Mean Girls: What do modern queer teens think of the (very queer) musical reboot?

Too gay to function: the cast of the original ‘Mean Girls’, which has rapidly become a touchstone movie for queer teens (Paramount/iStock)
Too gay to function: the cast of the original ‘Mean Girls’, which has rapidly become a touchstone movie for queer teens (Paramount/iStock)

I am about to see the new Mean Girls reboot with a group of giddy, extremely savvy and cine-literate LGBT+ teens. While we’re waiting, the group discusses the original film. Turns out this lot are obsessed. Released in 2004, Tina Fey’s wickedly quotable teen romcom – starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams – remains a queer classic. And not only because of the abundance of queer actors in its cast but also the subtext underpinning a number of its characters, storylines and its – duh – subversive wit.

Fey’s script found so many ways to poke fun at prejudice, starting with a to-camera rant from a group of home-schooled Bible-bashers: “And, on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle so that man could fight the dinosaurs. And the homosexuals. Amen!”

In cinemas this week, the Mean Girls musical (an adaptation of the 2018 Broadway show inspired by the original film) wants to be seen as even more edgy. As in the first movie, the plot centres around Cady Heron (Angourie Rice, stepping into Lohan’s heels), a home-schooled maths nerd raised in Africa who, having been plonked in an American high school, gets caught up in a revenge plot orchestrated by bolshy outsider, Janis (Auli’i Cravalho), and her “too gay to function” best friend, Damian (Jaquel Spivey). The target of the cunning plan is a bodacious, outsider-baiting bully, Regina George (actor and pop star Reneé Rapp).

Remember, though, that this isn’t the Noughties anymore. Rapp’s Regina, clearly aware of cancel culture, is careful about the insults she throws around. We learn that back in the sixth grade she found a way to imply that Janis was a “sissy lez” (or obsessed lesbian), but Regina doesn’t use that slur in the present day. This time around, there’s less homophobia in the air. Instead, we get lashings of unbridled queer love. To be specific, in the 2004 movie, Janis snogs a boy called Kevin (and seems to like it). By contrast, in the 2024 musical, both Damian and Janis take same-sex partners to the school’s Spring Fling dance and have a ball.

It’s surely significant, too, that Broadway star Spivey describes himself as “feminine, queer and outspoken”, and that Cravalho came out as bisexual in 2020 (by lip-syncing to an Eminem song on TikTok; of course she did). Meanwhile, Rapp, also bisexual, has repeatedly said in the press that she views Regina as “queer” and thinks the new cast brings something special to the table. “This is a cast of so many gays, hello? If you’re putting really sick, gay people into a cast, it’s inherently going to be gay and very cool, which I think is really exciting.”

Rapp’s comments are of a piece with the first single from the official movie soundtrack, “Not My Fault”, which Rapp sings with a bit of help from rapper Megan Thee Stallion (“You came with her, but she might leave with me… Can a gay girl get an amen?”). When “Not My Fault” appeared on Spotify, the internet rightly went bonkers. This is Regina as we’ve never heard her before.

Ahead of our screening, my teenage focus group sift through their memories of the OG Mean Girls. The character they talk about most: Daniel Franzese’s Damian. Their favourite moment: the bit in the talent show where he defiantly warbles Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” – written by out singer-songwriter Linda Perry. Someone throws a shoe at Damian. He throws it back. “Damian is such a queer icon!” notes 19-year-old Brittany.

Besties: the original trio, portrayed by Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan and fan favourite Daniel Franzese (Paramount)
Besties: the original trio, portrayed by Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan and fan favourite Daniel Franzese (Paramount)

Lizzy Caplan’s Janis, too, is spoken of with awe. “She was my first celebrity crush,” admits Phoebe, aged 18. Nineteen-year-old Ada adds: “She’s such a gritty goth. I think Janis is attracted to Cady and Regina. Janis seems kind of confused about what she wants. I can identify with that.” Maria, 19, says, “Also, credit to Lindsay Lohan, who’s not your typical teen movie actress. In a world of Olivia Newton-Johns, she has Stockard Channing energy.”

Brittany says the film shows the insidious power of “cliques” at school: “Many queer teens can relate to this, especially with the pressures faced in such an environment.” And let’s not forget the clothes. For Brittany, “there are so many iconic and fashion looks in the movie. It’s really camp.”

Though the first Mean Girls was made before these kids could talk, everyone seems up to speed with the gossip concerning the original’s cast. Franzese came out publicly in 2014 but was still in the closet in 2004, as was Jonathan Bennett, who played Cady’s love interest, Aaron. Franzese and Bennett came out to each other during filming. Meanwhile, Rajiv Surendra, who appears as mathlete Kevin G, publicly came out in 2018. I mention that Lohan even used to date British DJ Samantha Ronson, who wrote and sang “Built This Way”, the swoony pop-rock ballad that’s played throughout the film. It’s the one tidbit of Mean Girls lore that seems to have escaped them. They’re delighted.

“The more you know about the original film’s history,” Ava says, “the more amazing it seems. I remember finding out that Linda Perry only allowed ‘Beautiful’ to be used because the character of Damian is gay. I think that’s sooooo cute.”

I thought Regina was going to be queer. But nothing happens. I think [the filmmakers] have actually taken advantage of Reneé Rapp’s sexuality to make the film seem more radical than it is

Maria, 19

Anyway, back to the present. The new film is fun, frothy and (if you like musicals – which I do) contains some top songs that are magnificently performed – the standouts being a lucid, Halloween-themed pop ditty, “Sexy”, (“I can be a sexy doctor/ And cure some sexy cancer!”) and Rapp’s purring power ballad, “Somebody Gets Hurt”. That said, the film is no match for the original and, given all the “more sparkle, more gay” hype, doesn’t exactly deliver.

Once my group of teens and I have all watched the new film, we have a post-screening conflab. The mood is sombre. I would go so far as to call it glum. For Maria, it’s a case of great expectations dashed. “I thought Regina was going to be queer. [‘Not My Fault’] totally got my hopes up. But nothing happens.” She feels bad for Rapp. “I think [the filmmakers] have actually taken advantage of her sexuality to make the film seem more radical than it is.”

Ava is just as aggrieved. She thought Regina and Gretchen (Bebe Wood), one of Regina’s clenched minions, were all set to hook up. “There’s a number that Gretchen sings called ‘What’s Wrong With Me?’. She sings it while she’s standing in this wardrobe. You know, it’s like a big closet. I thought that was a metaphor. It would have been such a good twist.”

New plastics: Bebe Wood, Reneé Rapp and Avantika Vandanapu portray the ever-quotable antagonists in the reboot (Paramount)
New plastics: Bebe Wood, Reneé Rapp and Avantika Vandanapu portray the ever-quotable antagonists in the reboot (Paramount)

Ava feels Damian’s character was also short-changed. “He deserved more of a backstory.” She also has a question: where’s the shoe? “Damian sings a song at the talent contest, but no one throws a shoe at him, so he doesn’t get to fight back. He should have been allowed to throw something!”

As far as Ava’s concerned, the musical Mean Girls whitewashes the fact that, in 2024, it’s still really hard to be gay. I feel obliged to accentuate the positive. Surely the fact that Janis is now out and proud, and doesn’t end up kissing a boy, is a huge step forward? “Yes, of course,” says Phoebe. “But there are so few details. Janis takes a girl to Spring Fling [Morgen McKynzie’s Grace], but we don’t know anything about this girl and they don’t kiss. The new film, for me, is a bit coy.”

Maria goes further. “Janis never explicitly says she’s queer. There’s some stuff about when she was much younger, in sixth grade, and you see a rainbow badge. But there’s only one scene where you know for sure older Janis still likes girls, which is when she goes to that girl’s house and asks her to the Spring Fling. It feels like that scene could easily be cut – so the film can be sold to countries that are hostile to gay rights.”

Such cynicism in one so young! I point out that many queer millennials have expressed gratitude for the way Tina Fey has re-imagined Janis. In a doomed attempt to be tactful, Ada says, “Maybe millennials have lower standards? My generation are used to TV shows like Heartstopper, Sex Education and Euphoria. And films like Booksmart and Saltburn. We kind of expect the gay or bi characters to be central to the story. In Heartstopper you have Nick and Charlie, Elle and Tao, and Tara and Darcy. When these characters crush on people or fall in love, it’s a big deal and really emotional.”

New blood: Damian (Jaquel Spivey), Cady (Angourie Rice) and Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) in the ‘Mean Girls’ musical (Paramount)
New blood: Damian (Jaquel Spivey), Cady (Angourie Rice) and Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) in the ‘Mean Girls’ musical (Paramount)

The good news, for Fey at least, is that all of the teens would recommend the new Mean Girls to friends. Maria, who’s perked up, says, “Cravalho has the best voice, real range, and it was cool when she sang that song basically saying ‘F*** this, I didn’t do anything wrong and I like myself!’ And the school band with all the non-binary kids in it looked good. And the guy who plays Kevin G [Mahi Alam] slays”.

“I thought most of the songs were weak,” Phoebe says, “but the whole cast were brilliant, especially Spivey and Rapp. Right now, my celebrity crush is Kate McKinnon and Rapp really reminds me of McKinnon.”

Ava notes, excitedly, “Rapp looked really pretty in her angel costume at the Halloween party. I think Jacob Elordi had angel wings in Saltburn, too. It’s making me want to buy angel wings.”

Sharing an opinion for the first and only time, 17-year-old Alice declares, “I’ve been following Rapp on Instagram. I really like her music. I’ve fancied her for ages. She’s fit.”

So Mean Girls 2024 may not best the original. But as a source of adolescent crush material, it’s as grool as can be.

‘Mean Girls’ is in cinemas