The Mean Girls remake shows girls are as mean as ever. They just do it differently now

The vehicles for bullying may have evolved – social media, linguistic custom – but people are still who they always were: cruel, forgiving, hierarchical

There is plenty to dislike about the culture’s current obsession with remakes. Hollywood, it seems, has run out of ideas. In very recent memory we have seen a live action remake of The Lion King (in spite of casting Beyoncé as a CGI lion it barely made a splash); Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Cats adapted for the big screen (featuring Taylor Swift and a universal panning by the critics); a Gossip Girl reboot replete with contemporary political references (the new versions of the old characters were terribly anxious about climate justice). The disinclination for new stories speaks to a lack of ambition in Hollywood’s soul.

Given this, I was pleasantly surprised – shocked, actually – at the cinema when I went to see Mean Girls, a remake of the 2004 classic comedy that is also adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical by the same name. It somehow managed to be good and clever. It gave me good reason to question that old adage about not messing with perfection. And crucially, it demonstrated the value of a remake done well.

The Plastics – the three centre-piece “mean girls” – have been updated for the modern era. They don’t use the r-slur any more; linchpin Regina George doesn’t casually snipe at her friends for their dyslexia; the 2004 jokes about sluts are refashioned into jokes about cows; gone are the insults “fat virgin” and “skanks”. It would be easy to read this as a lazy capitulation to the culture wars; a film too concerned with having the right politics; a bid to erase the moral ambiguities of the teenagers of North Shore High. But this is wrong. The new plastics might reflect narrow contemporary tastes but they carry the torch for mean girls through eternity.

Tina Fey – the creator of the original and the remake – understands this. The Regina George of 2024 no longer makes a homophobic joke in the film’s climactic scene. “I know that even Regina would know that wouldn’t fly,” Fey says. This is central message: Regina might now choose not to make a homophobic joke, but she is no less mean because of that. The world has changed. Teenagers have a new idiolect and political anxieties to attend to; a film that had them calling each other skanks would simply not reflect the reality of the 2020s. But the girls’ cruelty to one another remains reliably constant.


The vehicles for bullying may have evolved – social media, linguistic custom – but the motivations to do so have not

And so both films, taken together, present us with the platonic form of a mean girl: a kind of stable, abstracted, independent concept. In 2024 the language of political correctness has crept in; a lot of the high-school bullying happens over TikTok; the characters are far more alert to questions of identity politics.

But the true nature of Regina George’s cruelty – and that of her semi-willing lieges – has not changed. She seeks to exclude; she deceives with flattery; she is covetous and manipulative; she is really very, very mean. Just as she was in 2004. The vehicles for bullying may have evolved – social media, linguistic custom – but the motivations to do so have not. This is the value of the reboot: only with both films and a 20-year gap in between them can we understand this fundamental truth.

And Mean Girls is not just an acute observation about teenagers, it is also an argument for the world outside of high school. Having all the right politics and using all the right words does not preclude someone from being a bully – just as Regina George can be “woke” and mean in the same breath; just as the students at North Shore high can exclude and dismiss one another while carrying a mantle for political correctness.

In all of this, Mean Girls – both in 2004 and now – has become a philosophical text about the immutable characteristics of people: cruel, forgiving, hierarchical. It is, in a way, rather reassuring.