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Post-racial ‘Mean Girls’ remake abandons realism for woke ideal

Post-racial ‘Mean Girls’ remake abandons realism for woke ideal
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The original captured the complicated racial dynamics of school without being overly preachy. Will the 2024 remake pull this off? Unlikely

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I was a senior in high school when “Mean Girls” came out in 2004 and was born just days apart from star Lindsay Lohan. So if anyone should have been excited when the trailer for the remake of the classic teen comedy (technically an adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the original) dropped on Wednesday, it was me.

The new Paramount-made “Mean Girls” is slated to hit theatres in the new year, and is indeed well-positioned to cash in on the budding nostalgia of aging millennials like me, many of us now tending to offspring who are creeping up on their teenage years. (Walmart must have read the same market research as Paramount, having released a “Mean Girls”-themed Black Friday ad featuring some of the original cast members just last week.)

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But a single viewing of the two-minute trailer disabused me of any hope that the remake would capture the spark of the original.

The rather underwhelming video package hinted that the coming attraction will be a paint-by-numbers remake (with a few musical breaks for the theatre kids), containing a handful of shots that look to be near replicas from version one. The gym teacher-led sex-ed seminar, awkward Halloween/lingerie party and risqué talent show rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” are all there — with a few modern touches thrown in (a popular girl clad in a provocative Halloween costume chides protagonist Cady Heron for “slut shaming” in one snippet). The trailer also revealed that Saturday Night Live alums Tina Fey and Tim Meadows will be reprising their previous roles (Fey, also a writer, adapted the original from parenting guide “Queen Bees and Wannabes“).

The biggest departure looks to be a diversified core cast. A South Asian teenybopper has infiltrated the ultra-popular “Plastics” clique. Damian, the effete social outcast labeled “almost too gay to function” in the original, is reborn as a yassified Black femme. Cady’s sidekick Janis Ian, who comes out as “Lebanese” at the end of the original, is played by Hawaii-born “Moana” actress Auliʻi Cravalho, who boasts Native Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Chinese and Irish ancestry (that certainly ticks off a lot of boxes).

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There is, of course, nothing wrong with minorities getting better acting roles, but the United Colours of Benetton-esque makeover takes much of the sting away from the first “Mean Girls” which cleverly lampooned the way that high school social ecosystems tend to form around superficial, surface-level traits of students race unavoidably being one of them.

In a pivotal scene of the original, newcomer Cady is given a rundown of the various lunchtime cliques that inhabit North Shore High’s cafeteria: there are the abovementioned Plastics, the preppies, the varsity jocks, the sexually-active band geeks and the like. A handful of these groups break down along racial lines: the Asian nerds, the cool Asians, the unfriendly black hotties. I’d imagine this sort of social self-segregation is common across high schools; it was certainly the norm in my day (shout-out to my “Brown-town” brethren from Kamloops Senior Secondary!).

Racial misunderstandings also give “Mean Girls” (2004) some of its funniest moments. In one, Cady, a recent transplant from Africa, gives the Swahili greeting “Jambo!” to a table full of perplexed African American students. In another, South Asian math enthusiast and bad-ass MC Kevin G. tells Cady he “only dates women of colour.”

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Beyond the laughs, “Mean Girls” was well ahead of its time in capturing the complicated racial dynamics that play out in 21st-century North American high schools, without coming across as overly preachy or didactic. I, for one, saw more than a bit of myself in the b-boy posturing of Kevin G. (Spelling bees were more my scene than math competitions, but Kevin and I were equally lethal on the microphone). From what I can remember, this was my first time seeing my own experience as a confused South Asian teenager reflected on-screen.

At first glance, this nuance looks to be lost altogether in the remake, which eschews the original’s realism in favour of an alternate high school universe replete with a slew of post-racial cliques that look like they were assembled (and, indeed, likely were assembled) by a gaggle of diversity, equity and inclusion coordinators.

Like it or not, high school is, and will always be, a state of nature that is nasty, brutish and (mercifully) short. Visible traits like appearance, athleticism and, yes, race, will always impact where students find themselves in the institution’s Darwinian social ecosystem; it would be naïve to pretend otherwise. Rather than grapple with and satirize this reality, which the original did so well, “Mean Girls” 2.0 looks content to exist in its own, idealized reality.

And that’s just so un-fetch.

National Post

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