The only bigger phenomenon than “Mean Girls” itself may be Professor of Comparative Literature Lisa Hughes’ Half Block course on the film, titled “Queen Bees, WannaBees, and Mean Girls.”
The class has been featured everywhere from the New York Post to The Today Show to Persephone Magazine to the Colorado Springs Gazette, all fascinated with how this decade’s pedestal of popular culture could possibly be translated into an academic setting.
“When the New York Post article came out, a former student of mine texted me ‘four for you Glen Coco!’” said Hughes. “’Mean Girls’ is a language your generation has.”
Hughes began preparing the class during the tenth anniversary of “Mean Girls.” “Last April, it was everywhere,” said Hughes. “I realized how deeply the film has permeated our culture.”
Hughes found her initial inspiration for the course when requested to oversee a woman’s thesis about bullying, during Colorado College’s Master of Arts in Teaching summer session.
“I thought she could get perspective from bullying in literature,” said Hughes. “Literature speaks to our lives in a lot of ways.” Hughes wracked her brain for literary representations of bullying and found many of her examples worked together quite well.
“Queen Bees, WannaBees, and Mean Girls” explored women’s motives behind seeking authority, the actions women are willing to take to maintain authority, and the dynamics of females’ relationships to one another. The class watched “Mean Girls” the very first morning, and studied all other course material through that framework.
Hughes’ syllabus included ancient Greek myths and poetry, the novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Penelopiad,” as well as Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The class also watched two additional films—the 1955 film “Queen Bee,” starring Joan Crawford, and the 2011 megahit “Bridesmaids.”
Much of the media coverage of the class, from large news sources to independent blogs, has failed to capture the breadth and academic rigor of the class.
“I knew Lisa, so I knew the course wouldn’t be just about ‘Mean Girls,’” said senior Anna Naden. “I knew it would be challenging.”
Hughes is a classicist; she studies the ancient world and the ways in which the ancient world shapes and appears in modern film and literature. “Lisa’s whole jam is that everything comes from myth, and that reading myth informs every other text you might read and film you might watch,” said Naden. “I think she’s really right about that.”
“I can’t watch a movie without seeing those connections,” said Hughes. “It makes me love movies way, way more.” Hughes hopes her students will eventually feel the same way. “One girl said I made her hate ‘Bridesmaids!’” said Hughes. “These movies used to be just fun for students, and now they recognize a lot more layers.”
“Read, for example, the myth of Athena and Arachne. Arachne was talking smack, saying she was better than Athena,” said Hughes. “A similar scene occurs in the jewelry shop during ‘Bridesmaids.’ It’s fun to find archetypes and iterations of similar dynamics and outcomes in history.”
It’s not often students arrive to a class already well versed in the principle course material, and some students held conceptions and theories on the movie that they weren’t quite ready to surrender.
“Some students didn’t buy my theory that ‘Mean Girls’ had a pessimistic ending,” says Hughes.
When asked about the most important lesson of “Mean Girls,” Hughes was content that she didn’t have an answer. “Texts and films that interest me always ask hard, complex, and enduring questions,” said Hughes. “You don’t get a take-away; you can’t reduce them.”
“‘Mean Girls’ resonates in that you first get the shopping porn—the pleasure of watching these pretty people with nice cars and great clothes,” said Hughes. “But at the same time, you get the intellectual pleasure of knowing it’s all plastic—that’s what you don’t want to be.”
Perhaps the take-away is more of a question: how do you keep from being plastic? Hughes recalls the movie’s ‘jingle bell rock’ scene, in which the four girls wore plastic skirts amidst plastic snow and plastic reindeer and danced to a contrived tune played from a plastic boom box. Suddenly, Gretchen Wieners accidentally kicks the boom box off the stage, and a wooden piano and real human voices must fill in the painful silence.
“That’s the best it ever was!” Karen Smith exclaims after the performance, and, to Hughes, that’s what really matters.