Why does Varadkar’s Mean Girls reference bother me so much?

It felt like an ‘in joke’ about something that was no laughing matter

The Taoiseach’s inclusion of a reference to the 2004 American teen comedy Mean Girls in his address last Friday did not go down well with everybody.

The Taoiseach is fond of using references drawn from popular culture. By invoking the Terminator, the Lord of the Rings and Seamus Heaney, he successfully made us feel connected and engaged with the national effort in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Leo Varadkar’s speech last Friday fell wide of the mark for me. Given he was announcing that the restrictions associated with the Covid-19 crisis were coming to an end, my irritation is perhaps all the more troublesome.

I was not alone. Online, his inclusion of a reference to the 2004 American teen comedy Mean Girls did not go down well. For me, it wasn’t just that the Mean Girls’ reference bombed. It really annoyed me.

I am glad to be able to re-engage with the real world. But I am not laughing or light hearted

Psychologists advise people to examine their own emotional reactions before taking umbrage with others. The idea is that other people’s behaviour may well be irritating, but it is just that; other people’s behaviour. We cannot control it. However, we can learn about ourselves from our own emotional reactions.


Well, I have thought about it and I am pretty sure I have figured it out. I really don’t think that Covid-19 is a joking matter. Don’t get me wrong, I love a laugh. In fact, I may love a joke a little too much.

And so, like many of us who are a little too impressed with our own wit, I have had light-hearted comments miss the mark. Invariably this occurs when there is no shared sense of understanding between the teller of the joke and the recipient of “the gag”.

In joke

Jokes convey information via unspoken assumptions – and herein is the first problem for the Taoiseach’s “joke”. It felt like an in joke. Not everyone was aware of the “50 quid” challenge issued to Varadkar by Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin on a 2FM programme to reference Mean Girls.

So, in fact, it was an in joke. Unlike the use of a Churchillean reference or a Dermot Kennedy song lyric, the Mean Girls allusion only meant something to those who were in the know. Hearing of the “joke” after the fact leaves you with a sense of you really had to be there.

The damage this crisis has caused does not vanish because the restrictions are being eased

Leadership and public addresses work where they connect with everyone in the fold, irrespective of where they are. In social psychology, this type of leadership delivers “engaged followership”. It is typified by a sense that the followers are left with – that their leader is one of them. Almost a prototype for all of us.

This might also explain why Varadkar’s Mean Girls joke left me cold. His comments about the future having no limits, built on the Mean Girls reference, fundamentally missed the point.

For many of us, Covid-19 and lockdown has stolen something that we can never get back. To be sure, I am glad to be able to re-engage with the real world. But I am not laughing or light hearted.


Covid-19 has not been kind. And its cruelty is something that we will get to live with for a while to come. There are 1,715 people known to have succumbed to the virus. That’s 1,715 families bereft. There are many others who have had long and distressing stays in hospital.

Then there is the fall-out from the restrictions. In April alone, there were 3,750 deaths in Ireland. At a time where the threat of Covid-19 was at its height, families lost precious time with relatives in their last days of life. My family was in this number.

And that is part of the explanation for why a national address used to play out a very trivial bet doesn’t work for those made small by loss and disconnected from the supports needed to deal with grief.

Conservatively there are 6,500 families like mine in Ireland. So we could estimate again conservatively 6,500 left behind for whom restrictions may end but precious time can never be recouped. Family living abroad, unable to come home to say their goodbyes. Children and grandchildren unable to offer last words and moments of comfort.

To move forward together, it is worth remembering that though we faced this storm together, we have all been in very different boats. There are many who have suffered for many different reasons during this lockdown. Daily, I hear new and more awful challenges faced by new mothers, teenagers, old people, victims of abuse, addicts, those needing urgent cancer screening over the course of this crisis.

It has delivered others that would have been best avoided. So, while there may be no limits on what can be achieved in the aftermath of the crisis, the damage this crisis has caused does not vanish because the restrictions are being eased. It leaves a pall. And that is no laughing matter.

Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at University of Limerick