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John DoughertySeptember 22, 2023
“Mean Girls” poster (Wikimedia/America Media)

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

In high school, I probably would have sold my soul to be popular. Back then, when my insecurities were blasting at full volume and being accepted felt like a matter of life and death, I can’t deny that there’s a good chance I would have made a Faustian bargain to become even a little cool.

Temptation strikes us when we feel most insecure. And in high school, our insecurities are blasting at full volume.

That’s the sort of (figurative) bargain Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) finds herself making in “Mean Girls” (2004), directed by Mark Waters and written by Tina Fey (based on Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes). Cady begins her first year at a traditional high school after being homeschooled for years and receives a rude awakening. She doesn’t understand the rules or the slang; she eats her first lunch in a bathroom stall. Her only friends are proud outcasts Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), until she catches the eye of a trio of popular girls, led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Regina is beautiful, confident and terrifying, the iron-fisted queen of junior year. Janis convinces Cady to infiltrate Regina’s clique in order to dismantle her evil empire from the inside. But Cady finds herself tempted not only to take Regina down, but to take her place.

That’s a temptation we might recognize, even if our teenage years are behind us. We know we should focus on the eternal but we’re constantly lured by earthly wealth, power and admiration. In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola calls it “the vain honor of the world.” He spent his early life pursuing worldly fame, and knew all too well how tempting, and ultimately empty, it was. When his friend Francis Xavier struggled with the same temptation, Ignatius quoted Jesus: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” (Mk 8:36)

That seems like a compelling enough reason to choose the right things, but temptation doesn’t come for us when we’re thinking clearly. Temptation strikes us when we feel most insecure. Ignatius writes: “Where [the evil spirit] finds us weakest and most in need for our eternal salvation, there he attacks us.”

Cady’s weak spot is her desperate desire to belong. It’s the same fear that drives her classmates, forcing them into rigidly-defined cliques. Even Regina is afraid; McAdams lets you see the panic flash behind her eyes whenever Regina encounters a challenge to her status. But she has found a way to weaponize that insecurity, making herself the arbiter of who is and isn’t cool—and, consequently, placing herself above judgment. But it’s lonely at the top. Regina has her classmates’ fear and awe, but no true friends, no ability to let her guard down and be anything other than perfect and ruthless. When Cady usurps Regina’s power, she finds that they’re both intoxicating and hollow.

Maybe we never fully grow out of our fascination with, and anxiety about, fitting in. Adults find their own reasons to separate people into “in” and “out” groups; it happens in the church, where some are only too happy to tell you who is and isn’t a real Catholic. But “Mean Girls” suggests that our shared anxiety should be an opportunity for connection and empathy, instead of division. Being mean might make you popular, but true belonging only comes when we’re brave enough to be authentic with people, and let them accept us as we are.

“Mean Girls” is available to stream on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV (with ads), and to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

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