As the trailer announcing the new film put it, “This isn’t your mother’s ‘Mean Girls,’” and indeed, it isn’t. Regina no longer uses the R-word or calls her friend “dyslexic”; her followers are no longer derided as an “army of skanks.” Even the infamous Burn Book is now nicer — or, if not exactly nicer, at least avoids particular rhetorical land mines: “fugly slut” is now “fugly cow.” Dawn Schweitzer, once a “fat virgin,” is now a “horny shrimp.” (What is a horny shrimp? Don’t ask me. I spent way too much time asking teenagers if there was some joke I was missing.)
This is meant to be reflective of the real world, of course, where ostensibly we no longer say these words, where we accept all body types (yeah, right) and have learned to be attentive to people’s feelings, differences and “residual trauma,” as Regina says in the new film. And it sort of is: As someone who has spent a lot of time around teenage girls recently, it’s true that they don’t use labels like “nastiest skank” to describe one another, as Regina — and my friends and I — used to.
But what the movie misses, by simply stripping out the nastiest language, is a chance to really update itself — to fully reflect on girl world in 2024. Because if the hallmarks of relational aggression are things like cutting friends out, spreading rumors or exclusion, today’s technology has created innumerable new ways to enact that adolescent torture. The movie doesn’t ignore the internet — when Regina falls on her face in the talent show, she goes viral, sparking a TikTok challenge — but it doesn’t fully capture the way it functions among real teenagers.
So what does this stealth meanness 2.0 actually look like? Well, some of it would be recognizable to earlier generations. A middle schooler in Washington State told me there’s a group called The Crops at her school — not quite as mean as the Plastics but still judgmental and in crop tops. But Plasticlike behavior is no longer just whispers in the cafeteria or analog Burn Books but also anonymous tea accounts on platforms like Instagram — like tabloid blind items but for school gossip.
And that societal shift to new, more inclusive language? It can be weaponized — a tactic familiar to anyone who has observed the rise of the term “toxic.” One teenager I spoke with last year, in Colorado, told me she’d been publicly called out by a friend on Snapchat for fat shaming — which is arguably worse, at her school, than actually being called fat. She claimed she hadn’t done it, but it almost didn’t matter — she didn’t have Snapchat (her parents wouldn’t let her), so there was no way she could defend herself.