Friday, April 25, 2008

Distortion of Beauty in Girl World

As Cady walks into the school cafeteria for her first day of real school, she is immediately drawn into the world of cliques. Each table designates a different culture and set of rules. For instance, you have the preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity jocks, Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feelings, Girls who don't eat anything, Desperate wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually active band geeks etc. In the center of all this madness is the table where the Plastics sit, the popular girls. Gretchen, the best friend to queen bee Regina explains, “being with the plastics was like being famous... people looked at you all the time and everybody just knew stuff about you.” The movie centers on adolescent world, better known as “Girl World”. Mainly, the movie addresses what it is like for young women to face challenges such as upholding the beauty standards of society, while balancing the pressures of their sexuality. This paper will analyze how the movie, Mean Girls, fails to send a feminist message that digs deeper than the surface. The main characters I will be focusing on, Cady and Regina, sport small cut clothing and reiterate the need to perfect their bodies constantly; the young women strive for impossible beauty standards and send the message that if a woman can accomplish the impossible, they will be able to control their sexuality’s impact on men like Aaron, the perfect male and boy-crush of the movie. Although the movie does end with the young women learning a lesson and can be seen as a light-hearted comedy, this paper will center on the film’s failure, like many films targeting teenagers, to address third-wave issues farther than skip deep (literally) and therefore, lack of fuel in tackling the complexity of feminist issues.

Magazines and films have shown to be some of the most influential in targeting young adolescents. With every new beauty trend on every page, it is not hard to see how difficult the pressure to be thin and beautiful has become on every woman. What exactly is the ideal girl? Well according to Seventeen she is, “white, usually blond, and invariably skinny”, and that is exactly what we see as we watch the three young women who are known as the “plastics” rule the school. Cady comes into the picture with her red locks, and although she does not fit the norm, the other young women are very eager to teach her the ropes of what is and what is not acceptable. When Cady is invited to sit with the plastics at lunch, they give her a list of rules that she will need to follow in order to stay a part of their group. For example, Gretchen tells Cady that pink shirts must be worn at least once a week, and while Cady may think she likes a skirt, she could be wrong unless she receives the whole group’s seal of approval. By becoming one of them, Cady must adapt to their way of thinking in terms of beauty and coincide to a twenty billon dollar cosmetic industry. Cady learns quickly from the Plastics how to dress seductively with low skirts and low tank tops, as well as put on plenty of lip gloss. Cady’s character meets a guy named Aaron, an older more mature senior, who happens to be Regina’s ex-boyfriend. As a warning, Gretchen tells Cady, “Ex-boyfriends are just off limits to friends. I mean that's just like the rules of feminism.” Yet, what exactly does Gretchen mean by the rules of feminism? It can clearly not be defined by that one sentence in this movie. The film’s use of the rules of feminism is again, only hitting the surface. Feminism is not easily defined and covers a multitude of different beliefs. Rebecca Walker believes, “To be a feminist is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fiber of my life.” Insulting and criticizing each others’ bodies and outfits throughout the movie, the plastics draw far from what feminists see as empowering women and send the wrong message. Young women need to see more affirmative role models in books and movies. Nancy Drew for instance, used to be such a positive role model for young women. In Nancy Drew and the case of the disappearing feminist, Jana Siciliano questions the lack of teenager role models we have today. She reminds us, “From the 1930s through the 1970s, Nancy Drew remained bold, brave, and independent. Unfortunately, today's Nancy is more concerned with being hip and sexy, a fact made obvious by the covers of the more recent books. On them, Nancy is dressed in skimpy, revealing clothing and often running around in bathing suits, like some ditzy remnant of last season's Baywatch.”

Throughout Mean Girls, the subject of many conversations between Regina and Cady involves their obsession with perfecting their bodies and outfits. Cady learns that if she can buy the best products, she will quickly rise to the top of the plastics. The movie fails to address the pressures young women face in high school. For example, Cady gives Regina nutrition bars to help her lose weight, but when Regina gains the weight and goes to a one, three, five size store, she cannot fit into the dresses. The scene illustrates the beauty standards society sets for us. Rather than allow the viewers to see Regina accept or embrace her new figure, she becomes upset, and as we see at the end of the movie, Regina does end up wearing a dress from that store. The film is unsuccessful in showing anything but the normalization of thinness. From a feminist view, women like Naomi Wolf explain that beauty is in the inside and that today, women are suffering from the beauty myth. The idea that “women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it…the contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically.” Wolf believes that by subjecting to these beauty standards, we as women are only allowing ourselves to undo what has made us stronger women and progress throughout the years. Cady’s character realizes at an early age her incredible talent at math, yet she fails her tests in order to get closer to her crush. Her character undermines the advancement women today have made in our ability to access high-paying jobs. Instead, the film brings to light how the young women subject themselves to their insecurities that fluster through competition and unrealistic body proportions. Continuously, the film fails to address the pressures and problems of the beauty standard. As I’ve mentioned, Cady’s overall goal to be perfect is shaped by the Plastics’ view of perfection. In one scene, the young women are looking in the mirror and mentioning a part of their body that they see as an imperfection. Cady being new to America, is unfamiliar with this procedure. Through my feminist glass, I see the film allowing this process to teach young women that in America, it is necessary to point out flaws with your friends. As the Plastics list their flaws, Cady thinks to herself, “I used to think there was just fat and skinny. But apparently there are lots of things that can be wrong on your body.” The film could have used this time to devalue the flaws, but only brings up the issue and leaves it untouched. In Feminism and the Politics of Appearance, Amy Winters explains how a feminist views this issue, “Feminism values women as the subjects of our own lives, not objects to attract and hold another's gaze. It values cooperation between women, not the competition and comparison fostered by presenting us with image after image of women we'll never look like-women who, in fact, don't exist, given the extensive and now-infamous use of airbrushing and retouching in fashion photography.”

Sexuality is very much linked with beauty in the teenage world. Instead of allowing the social group of the Plastics to be a positive role in addressing the issues of these pressures, it allows the power of the social group to reinforce young womens’ struggle in using their sexuality to dismiss the beauty standards of society. In one scene, Cady gradually begins to lose her individualistic thinking and adapts to the mind set of the Plastics. She mentions that she learned to control everything around her, and with her new-found sexuality; Cady begins to attract the attention of every male in school. In particular, she sets her eyes again on Regina’s ex-boyfriend, who has recently gotten back together with Regina and broke up with her for the second time. Cady tells Aaron that she loves the shirt he is wearing, and he better be at her party or else! With a demanding and seductive tone Cady compliments him and believes she has conquered his desire for her. She even reiterates that unlike earlier in the movie where she wore a zombie-bride costume, she will not make the same mistake again and will sport a much sexier outfit. After all, Cady now knows “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” From a third wave feminist lens, female empowerment would not be allowing young women to act like complete sluts and sex themselves up all in the name of a holiday.

Last, the film’s role models are examined in their portrayal of sexuality and beauty. When Cady visits Regina’s home for the first time, she is greeted by her mother whose boob job is described as hard as a rock. Focusing on her body and wearing a stylish Juicy sweat suit, Regina’s mother embodies a role model most feminists would disagree with. Brenda Boudreau., author of Feminist Collections, discusses Groeschell’s study in the development of body image in young women. Boudreau discusses how Groeschell’s study on many young women who do pilates and sit ups with their mothers with sit to get in shape and be able to wear their bathing suits in Hawaii. To Boudreau., Grochell may have overlooked the “{problematic} content of this quote, which, read differently, might suggest that a certain obsessiveness with the body and thinness seems to be the focus of this mother-daughter connection.” In the film, the mother’s obsession with plastic sugery, dressing young, and serving the young women non-alcoholic martinis, but offering the alcohol separately could influence how Regina’s character grows up with an obsession for perfecting herself. For feminism, this raises the issues of how to tackle the advancement of women when the mothers of young women instill these beauty standards at such a young age.

The issues of beauty and sexuality stemming from mainstream media and the ideology of “woman as consumers” (Wolf) continues to be a constant strife in the progression of third-wave feminism. If films like Mean Girls can learn to balance the comedy genre and dig deeper into the complexity of addressing the dangers of the influences on today’s youth, growth for all of feminism can be made. However, as long as magazines like Seventeen and films with the Plastics continue to only scrape the surface and tell young women that thinness is mandatory in the acceptance of social groups, we will continue to have to fight for what we strive to achieve.

1 comment:

Adamgv said...

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