Ian,
tells us when we’re first introduced to her: “Regina George is an evil dictator.” If we break down Regina’s techniques
of controlling her fellow students, we get insight into
the anatomy of a dictator: she’s power-hungry, manipulative,
glamourous, angry, and totally compelling. “That’s really interesting.” And in fact, it makes sense
that ‘Mean Girls’ chooses to offer up this portrait of a despot
in a high school setting— after all, for most of us,
adolescent social scenarios are defined by terror and tyranny. “Mom, can you pick me up? I’m scared.” So if we look closer at ‘Mean Girls’
on the 15-year anniversary of Tina Fey’s iconic comedy,
we can discover a fascinating analysis of how dictatorships rule,
why people help them maintain their power, and how we can overthrow
the Reginas in our lives – in high school and beyond. “Ok, let’s rock this b*tch.” Before we go on,
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to get a full month of Mubi for free. Dictatorships thrive
on the cult of the leader. And when Cady Heron enters junior year
at North Shore High, Regina George is a near-mythical figure
in the school. “I hear her hair’s ensured
for ten thousand dollars.” “I hear she does
car commercials in Japan.” In addition to being hated and feared,
she is revered, loved and admired. So she encapsulates
the complex combination of feelings a dictator inspires in her subjects. “The weird thing about hanging out with
Regina was that I could hate her but at the same
time I still wanted her to like me.” When she’s hit by the bus,
we’re told: “The more people are scared of you,
the more flowers you get.” Regina isn’t a goddess, though –
her myth, and her rule, are entirely calculated. And we start to see the strings
when Janis, a political dissident who was once in favor but has been
oppressed by the current regime, “We were best friends
in middle school. I know right? It’s so embarrassing.” decides to stage a campaign
of nonviolent civil resistance. “And how do you
overthrow an evil dictator? You cut off her resources.” Janis gives us a logical dissection
of this rulers’ key resources. “Her high status man candy,
technically good physique, and ignorant band of loyal followers.” In fact, academics
Johannes Gerschewski and Wolfgang Merkel
also frame dictatorships as resting on three key pillars,
which are: Legitimacy, Co-Optation (or Co-option),
and Repression. If any one of these is compromised,
the regime becomes unstable and theoretically can be overthrown. So let’s look closer at how
each of these three pillars operates in Regina’s reign of terror. Since a dictator does not inherit power
through a monarchy or existing laws, after taking control they need to
establish the legitimacy of their rule. Regina’s ‘legitimacy’ is accomplished
through the first two items on Janis’ list: her ‘man candy’, Aaron Samuels,
and her ‘hot body’. The ideal partner is an extension
of the dictator’s carefully curated cult of personality. “I hear Regina George is dating
Aaron Samuels again.” Dictators regularly choose attractive,
outwardly gentle consorts to soften their public image
and appeal to the masses. As a handsome, well-liked,
athletic senior guy, Aaron Samuels functions
like a badge of validity – if this perfect guy chooses her,
that reinforces that she is the most perfect girl in school. Regina doesn’t actually appear
to be in love with Aaron Samuels, “Uh, lip gloss.” privately, she’s more attracted
to Shane Oman. But Regina has evidently decided
that Shane is a less ideal public partner to support her regime. And so she makes a cold tactical choice
to perform romance with Aaron while keeping her authentic whims private. Regina’s ‘technically good physique’
is also s part of her legitimacy – it’s an accepted rule in this culture that the leader must be
conventionally attractive. As she puts it, “The Spring Fling Queen
is always pretty.” One of the first things
that strikes Cady about Regina is her glamour. “I’d never seen anybody
so glamorous.” The student body finds Regina’s
physical perfection aspirational. “Regina George is flawless.” The other girls
want to be her. “Because being with the plastics
was like being famous. People looked at you all the time
and everybody just knew stuff about you.” In many authoritarian regimes,
the appealing nature of the life of the dictator is part of what helps
to keep them in power. “If North Shore was Us Weekly,
they would always be on the cover.” Because she’s so successful
at asserting legitimacy as a ruler, like many dictators Regina enjoys
formal and ritualistic displays of affection by her public. She’s the uncontested winner
of popular votes. “She always wins
Spring Fling Queen.” “Who cares?” “I care!” And she creates continuity through traditions
that her populace privately doesn’t really ‘like’, “They do it every year.” but still feels obligated
to exuberantly cheer. [cheering] The second pillar, Co-option,
is the act of dampening potential opposition by inviting prospective challengers
to join forces with the dictatorship. “Okay you should just know
that we don’t do this a lot, so this is like a really huge deal.” “We want to invite you
to have lunch with us every day for the
rest of the week.” And this is exactly what
Regina does with Cady. On first viewing we might wonder
why Regina befriends Cady, “She doesn’t even
like you that much.” but look at the context
of this first meeting. Regina notices Cady
being hit on by Jason, “Is your muffin buttered?” “What?” Gretchen Wiener’s crush whose lack of loyalty
repeatedly embarrasses Regina’s number two, and by extension Regina herself. “You were supposed
to call me last night.” “Jason, you do not come to a party
at my house with Gretchen, and then scam on some poor innocent girl
right in front of us three days later.” Regina makes the snap judgement that
Cady’s good looks and interesting backstory are a threat. “You’re like really pretty.” “Thank you.” “So you agree?” “What?” “You think you’re really pretty?” So, she subsumes this new girl
into the Plastics to negate the threat and keep her under close control. “D*mn you are so lucky
to have us to guide you.” By absorbing potential opponents
into the fabric of their state, dictators get insight into their
preferences and weaknesses. “So have you seen any guys
that you think are cute yet?” When Regina finds out that Cady
is interested in her ex boyfriend, Aaron, she realizes that this potential coupling
– with Cady’s looks and Aaron’s cultural
cachet – could usurp her spotlight. So she acts quickly
to protect her cult of personality and stop this symbol of her legitimacy
from being stolen. Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith, too,
are part of the Plastics because of Co-option. Karen is another pretty face
who could be a problem if not brought into the fold. Regina even says herself: “I meant the crazy thing
is that it could be Karen but people forget about her
because she’s such a slut.” Since the Spring Fling Queen
is expected to be pretty, Karen has a more legitimate claim to the crown,
due to being even prettier than Regina. Meanwhile, Gretchen is a rich heiress. “She’s totally rich because
her dad invented Toaster Strudel.” This reflects how dictators often
give the wealthy prestigious positions to bring gravitas
and resources to their regime, while minimizing
any danger of competition. The magic of co-option is that people feel
invested in the despotic state the more they participate in it. “You know I bet she sells drugs on the side
to pay for her pathetic divorce.” “You let it out honey. Put it in the book.” So Regina even makes the regular citizens
complicit in her rule by drawing on her immense charisma
and ability to make people like her. “Oh my god, I love your skirt. Where did you get it?” The recipients feel special to be singled
out by these brief moments of attention from the Great Leader. Even if people don’t like her,
they still want to be involved with herm “One time, she punched me
in the face. It was awesome.” as the only thing worse
than being in the Burn Book is not being in the Burn Book. “You’re not in it.” “Those b**ches.” Co-option has it risks, however. Once welcomed into the hierarchy of rulership,
new members might use that status to overthrow the dictator. “Was I the new Queen bee?” And the third pillar is Repression,
the part we all remember about dictators. The despot keeps her subjects in line through
means of fear, violence, and punishment. Regina tasks her enforcers
with doing her dirty work, “Oh no you can’t like Aaron Samuels,
that’s Regina’s ex-boyfriend.” like digging for information,
and resolving conflicts. Regina’s #2 Gretchen knows everything
about everyone in their society, “That’s why her hair’s so big,
it’s full of secrets.” and this might make us think
of a dictator’s secret police. The myth of Regina as ‘above it all’ captures
that idea that the popular kids in school don’t even know the names
of the little people. But far from being royally removed
from her subjects, the dictator Regina has
a file on each of them. “It’ll be like our little secret.” “Hello?” “I know your secret.” Regina is watching, all the time,
assessing every movement amongst the ranks,
and when a civilian acts out, her punishment is swift. “Oh this is Susan
from Planned Parenthood. I have her test results. If you could have her give me
a call as soon as she can. It’s urgent, thank you.” Regina’s rules are petty,
and dramatically restrictive, “Only wear your hair in
a ponytail once a week. So I guess you picked today.” passed down to others,
generally not directly, but by her underlings. “On Wednesdays
we wear pink.” These rules are respected
and recognised by everyone, “I think I’m joining the Mathletes.” “No.” “No, no, you cannot do that. That is social suicide.” even those far down
the social ladder. “You can’t join Mathletes
it’s social suicide.” Refusing to bend rules is
a vital part of Regina’s strict regime, “The meaner Regina was to her,
the more Gretchen tried to win Regina back.” but also her downfall as Regina herself
is the only one who remembers that these rules are artificial. “Whatever. Those rules aren’t real.” [shouting] “You can’t sit with us!” Janis’ plan destabilizes Regina’s rule,
but it doesn’t finish her off. We witness a violent power grab
as Cady, however unconsciously, makes a play for Regina’s place. This challenge leads to
a crisis of leadership. “That Cady girl is hot. She may even be hotter
than Regina George.” When Regina sees Cady coming for her spot
and discovers Cady’s sabotage, “Motherf**ker.” she resorts to repression
to punish the would-be usurper, framing Cady, Gretchen and Karen
as the sole authors of the Burn Book. She then starts a riot
to punish her challenger. But the chaos brings the people together,
and Regina’s repressive practices are brought out into the light. “How many of you have ever felt
personally victimized by Regina George?” Even more damaging is Janis’ public reveal
of the plot against Regina. “We gave her this candy bar thing,
so it would make her gain weight and we turned her best friends against her…” As Janis is carried on the shoulders of
her contemporaries like a revolutionary hero, this truth bomb has punctured
Regina’s leader-myth. Up to this point Regina
has been a distant enigma; but when the girls hear proof
that she’s a fallible human being like them, they no longer idolize her as an
untouchable god-slash-monster. The movie compares Regina to Caesar, “’Why, Man, he doth bestride the narrow
world like a colossus’, might translate into, ‘Why is he so huge and obnoxious’.” “Why should Caesar just get to
stomp around like a giant while the rest of us try not to get
smushed under his big feet?” Just like Caesar, Regina ends up being
the last dictator before a new form of leadership will emerge. And also like Caesar,
she is so powerful she needs to finally be
taken down by brute force. Regina isn’t actually killed,
but the moment is symbolic – it represents that,
while Regina the person survives, Regina the dictator’s rule is over. Notably, a school bus also
almost hits Cady on her first day – but Cady, careful and nervous,
jumps back. “I’ll be careful.” Here Regina is so sure
of her strength and power that she doesn’t even bother looking
before crossing the road. The movie ends with the junior Plastics,
new freshmen wannabe-Reginas, almost getting hit by a bus, too. So this ending foreshadows that one day,
when they get so big-headed they stop being careful,
their regime will meet the same fate as Regina’s finally did. The student votes Cady in
as Spring Fling Queen, signaling that she is now perceived
as the most fearsome figure in the class. “I’m voting for Cady Heron
because she pushed her.” But Cady rejects this opening
to replace Regina, [scoffs] upon winning, she hands out
pieces of the crown to her classmates. This symbolic gesture redistributes
power among the people. As Regina takes a small piece for herself,
she is reintegrated into the student body. Her meek ‘thank you’ and regal wave
signify that she accepts her diminished role as a figurehead. More or less just another student. So what this elaborate tale of a dictatorship
have to do with “girl world” and the culture of American high school? Sarah Davies writes that Stalin himself
believed in the idea that, quote, “Great individuals are
only important to the extent that they reflect
wider social forces.” And the unattainably beautiful,
wealthy, coquettishly feminine Regina, reflects the social ideals teenage girls
in her culture are expected to live up to. “Regina’s like the Barbie Doll
I never had.” The name of Regina’s group, ‘The Plastics’,
neatly encompasses the world of lavish consumerism these girls live in. “Get in loser,
we’re going shopping.” These teenagers’ ‘mating rituals’
take place at the mall, where they pay on plastic; their Jingle Bell Rock outfits
are slick and shiny, like plastic; Regina is lauded because: “She has two Fendi purses
and a silver Lexus.” the epitome of conspicuous consumption;
and both she and her mother have had plastic surgery. Once Cady fully becomes part of this world,
Janis tells her: “But you’re not pretending
any more, you’re plastic.” Cold, hard, shiny plastic.” So to be revered as an elite
in this culture, you must disdain the natural, the organic, the ‘real’,
and be cold, shiny and hard. But though she seems to have everything,
it’s striking that Regina George is full of anger. [screaming] “Once Gretchen thought Regina was mad at
her, the secrets started pouring out. Cady cracks Gretchen by making
her think Regina is mad at her – which works because Regina
just always seems to be mad. “Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.” When she was preparing for the role,
Rachel McAdams built the palpable anger of Regina George by listening to
Courtney Love’s music, [singing] “Oh make me over.” and watching Alec Baldwin’s famous speech
from ‘Glengarry, Glen Ross’. “F**k you, that’s my name! You know why, Mister? ‘Cause you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight,
I drove an eighty thousand dollar BMW. That’s my name!” So what exactly is Regina
so furious about? For one thing, her plastic life
doesn’t actually seem very fun. She feels she has to constantly
be on a diet to maintain her physique. “I really wanna
lose three pounds.” She doesn’t have any equals
who can be honest with her. “Oh my god,
what are you talking about?” “You’re so skinny.” “Shut up.” And this sharply intelligent, strong person
doesn’t have much to do besides shop, work on her appearance,
and manipulate people. So, essentially,
she’s bored. As we enter this teen ‘girl world’ through
the naïve eyes of the outsider Cady, we get a sense of all the things that
might be confusing and frustrating for American teens. Like antagonistic behavior
from adults, “I had never lived in a world
where adults didn’t trust me. Where they were
always yelling at me.” parents who don’t know how to
impose healthy boundaries, “I’m not like a regular mom. I’m a cool mom. Right, Regina?” “Please stop talking.” problems at home, “Her parents totally don’t sleep
in the same bed anymore, if that’s what you mean.” and mixed messages
about sexuality – “Don’t have sex. Because you will
get pregnant and die.” which is a prized
aspect of popularity, “Halloween is the one night a year
when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can
say anything about it.” but also a source of shame, “Regina says everyone hates you
because you’re such a slut.” and a feature of their lives
from a shockingly young age. “Oh you’ll get socialized alright,
a little slice like you.” Most saliently, Cady observes
that, in Girl World, you’re not allowed to express conflict. So this culture of
elaborate oppression is really caused by these young women’s frustration
at not knowing how to: “Express your anger
in a healthy way.” In the end, Regina learns to
harness her anger into athletics: “And her physical therapist taught her
to channel all her rage into sports.” So the lesson isn’t that
teenage girls shouldn’t feel angry, it’s that anger can be
redirected powerfully, and for good, if we learn how to find
appropriate outlets for our feelings. “The fault, dear Brutus,
is not in our stars, but in ourselves,
that we are underlings.” In other words, we don’t have to
accept being underlings. “Soldiers, don’t give yourselves to brutes,
men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to
do or what to think or what to feel.” We the people put rulers in power,
and we can take that power away, whether it applies to real political regimes,
or the mean girls who are making us feel like we’re not good enough. All the same when we think of ‘Mean Girls’, it’s not subdued,
final-scene Regina we remember, but ‘Mean Regina’ who exists as a cult
icon, celebrated by popstars, presidents, and everyone in between. “Why are you so
obsessed with me?” There’s still something deeply compelling
about Regina’s power, her mystery, her manipulation, her rage. She reminds us that autocrats can look
a lot more seductive and charismatic than we might think. And so, like a true dictator,
her legacy lives on. “Love ya.” Hey guys this is Grace and today
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