Masters (MSt) in Philosophical Theology Student at Worcester College, Oxford University
Watching Mean Girls for the first time just weeks ago, I was struck by the sense that I had stumbled on a window into another world. Lindsay Lohan should consider herself lucky that she was charged merely with managing her social life and winning Maths competitions. Just a few years down the line and the coming of age experience might have meant some variation on saving the world, enduring supernatural metamorphoses and arbitrary life and death struggles.
The fact that in 2004 popular culture understood the teen experience within a world recognisably our own is worth pondering.
One explanation is that in a post 2008 universe, films like the Hunger Games articulate the fear that beneath the official facades, precarity and ruthlessness rule the game. Likewise you might say the frivolity of the Mean Girls universe reflects the excesses at the ‘end of history’ – to quote Regina George ‘get in loser, we’re going to shopping’. I would wager however that Mean Girls is true of its moment in a way dystopian adolescent cinema today is not.
What does it mean to be true to a moment? One could say that out there is such a thing as a ‘truth’ and a work of art is truthful to the extent that it approximates this ‘thing’ in reality. Things are complicated by the fact that art is truthful precisely in how it abstracts from reality. Leonardo da Vinci used the ‘sfumato’ technique to deliberately blur the facial features of his subjects. Far from making his work less realistic, the conscious departure from photo-realism, ironically allowed him to capture something far truer of his subjects. Hence Gombrich famously comments that da Vinci brought a new sense of life to renaissance portraiture by recognising that painting must represent what we see rather than what there objectively is. Thus a painting that incorporates the fallibilities, of the human encounter with a face is truer than the quest for perspective-less geometric rendering (as per da Vinci’s predecessors).
If we look deeper we are drawn to a paradoxical point about how art can be truthful. The truth da Vinci produces in his representation of the human face can be said to be true because it corresponds to what we see when encounter faces in real life. Yet this truth is as much a truth about the fact of our encounter with the world, as it is a truth about the world itself. The point is that the truthfulness in da Vinci’s art is not only an approximation of a reality in the world, it is also an approximation of a relating to reality. In this act of ‘relating to’, our fallibility in encountering space from an embodied perspective becomes not an error to be corrected, but rather the condition for the truthfulness of the painting.
The above suggests a contradiction about artistic truth. it implies that the truth is at once the truth of our subjective encounter and yet something we recognise to be objectively ‘out there’ in ‘reality’. Indeed this is the sleight of hand that an artist as phenomenal as da Vinci can play. By understanding in what sense our vision is not ‘objective’, he can produce a vision that humours our pretence to objectivity and thus hit on the truth of our non-objective experience. The irony is that to get to what we think is really out there, we have to acknowledge error – there is no inhuman shortcut to truth.
This means that far from derivatively tapping into what is really real, art participates in the possibility of this reality by staging (through its form) the process of relating to reality that is integral to what we naively suppose is reality itself. There is no possibility of truth without the constraints art imposes, for these constraints are what separates reality from art and in this separation art can mimic our own separation.
One consequence of this model is that it requires distinction and distance between the human subject and the object he/she represents. The artist must regard the object as something other or different to themselves and in negotiating this otherness, transcribe their experience in a work that shows the object in its dual character as both other and as something mediated by him/her. A distance and separation is required in order for an artistic labour in mediating the object to take place.
But what happens when we lose the difference between subject and object such that the subject ceases to acknowledge that its labour of representation is towards something other than it. What if rather the subject presumes that the object is not other to himself/herself leaving only the fact of their relating to it?
In pinning down the difference between Mean Girls and the adolescent cinema of today, I think the difference can be condensed as the difference in the possibility of acknowledging this gap. Thus the former inhabits the last vestiges of a stable sense of ‘reality out there’ while the latter collapses its view of reality into only the self-relating of the subject.
Mean Girls inhabits a universe where adolescent angst is one reality among many and so in the film this angst grates against an object which we might call the ‘real world’. The two indeed are sufficiently different so that Lindsay Lohan’s struggles do not become world ending struggles for civilisation but rather aspire to the no less nobles aims of ruling Junior prom and winning the Maths Olympiad. Indeed these rites not only form the ultimate horizon of her relation to the world, they are even stable enough to reconcile her to the world beyond her subjective predicament. Mean Girls inhabits a universe with a sufficient sense of self such that the subject/object dynamic still makes sense and indeed so too the corresponding labour by which the two are mediated. Not only is this evident in the thought world of the narrative but the film itself is a way of trying to be true to something other than itself – what it means to be a teenager. The film was thus shot in a real high school, with a script based on high school memories and performed by actors of the age. There is thus a supposition that there is an object called ‘adolescence’ that can be approximated by working to be true to something ‘out there’.
Compare this with teen films today where there is virtually anything but adolescence. Indeed Katniss Everdeen is saved from horrors of the junior prom by comparatively benign genetically mutated killer bees. It is as if the films today are in their very form adolescent rather in their content. It is almost as if Mean Girls is comparatively adult for having attained some ironic distance to the apocalyptic angst of being a teenager. Mean Girls thus knows there is a world beyond the self-involvement of adolescent paranoia and that the trauma can be seen from an ‘other’ perspective beyond oneself, as indeed all adults come to do. The films today seem to have no such distance to their object and indeed with their interminable serialisation they are as self involved as a teenager constantly ruminating on their own personal mythology and ‘origin story’. In short, these films have no object, which they can truthfully represent, because the object is themselves. Thus we have to think about what happens when we lose the distance between subject and object, between ourselves and the world.
Returning to the comments on how truth is at once in the object and in the relating to the object, the films of today cannot be truthful because they have nothing to be truthful about. There is no equivalent of da Vinci’s sfumato, no finesse or sleight of hand in painting a picture of life. Mean Girls is no Mona Lisa, but its distance allows a sharp irony that at least rings very true of many of the tropes of the age. This comparative lack of finesse explains what can only be described as the literal-ism of teen films today. Their variations on the apocalypse are the centrepiece of their raison d’etre and yet viewed as comments on the teen experience it is extraordinary how unimaginative they are. Thus the literal metamorphosis of the body in ‘Twilight’, literally ‘finding your way’ in the world in the ‘Mazerunner’, literally getting a job in ‘Divergent’ or indeed the rat run from entrance exam to school, to university to job to death for which the ‘Hunger Games’ becomes more literal by the minute. The very baldness of the symbolism attests to the lack of distance that permits any truly creative engagement with the subject matter.
In this sense these films fail to be true to our age in the same way a perfect rendering of geometric space is not as truthful as Leonardo’s wilful smudges and skews. They have no element of a human ‘relating to’ because they have no sense of a distance to their subject matter nor I would dare say ant sense of self either. This is a symptom of something beyond these films and no doubt in part this explains why teenage apocalypses have taken an unprecedented place in our cultural imagination.
One can only speculate as to the loss of a sense of reality beyond ourselves but it is certainly clear that once we are left with only the subject looking for themselves, it becomes progressively harder to learn the lesson of Mean Girls and confront some ‘other’. Indeed the narcissism of the situation can easily result in confusing our self-relating for whatever it is that is really real. No coincidence then that much in the same way our films become more literal mirrors of our reality, so too our reality starts to become more like our films if we can’t make root a distinction. A notion that seemed theoretical fancy until reality TV stars became presidents.
Mean Girls however still contains a grain of the notion what this other reality might be. It is ultimately a story about a girl who pays the price (and yet is ultimately redeemed) for creating stories that almost permit her to live the reality she thought she wanted. The film retains its irony in so far as it ultimately castigates Lindsay Lohan for her folly. Her lies and duplicity are discovered as what they are and then reproached for their fakeness. As such the film evidences that mysterious tension by which true and false are distinguishable without denying that what we think is true requires distortion.
But perhaps Mean Girls represents a watershed moment in the turn to a more literal cinema. Already the film at its end shows the logic of an unchecked subject with no ‘real’ to oppose it or ground it beyond itself. At the seams of the film the consensus on an external reality can be seen to be bursting. Take one of the last gags. In this scene Lindsay Lohan jokes that there is a way of dealing with the new girls who are aspiring to be cool. Promptly a bus runs them over. For a second we really believe this happened. Lohan then quickly backtracks ‘only joking’. This is more than just an average break of the fourth wall. Hitchcock addressed the issue significantly in his interview with Truffaut as regard flashbacks and dreams. His cardinal rule was that you could not pass of what was filmed as true, if in the narrative universe it was a fake. Thus for example if you show a flashback, it cannot be a ‘false flashback’ unless the audience knows it. Consider for a second the irony of this rule. A fake story, must be consistent in what it says is the truth to give a sense of what this sense of truth used to be, we in the era of fake news cannot even manage to keep our lies consistent. Correspondingly in ultimately conforming to a sense of reality, Lindsey is forced to acknowledge what she said was not true.
Mean Girls plays by the rules, in only joking but only just. What happens when irony ceases to be ironic and Lindsay becomes less sure whether she is joking when she finds nothing resists her self-narration. Her world spirals to the point where she must take up her bow in a game of life and death; perhaps if only to hope the adults can still control what is reality and what is a game.