The Psychology Behind “Mean Girls”

Jackie Ricca
7 min readNov 8, 2016

The iconic movie might be just a little deeper than you think

For the 21st century teenage population, the movie Mean Girls, with a screenplay written by Tiny Fey, is a cult classic that gives the younger generation a false but enticing look into what high school could be for them. Mean Girls is a comedy full of memorable quotes, amusing characters, and lots of laughs, but what many people may not realize is that the actions of the Plastics can be explained by Theories of Motivation and Social Psychology.

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Theories of Motivation

Perhaps one of the most universal ideas for motivation is the Instinct or Evolutionary Theory. This concept has its roots in Darwin’s principles of natural selection, whereby certain human physiological traits appear more adaptable and attractive. Thus, we are biologically directed to go after people and things that will give us the greatest chance at survival and reproduction. In a scene in the movie, the Plastics are seen looking at themselves in Regina’s bedroom mirror picking out their flaws, “My hairline is so weird…My pores are huge…My nail beds suck…I have really bad breath in the morning”. These are traits that the girls are afraid will turn boys away from them. In nature, unlike males, females are less typically less pyschically and physically aggressive, and depend on their looks to grab a male’s attention for reproduction. The Plastics are constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, worrying about their weight, and making sure they have the hottest trends in clothing so they can stand out amongst the population of North Shore.

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Related to the above theory, is the Drive Reduction Theory, which states that behavior is motivated by psychological needs to maintain homeostasis in order to keep the body in balance. Examples of these needs are hunger, thirst, and pain that need to be kept at moderate and consistent levels. A parody of the Drive Reduction Theory in Mean Girls, is the scene where Coach Carr is teaching a Sex-Ed class and warns, “At your age you are gonna be having a lot of urges…Don’t have sex because then you will get pregnant and die”. By using the class as a preventative measure against sex instead of an informative and progressive tool, the students are being encouraged to bottle up their feelings and “urges” which will throw off their homeostasis.

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Another idea that we are all similarly affected by is Extrinsic Motivators. These are rewards we get from the environment for accomplishments like grades, money, revenge, resources, and performance. In the movie, the primary reason Cady joined the Plastics was to help Janis carry out her revenge against Regina. In past history, Janis was disinvited from Regina’s birthday party because she though Janis was “obsessed” with her and was worried that Janis was a lesbian and Regina “couldn’t have a lesbian at my party, there are gonna be girls there in their bathing suits”. This rumor was enough to cause Janis to move away. When Cady moved to North Shore, Janis realized this was the perfect time to use her to mess with Regina in order to restore her dignity and feel enjoyment/satisfaction.

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On the other hand, Cady is affected by Intrinsic Motivators. These are rewards we get internally from our value systems such as enjoyment, satisfaction, integrity, loyalty, and love. At the end of the movie, Cady stands up in front of everyone at the Spring Fling and apologizes for the problems the Burn Book has caused: “To all the people that got hurt by the Burn Book, I’m really sorry”. This made her feel internally better about herself because she owned up to her mistakes (even though she wasn’t entirely responsible) and was able to move on.

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A common problem in most people’s lives that is represented through the movie is the Approach-Approach Conflict. Here, stress comes from having two desirable goals and it becomes easier to move toward one. In the middle of the movie, it becomes evident that Cady is being pulled into the Plastics yet still wants to remain friends with Janis and Damien. The Plastics are appealing because they give her a socially artificial friendship who, are the most popular girls in school with the best clothes and looks. But Janis and Damien were her first friends who originally explained the social layout of the school to her; plus it was their plan to sabotage Regina. Evidently, Cady chooses to approach the Plastics because she has been sucked into their clique, which makes Janis and Damien feel betrayed.

Social Psychology

All around the world, almost everything is influenced by Stereotypes, which can have a positive or negative effect on someone/something. Stereotypes are an overgeneralized attitude towards a group of people. One of the most prominent examples of stereotyping in Mean Girls is when Cady is introduced as a new student who has moved to North Shore from Africa and Karen immediately asked, “So if you’re from Africa…why are you white?” to which Gretchen responds, “Oh, my God, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white!” Here, Karen is representing the idea that all people from Africa are of a darker colored skin, where lighter skin is the minority. Luckily, Cady just shook it off but such stereotypes can detrimentally impact people’s lives.

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Just like in most high schools around the country, the Plastics is it’s own 4 girl clique made up of Regina, Gretchen, Karen, and Cady, also known as in the In-Group at North Shore. In groups represent the “us” part of the “us” vs. “them” mentality where all members share a common interest or identity. At many points during the movie, other girls of the junior class are interviewed for their views on the Plastics, which really highlights them as the ideal in-group. One girl said, “One time she [Regina] punched me in the face”, while another exclaims, “She [Regina] always looks fierce…She [Regina] always wins Spring Fling”. The views these girls have on the Plastics means they are looked up to as the most popular clique in school and all girls (whether they admit or not) wish to be a part. This is all to uphold a common standard and reputation of being the hottest and flirtiest girls at North Shore.

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The most extreme factor of the Plastics is their need for Conformity. Certain rules, according to Regina, are laid out that are learned social rules that tell the other members what to do/what not to. These are injunctive because she gives specific info about how to act. Upon first eating lunch with the Plastics, Cady learns that she can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, she can’t wear a ponytail more than once a week, and on Wednesdays the Plastics wear pink. She must follow these rules in order to stay a member to carry out Janis’s plan.

In the Plastics clique, there are extreme forms of Obedience, mostly stemming from submitting to Regina. This is when someone complies with a demand in order to retain a formidable status, prestige, behavior, and personality. A great example of obedience is when Regina told Gretchen that “…hoop earrings were her thing and that I [Gretchen] wasn’t allowed to wear them anymore”. This was really hurtful to Gretchen because she then got a pair for Hanukkah and had to pretend she didn’t even like them. She believes she has never told anyone that because she is “such a good friend” in order to abide by Regina’s rules to stay in the Plastics.

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With the infamous Burn Book, Regina’s plan to print the pages and claim she had no idea who wrote the book involved the concept of Diffusion of Responsibility. This is when members of a group are less likely to take responsibility for an action/inaction with other present. When Gretchen, Karen, and Cady were called into Mr. Duvall’s office. All three girls claim they have never seen the book before and that “whoever wrote it probably didn’t think anyone would ever see it”. With the three remaining members of the Plastics together at this meeting, there was less of chance they would take responsibility and Regina knew she was safe. Had Mr. Duvall called them in separately, maybe one of them would have taken responsibility and claimed someone besides Regina did it.

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The next time you sit down to watch Mean Girls for the thousandth time with your friends at a sleepover, don’t be afraid to share this newfound knowledge. Who knows, you might even earn yourself a spot in Plastics as the smart alec.