Mean Girls won’t win any Oscars, but peel away the glossy angst, and it is sociologically brilliant. The movie follows Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan) as she starts her first day at an American high school. We quickly learn that Cady, a child of research zoologists, spent 12 years growing up in Africa. “P.S., Cady is a TCK” should have gone into the credits.
“I had a great life [in Africa]” Cady narrates. “And then… my mom was offered tenure at Northwestern University. And it was goodbye Africa, hello high school.” Sound familiar? The sudden move from one culture to another provides a slew of Third Culture Kid moments, visible from just the first 10 minutes of the movie.
On her first day of school in Illinois, Cady’s American parents are thoroughly unaware of how difficult the cultural transition could be for her. Walking up to the African-American students, Cady says “Jambo” in Swahili. She also deals with comments like, “So, if you’re from Africa – why are you white?” (“Oh my god Karen,” their friends chastised. “You can’t just ask people why they’re white… “)
Unlike most of our TCK stories, Cady is persuaded to act as a covert spy and join the clique of ‘Plastics’. Throughout the film, she uses her TCK background to avoid social isolation, while preserving her unique identity through various roles:
Anthropologist: The kids around the fountain at the mall look to Cady like beasts by the water hole. This is Cady’s way of understanding the world around her, her way of learning the rituals so that she can fit in.
Chameleon: Throughout her time as a spy with the Plastics, Cady is able to continually switch identities until she found one that felt natural. There are parts in the movie where Cady seems to be confused between who she actually is, and who she is pretending to be in order to fit in. TCKs can identify with this – sometimes we continue switching identities (and locations) until well beyond our adolescent years.
Outsider: Cady, having grown up outside of the States, asks if “Ashton Kutcher” is a band, and is mocked. But as she develops her identity, she is less afraid to embrace her role as someone who is always going to be a bit different. Instead of trying to falsely relate to stereotypes, Cady eventually learns to see beyond the labels. Case in point: Cady joins the Math team, creating her own hybrid Plastic-Mathlete identity. Why does she like math? “Because it’s the same in every country,” Cady replies.
Peacemaker: The Queen Plastic Regina snaps at Cady, “Do you know what people say about you? They say you are homeschooled jungle freak who’s a less hot version of me.” Despite this, Cady uses a skill that all TCKs have at their disposal: the ability to see the wider world around. Cady sees the microcosm of high school for what it is – a tiny speck in a vast, wide world. She uses this perspective to rise above and make sure that “Girl World” remains at peace. In her heightened self-awareness, she says: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier.”
Throughout the movie, Cady teaches TCKs not to be afraid of their outsider status. She shows us that stereotyping comes from an anxiety to understand the world, and high school stereotypes in particular guide adolescents in identity formation. However, the confusion for Cady is especially acute. Her own identity cannot fully resonate with any of the pre-existing cliques: there isn’t a “TCKs” lunch table.
Despite her outsider status, she still makes an effort to build friendships and relationships, demonstrating that a focus on similarities as opposed to differences can stop TCKs from becoming socially isolated. Ironically, when Cady stops judging herself and trying to figure out and fit into the crowd, she receives the acceptance that she was chasing all along.
Feel free to chime in on what you learned in the comments, or tell us about any other TCK movies that we should re-watch.