"I, like, invented her". Mimetic Rivalry in Mean Girls

Seminar Paper 2018 18 Pages

Film Science


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Girard's mimetic theory

3. Mean Girls (2004)
3.1 Alphas, Omegas, and everything in-between
3.2 Cady, the ideal blank canvas
3.3 Other examples of mimetic rivalry in the movie

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

The weird thing about hanging out with Regina was that I could hate her, and at the same time, I still wanted her to like me. – Cady in Mean Girls

In the 2004 movie Mean Girls [1], the viewer is introduced to the complexities of high school life through the eyes of the main character Cady, who starts out as a sweet and innocent girl who has so far been home-schooled her entire life. She quickly learns that American high school life is not at all comparable to the African steppe, and will soon, but only after some struggle, become aware of how and why her behavior unintentionally turns toward that of a 'mean girl.'

In this paper, René Girard's (1923-2015) theory of mimetic desire, which he first formulated in his 1961 book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (original French title: Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque), shall serve as the basis for acquiring a better understanding of the processes of (mimetic) rivalry taking place in the movie. While at first glance, Mean Girls seems to be 'just another teen/girl comedy' about girls being their bitchy selves while applying lipstick, it is, in view of the author, a very good example of how mimetic rivalry develops and of the dynamics that result from it both within different rivaling cliques/groups, but also within each group itself.

After giving an overview of Girard's mimetic theory in the first part of this paper, key scenes and events in the movie shall be discussed in the second part, focussing on the rivalry taking place between the members of the high school's coolest girl clique, The Plastics. Due to the limited scope of this paper, a complete and thorough overview on Girard's theory and all of its aspects shall not be given herein.

2. Girard's mimetic theory

According to Girard, desire is always and without fail mediated; what is particularly important is that what is actually being desired is not the object of desire per se (everything can act as an object of desire, and such object can be ideal or physical, like wealth or an attractive person), but rather somebody else's desire (this 'somebody' being the model = the mediator of desire).[2] Such mediated mimetic (or 'triangular') desire can take the shape of jealousy between partners, 'Sozialneid,' or peer pressure, to only mention a few. While the model-mediator is being idealized, it simultaneously blocks the access to the object, thus also turning it into a rival in trying to access the object:

[G]iven the pervasiveness of mimesis, mediators can thus function not only as models for desires, but also as rivals in the consummation of those desires.[3]

The mediation of desire can take place in two ways: by way of an external mediation (which is limited by social hierarchy, prohibitions, and norms) or by way of an internal mediation (which necessitates a proximity to the model-mediator).[4] As the mediated desire expresses a desire for and lack of being, it is always a metaphysical desire[5].

Acquisitive mimesis thereby inexorably leads to violence, a violence that is contagious and can and will easily and rapidly spread.[6] In order to pacify conflicts arising from such violence, it is always mandatory to defer the violence by finding a scapegoat (which is selected unconsciously), and then sacrificing said scapegoat. The scapegoat then in turn becomes sacred and idolized because whereas it initially is merely seen as the reason for the conflict, it in the end actually brings about the solution to the conflict.[7] This sacrifice of the victim then becomes ritually celebrated (the ritual is supposed to renew the memory of the conflict and its solution); in Girard's mimetic theory, Christ is the ultimate scapegoat.[8]

In Girard's theory of mimesis, all variations of civilization are based on lynching, and suffering is always caused by mimesis (because mimesis creates violence creates suffering).[9] This mechanism is subliminal – the participants in it are vaguely aware of what is happening without, generally, ever becoming fully aware of it.

Girard's theory of this acquisitive mimesis is what separates him from post-modernism, where desire is considered to be spontaneous and autonomous (which is also a Romantic belief and a belief that Girard considers to be an illusion). While the root concepts of postmodernism and Girard's theory are very similar, the problem that Girard sees himself confronted with is the following: Why are we doing the same thing over and over again if it leads to violence and conflict?

3. Mean Girls (2004)

3.1 Alphas, Omegas, and everything in-between

The 2004 movie Mean Girls (directed by Mark Waters, screenplay by Tina Fey based on the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman) tells the story of 16-year-old Cady Heron's first experiences of 'real' school life after having been home-schooled her entire life and having spent the last 12 years of her life in Africa. She soon realizes that American high school life is nothing like life in the African wilderness, the only thing she has consciously experienced so far due to the fact that the Herons left their native U.S. for professional reasons when Cady was only 4 years old.

She is not at all accustomed to the intricate but hidden high school customs and rules that are, arbitrarily, set up within each group but also between different groups as a whole. She quickly finds out that she must break principles she has so far consistently and reliably followed, e.g. not skipping classes and being a conscientious student. Feeling that she needs to be part of a group in order to handle this new and alien situation she finds herself in because her parents want her to get "socialized", she gladly joins Janis (an emo girl) and Damian (a pudgy gay boy) who are the only ones welcoming their new fellow 'African' student and take her under their wings. Both Janis and Damian are, quite obviously, not part of any of the cool and popular cliques, but rather outsiders who fail to fit into the hip groups due to their looks (Janis for being an emo with all-black clothes including a T-shirt with the imprint "RUBBISH", scene hair, and heavy make-up, Damian for being overweight and dressing in colors like pink) and sexuality (Damian, who is rather flamboyantly gay, but also Janis, who repeatedly and desperately tries to shut down the rumor that she is a lesbian). Cady states: "[...] I was in no position to pass up friends" [► 1:30:38].

It is Janis and Damian who introduce Cady into American high school life and explain to her the rules necessary for survival in this particular social setting. Janis even provides Cady with a seating map of the different groups in the school's kanteen; the student are, among others, divided into groups like the "fat girls" / "sexually active band geeks" / "asexual band geeks" / "unfriendly black hotties" (who, Cady quickly and disappointedly realizes, are not at all impressed by being greeted with a "Jambo!", the Swahili word for 'hello') / "thin girls" / "burn­outs" / "varsity jocks" / "cheerleaders" / "cool Asians" / "freshmen" and, last but certainly not least, "The Plastics."

3.2 Cady, the ideal blank canvas

The so-called "Plastics", the high school's "teen royalty" (a term used by Janis), consist of the aptly-named Regina (the Latin word for 'queen'), the groups unequivocal leader and 'Queen Bee' of the high school, and her loyal entourage, Gretchen and Karen. Surprisingly, even those students who regularly get bullied by these three girls admire them and even aspire to be like them as they are, after all, the most popular students of the school.

The conflict between Cady and The Plastics is foreshadowed by Damian and Janis when they call the newly arrive student a "slice" and a "regulation hottie", meaning that she is a very attractive girl, a fact that the yet rather naïve Cady herself had never paid attention to before as this idea had never been of any importance to her before arriving in the U.S. Regina immediately recognizes Cady's attractiveness and that this newcomer poses a potential threat to her status as Queen Bee. Being the most socially intelligent member of The Plastics, Regina can easily manipulate others and, what is of great importance to maintaining her status as a ruler, understand the insecurities and fears of her fellow students and thus play people off against each other if need be. Regina therefore slyly manages to 'lure' Cady into her clique after saving her from a male student who tries to make fun of the new one. Cady actually would have been fine with joining her new friends Janis and Damian for lunch, but ringleader Regina does not leave her any choice:

[► 1:25:43]
REGINA: Okay, you should just know that we don't do this a lot, so this is, like, a really huge deal.
GRETCHEN: We wanna invite you to have lunch with us every day for the rest of the week.
CADY: Oh, it's okay –
REGINA: Coolness. So we'll see you tomorrow.
KAREN: On Wednesdays, we wear pink.

Given the social conditions at the school, there really is a 'huge' significance of being invited to join the elitist Plastics (at least that is what Regina tries to make Cady believe). But the fact that Regina invites Cady to join The Plastics for lunch is merely a cunning maneuver on Regina's part in order to be able to execute power and control over the innocent and yet inexperienced Cady, given the potential threat the group's leader sees in her.

During her first math class (she voluntarily takes the 12th-grade course as she is fond of math because "it's the same in every country" – showing her assiduous and yet untainted charac­ter before mimetic rivalry takes place), she gets to know Aaron, the typical 'cute boy' that instantly mesmerizes her, although so far she basically has zero experience as far as dating is concerned: "[...] This one hit me like a big, yellow school bus" [► 1:24:18]. When Cady, Janis and Damian next meet, Janis, who is the driving force of this particular clique, basically prompts Cady to join The Plastics in order to extract information about what they talk about behind closed doors while being all to themselves. While this is not anything that Cady would probably have come up by herself, she nevertheless accepts playing the mole because she wants to secure the new friendship with Janis and Damian.

Not only do The Plastics have strict rules about what to wear, how to style their hair, where to sit in the kanteen, etc. – they also dictate who clique members are allowed to date. When Regina is not present during lunch, Cady confesses to Gretchen and Karen that she has, in fact, met a boy that she finds attractive, but the others are quick to tell her that Aaron is absolutely 'off-limits' because he is Regina's ex-boyfriend (although, as it turns out, Regina had been the one who actually dumped Aaron for another guy). In an effort to maintain peace within The Plastics and to avoid a dead certain conflict between Cady and Regina over Aaron, Gretchen and Karen promise to keep Cady's 'confession' a secret. The viewer quickly finds out, though, that Gretchen actually did tell Regina about Cady's infatuation with Aaron, and Regina, again rather cleverly, is able to manipulate benevolent Cady who is unaware of the fact that Gretchen is listening in on their telephone conversation as well:


[1] The movie is currently available on Netflix (https://www.netflix.com/watch/60034551). Please note that the time stamps used in this work refer to the remaining time of the movie.

[2] Cf. Doran, The Ethics of Theory, p. 128, Girard, Deceit, p. 7 et seq. and Livingston, Models of Desire, p. xii.

[3] Fleming, René Girard, p. 5.

[4] Cf. Girard, Deceit, p. 9 and Livingston, Models of Desire, p. xviii et seq.

[5] Cf. Doran, The Ethics of Theory, p. 131 and Doran, René Girard's Concept, p. 175.

[6] Cf. Fleming, René Girard, p. 7 and Girard, Things Hidden, p. 18 et seq.

[7] Cf. Girard, Things Hidden, p. 40: "[I]n the founding murder, the victim is held responsible for the crisis; the victim polarizes the growing mimetic conflicts that tear the community apart; the victim breaks the vicious cycle of violence and becomes the single pole for what then becomes a unifying, ritual mimesis."

[8] Cf. Palaver, "Creative Renunciation", p. 146 et seq. for further information on the role Christianity plays in Girard's works. A complete overview regarding this topic will, due to the scope of this paper, not be given here.

[9] According to Livingston, "the conditions and consequences of violence in human interaction" are the "central theme in all of Girard's analyses" (Livingston, Models of Desire, p. xix).


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LMU Munich – Slavistik
Mimesis Violence Eros Mimetic Rivalry Mean Girls Lindsay Lohan High School Clique Girls Jealousy Desire René Girard




Title: "I, like, invented her". Mimetic Rivalry in Mean Girls