All it takes is a click of a button on any search engine to see how engulfed media is with evidence of gender inequality. Film is one of the largest media industries in the world as it holds a frightening amount of power in its ability to influence how people view themselves. The fear factor is rooted in mainstream film’s overhaul of misrepresentation in different genders, sexual orientations, racial groups, and social classes. Each of these themes can be observed in any given movie, and they are often distorted to the point of being dangerous to the developing mind watching the television screen. Throughout my critique, I will focus on how gendered scripts influence the identities of teenagers in the films Mean Girls, Breakfast Club, and Pariah, and how these messages transcend into real life.
To start, Mean Girls has established itself as one of the most popular, girl-centric films of the century. The movie’s undeniably hilarious dialogue and nonchalant tone helps it get away with some pretty controversial and unacceptable plot lines. The film portrays a stereotypical high school experience through the lens of Caty Heron- an innocent, home-schooled girl who moves from Africa to the United States. Her understanding of survival of the fittest is challenged as she is confronted by the social laws of being a girl in public high school. Being a suburban school film, Mean Girls inevitably deals with gender roles, which can be examined through Cady’s interaction with “the plastics” throughout her time in school. The plastics are composed of three girls who are completely absorbed in adolescent egocentrism, as they reign over their peers with the use of fear, good looks, and popularity. The epitome of the popular girl stereotype is represented by Regina, Gretchen and Karen- showing audiences the superficial glory of being a mean girl. As I watched this film myself for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel enchanted by Regina’s good looks and confidence. Even though the movie ended with her downfall, I was still exposed to her acceptance, beauty, and “cool mom”- things that seemed pretty awesome to a girl my age. I was less concerned with the message of expressive individualism, and more enchanted by the atmosphere of high school cliques and seeing how the popular girls act and look. Although some of the film’s stereotypes are exaggerated, it is much more of a stretch for Caty to flip the script and break the status quo in the resolution. Additionally, the beautiful Regina George constantly says, “I just want to lose three pounds,” which furthers the discussion of gender representation. The film depicts teenage girls’ battle with body image, as the plastics continually degrade and critique their appearance, and the appearance of other girls. In one scene, Regina, Gretchen and Karen are looking in the mirror with disgust, picking apart every tiny flaw they see- including bad nail beds. The act of body shaming is “presented as a silly ritual the girls undergo, but it also is never shown to be as damaging as it is on female self-esteem” (TheRogueFeminist). For young girls to witness the plastics, who have idealized, “perfect” bodies, feel shameful of the way they look is a harmful representation of what girls expect of themselves when they look in the mirror themselves. By the end of the film, Caty realizes that obsessing over one’s appearance is not important, but the film is still saturated with the idea that being thin is the ticket to beauty and popularity. This is an important aspect to unpack because teenage girls are constantly being held up to high social expectations that are rooted in movies like Mean Girls. I have personally struggled with body image myself, and I know too many girls who have dealt with anorexia and bulimia. Perhaps we can trace the root of these issues to the film industry’s portrayal of women’s bodies that we have all observed as young girls. With the allure of the plastics, and the poor representation of the gravity of body image, Mean Girls can have harmful effects on the minds of developing girls.
Another classic, suburban high school film that we can examine gendered scripts through is the Breakfast Club, specifically through the character Allison Reynolds. Allison makes up one fifth of the detention squad, and her role fulfills the weird, outcast stereotype. We witness her doing bizarre acts, such as manipulating her sandwich and incorporating her dandruff in her artwork. Allison is dressed head to toe in drab colors, revealing no skin, and wearing barely any makeup. Her personality is reflected in her appearance, because a pretty girl would never be caught dead acting strangely, right? She is in direct juxtaposition to Claire Standish, the character who is constructed to be the expectation of a teenage girl- pretty, innocent, and of course, dressed in pink. These two drastic stereotypes are promoting the idea that personalities are directly correlated to looks, making young girls believe that if they want to conform to society’s ideal of “pretty,” they should stray away from the mold of Allison. These gender role stereotypes “in school or home, can be damaging to the development of well-integrated human beings” (Crocco 67). The representation of Allison and Claire can undoubtedly lead girl viewers to conformity, for fear of being isolated and regarded as weird. Films like the Breakfast Club hold the power to influence audiences to change themselves into being the “right” kind of girl, in pursuit of acceptance. The “well-integrated” aspect of this quote led me to think of how films can further the divide between society’s viewpoints on gender. As we grow up, we are presented with media that send us mixed messages about the standard for boys and girls, which can lead individuals down the wrong path of thinking. The news is constantly filled with strife and debates on the matter of gender, when there should really only be one clear way of thinking that promotes peace for every identity. Furthermore, Allison’s image is completely flipped during the movie with the all-too-common beauty makeover scene. This scene furthers the conversation of gender conformity, as it emphasizes the idea that a girl like Allison must change how she looks to be recognized as female. An important factor to consider is the idea that women are conforming for acceptance; acceptance that is rooted in their measure of appeal to men. Bulman describes this phenomenon when he writes: “Young women characters in the suburban school films pursue love, but do so by limiting their own expressiveness in ways that are pleasing to men, not in ways that allow them to express their identities in full” (Bulman 94). It’s heartbreaking to grapple with the idea that women have to lose a part of themselves in order to please others. Hollywood films have one goal in mind: money. I can easily apply Bulman’s argument to this anomaly because sex sells. What young kids see in movies is an objectified version of women, which translates to how young men end up treating and respecting women in the future. We are expected to believe that Allison’s happiness is a direct result of how she looks on the outside, encouraging girls that self-care is as easy as putting makeup on and changing your outfit. It is so critical that young girls are not taught this lesson, because it advocates the idea that as long as we look good enough for a boy, all of our other problems will disappear. With its stereotypes of different girls and the idea that girls need to be beautiful to be worthy, the Breakfast Club has established itself as an unhealthy representation of gender roles.
Gendered scripts can also be examined through Pariah, a film that follows the coming-of-age story of teenage girl Alike Oduye, as she struggles with hiding her true identity from those around her. Alike is just like any other girl in her school, yet her happiness is hindered by her inability to express her sexuality. We observe her sitting on the bus ride home, quickly changing out of her oversized sweatshirt and backward hat into a pink form-fitting t-shirt and gold hoops before going home to her family. This powerful opening scene displays how Alike is taking her identity and stuffing it away into a backpack, all because she is pressured to transform into the feminine teenager that is expected of her. When discussing gender roles in media, it would be erroneous to not include the intersection of sexual orientations. Unlike Mean Girls and Breakfast Club, Pariah is a much more realistic, raw film that represents a very common story for young, black adolescents who are trying to come out as gay. Without the support and encouragement she needs, Alike is never truly happy with herself, and can’t assimilate into the type of girl she wants to be because of the various outside pressures she faces. Similar to her friend Laura, Alike’s parents disapprove of her sexuality, and act very oblivious to the subject when they know the truth in the back of their minds. Her parents have one model of “female” ingrained in their brains, and their daughter doesn’t fit it. They try everything to make it work- buying her girly blouses, forcing her to hang out with girly girls, going shopping, asking about boyfriends… topics that further Alike’s unhappiness because these conversations continually make her feel like a disappointment. I think the most important takeaway from this film is the message it sends to parents about how to properly support their children’s sexual identities. Alike is just as much girl as the next, and her preferences do not take that away from her. Unfortunately, her mother’s hostility towards her development into her true self breaks their family apart. Both her mother and her father are distracted by their own failing marriage, and traces of homophobia, to know how to help her. Pariah is an effective film in its representation of a lesbian teenage girl, and in its telling of what parents shouldn’t do.
The films Mean Girls, Breakfast Club, and Pariah all present drastically different representations of gender. We examine the transformation of Caty Heron through exposure to the stereotypical high school life, as she learns what society expects from a girl. We witness Allison Reynolds turn into a completely new person, because her lack of a girly appearance isn’t worthy of approval. We analyze the poor parenting skills that lead Alike Oduye to feel like she’s trapped living a life as a person she isn’t. These three girls are all under so much pressure from society to conform to how others believe they should look, act, and behave. Each girl taught me a very important lesson about my own life, but most importantly I have come to understand that movies hold the power to make things seem so real when that truly isn’t the case. Many things we see in media are twisted representations that make us question ourselves and in the case of a teenage girl, our looks and our worth. We cannot base our value off the falsehoods we’re exposed to from a young age, rather we must be aware of them and move forward with this knowledge to better our society as a whole.
Bulman, Robert C. Hollywood Goes to High School. Worth Pub, 2015.
Crocco, Margaret Smith. “The Missing Discourse about Gender and Sexuality in the Social Studies.” Theory into Practice, vol. 40, no. 1, 5 Mar. 2008, pp. 65–71., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
TheRogueFeminist. “Mean Girls: Feminist Review and Analysis.” Tumblr, 19 Jan. 2015, https://theroguefeminist.tumblr.com/post/108501440428/mean-girls-feminist-review-and-analysis