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« A Year with Kate: Keeper of the Flame (1942) | Main | Link Wars: Episode VII »
Wednesday
Apr302014

"I know what you're thinking: Home schooled kids are freaks!"

[Our Mean Girls week concludes with a really fresh angle I think you'll love. Here's Tim on being a home schooled freak. - Nathaniel R]

Tim here. I can't tell you how many times I, a perpetually overweight, underemployed, thirtysomething male, have looked at Lindsay Lohan and thought to myself gosh, she's just like me! But I can tell you the time it struck closest to home was when I first peered into Mean Girls a decade ago. Look at any appreciation, vintage or current, like the ones we have going for our Mean Girls Week, and you're going to encounter the sentiment that the film understands deep and universal truths about the public high school experience, but the kinship I feel with Lohan's Cady Heron is of an entirely different sort - the exact opposite, in fact.

Mean Girls, after all, isn't just a movie about any old bright teenager entering a new school and being partially devoured by the social order she finds there: it's about a bright teenager who has spent her life to that point being home schooled, thrust for the first time into a world full of people her own age. And like Cady, I spent my share of time being home schooled, though it wasn't because my parents were awesome zoologists who took me with them for a decade-plus research trip in Africa (it wasn't for fringe religious reasons either, I want to make that very clear). And unlike Cady, I never did get to experience the magical horror show of American high school. But I did get to have that same brutal, abrupt shift from being essentially solitary, driven only by my own sense of discipline, to be thrown into a terrifying world of people and schedules when college and dorms came upon me. [More...]

Oh, no! You can't do that. That's social suicide. You're so lucky you have us to guide you."

And in my capacity as a veteran of home schooling, I can state with emphatic authority that Tina Fey's script for Mean Girls and Lohan's performance even moreso, capture something wonderful and profound (and more than a little embarrassing, if I'm being honest) about the bizarre mental process that occurs when the intelligent but functionally unsocialized are dropped, unceremoniously, into a heavily social atmosphere. I make no apologies for home schooling. Like anything else in life, it has its disadvantages and its advantages, and one of the biggest disadvantages is that it makes it hard to spent a lot of time with age-appropriate peers in one's youth. Social interaction is, or at least this was my experience, the Holy Grail of home schooling: parents anxious to make sure their children grow up healthy and well-exposed to other people of all sorts of backgrounds struggling to find whatever structured activities they can drop their child into. But it only goes so far: spending a couple of hours a week with other kids versus spending half of every day in a large concrete holding pen with dozens or hundreds of fellow students aren't comparable at all.

What Mean Girls captures so well is the compensating behavior that kicks in when these two worlds collide. Being an ex-home schooler among normal people is a constant process of behaving in a performative, turned-on way. One first stands off to the side of a situation, observing the "rules", and then attempts to play-act all the social cues that everybody else seems to understand intuitively. This is the amazing, wonderfully insightful core of Lohan's performance, and it's the reason that when the movie was new and her career was full of promise, she didn't just come across as a likable, talented comic actress; she seemed, especially here and in Freaky Friday, absurdly conscious for such a young person about the acting potential of body language and movement, taking moments to exist quietly and not always having to play up what she was feeling or thinking. Lohan's Cady is a wonderful observer of other people, staring anxiously and hungrily at the things people do: so many early scenes emphasize the way she watches and absorbs behavioral cues. The zoology metaphor covers some of that, but it goes deeper. When you don't know how to act, you learn by carefully studying and copying what other people do; this is the home schooler's constant state of self-awareness in every situation from a party to a cafeteria to a classroom. Lohan nails that self-awareness, and nails as well its dark twin: when so much of social interaction consists of attempting to process the simple behavior of socialization, it's much harder to distinguish quickly between "good" and "bad" behavior.

I know she's kind of socially retarded and weird but she's my friend so just promise me you won't make fun of her"

Cady's absorption into the influence of the Plastics isn't just the usual teen movie boilerplate about how it feels nice to be liked by the popular kids, and peer pressure, and all that - though obviously, those things are there. It has as much to do with a moral blandness that comes from never having really need to distinguish between people as nice vs. mean, healthy vs. destructive, likable vs. unpleasant. At the start, the whole mass of other students are just that: a mass of Others. It's easy to read the movie as a seduction to the Dark Side in which Cady carves off a portion of herself to fit in with the Beautiful People, but it's also about the terrible confusion in which that's never really her choice to make, as such: she's too mutable, too much in need of guidance, and too lacking in the kind of training that would let her perceive Regina George and company as the Dark Side to be avoided.

Thankfully, the kind of specific social pressures that Cady was unable to handle never applied to me, but the basic shape of what happened to her is hauntingly close to home: and certainly, I made my share of humiliating social gaffes born out of ignorance about how different subsets of people responded to each other. The film's central depiction of having to learn how to behave like a person on the fly and act in a certain way without understanding why you're doing it resonates intensely with me; I still catch myself doing. Everyone feels like an isolated outcast in high school, of course, but there's something sharp and uncomfortable in the awareness that even the other outcasts at least understand the rules of the game that we're all losing together. Mean Girls captures that discomfort better than anything I've ever seen, creating a uniquely precise and specific depiction of one exact kind of high school experience; it's that precision and specificity that give it so much heart, and make it so triumphantly universal.

Previously on Mean Girls 10th Anniversary Week
The Podcast - Watch Mean Girls (final day on Netflix Instant Watch if you don't own it) with Joe and Nathaniel's movie-long chatter
War of the Plastics - Vote on the poll
North Shore Cafeteria & Burn Book - Where would you sit? What would you write?
Hit Me With Your Best Shot - great single images from the movie
Beauty Break - On Wednesdays they were pink 

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Reader Comments (7)

LOVE this. I, too, was homeschooled throughout most of my young life and I can completely identify with what Tim expresses here. When you first go from homeschooling to a public (or in my case private) school, it's so natural to just accept that the first group of people you fall in with are awesome because you don't really have anything with which to compare them. The homeschooling aspect is one (of many) reasons why I LOVE Mean Girls. I feel like the movie gets what it was like to be me.

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannahlily

Great analysis of the film from a perspective that wouldn't have occurred to me! I consistently forget how good Lindsay Lohan is in Mean Girls, surrounded as she is by so many great characters, but you've definitely inspired me to look at her performance again.

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

This was excellent! Loved its insight.

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

This is the best article about Mean Girls I've ever read

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny

Thanks for sharing, Tim - LOVE this for its honesty and uniqueness!

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

i love you; you're like a martian

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Well, thank you all! There are, like, no other movies that have any kind of insight into the home schoolee's mind like this one, which is part of why it's always really mattered to me. I'm glad I finally had a chance to put it into words!

May 1, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

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