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What TCKs can learn from ‘Mean Girls’

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.


  1. Cool piece Adele, it’s so good to see you writing!

    TCK is such an interesting concept, something I have never really thought about much, growing up in New Zealand and being European hasn’t really presented me with any of the culture shock problems that kids like you have grown up with. But I guess that’s what makes you so cool, you have such an interesting and different take on life.

    I have yet to meet another person as passionate and smart as you, you are inspiring and encouraging, young, driven, honest and most importantly, real.

    I love you and am excited about what you will do in the future. Just look at the legacy you and Pam have left with yMedia!

    We can change the world, it’s not too late but we can’t waste any time. I quit my job so I can follow God’s plan for my life, that, I have realized is the only thing that will make me happy.

    All the best babe, you’re amazing, don’t let anyone stop you from being the game changer you were made to be 🙂

    XOXO Jimmy


  2. Brian Crabtree says

    Regarding TCKs in the mainstream, “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling is the best book I’ve read with a TCK as the main character. Kim is an Irish orphan kid in India and gets into great adventures while avoiding colonial schools. At the start of summer break one year he has his whole body henna’ed so he can blend in with “his” people. Great book.


  3. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Mean Girls (not that I uh, watch Mean Girls by myself or anything) and thought about how funny it is to see Lindsay Lohan as a TCK. Great article in encompassing all the challenges and roles Cady has in common with us real-life TCKs.

    I wonder if one of the movie’s writers was a TCK…

    Great piece Adele! I’m particularly glad that you caught the math line “it’s the same in every country” because I noticed in the flick too and thought it was surprisingly deep, almost touching… Truly bizarre.


  4. runfaster says

    This is a very VERY insightful article.

    I think the movie ‘dropped’ the main theme of Cady being a TCK as it focuses more on the HS drama.

    I think the math line truly penetrates the TCK pain, and I am glad you highlighted it!

    Thanks for a great article Adele!!


  5. Adele says

    Thanks guys! Glad you enjoyed it… Sorry for the pathetically late response.


  6. Heidi Tunberg says

    @ Lin Wong –
    I can certainly see how you would think Kipling a racist, but keep in mind that he wasn’t a 21st century man. It isn’t fair to label him a racist based on today’s standards any more than it would be fair to label a Japanese samurai a barbarian because he routinely beheaded people for (by today’s standards) “trivial” offenses.

    To judge accurately, people (and their behavior) must be considered within both historical & cultural context. By that standard, Kipling was a global citizen through and through. He lived in an era when colonialism was rampant, and the British believed themselves to be superior in every way to the “natives” they ruled. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he generally viewed Indians as fellow human beings, who were intelligent, capable and civilized (albeit with their own customs). And he tried to communicate this understanding to others via his writing. His poem “We and They,” for example, introduces a very novel concept for that era: that “people across the sea” may consider “us” to be “they” as well – i.e. We seem just as strange/uncouth to them as they do to us.

    No, Kipling was not perfect; in fact, by today’s standards, he was sometimes conspicuously lacking in cultural sensitivity and awareness. But by the standards of his own day, he was miles ahead of his time.


  7. I watched this movie for the first time over the summer – with another TCK pastor and a friend who grew up a TCK (the token guy who insisted we had to watch it because it wasn’t a girl movie). It was amazing to see a TCK dilemma playing out on the screen!


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  9. EarleyDaysYet says

    I avoided “Mean Girls” because (a) it was a chick flick, (b) it had Lindsay Lohan in it & (c) chick flick + Lohan. I may have been persuaded to watch it now… Maybe. 🙂


  10. Sarah Joy says

    – Guy growing up in another culture, thinks he’s like the “nationals”
    – Arrives at his “home” (NY) but cannot function in the society
    – Gets excited over random things in home culture (parts of USA culture, not part of his)
    – Learns by the end to balance and adapts while still being himself


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