Saturday, May 3, 2014

Burn Book Burning: Mean Girls, Donald Sterling and the Culture of Hysteria

"Raise your hand if you've been personally victimized by Regina George."

Ten years ago this weekend, Mean Girls hit theaters.  At the time it seemed little more than a sleek Millennial turn on the pop anthropology studies of high school that have been a Hollywood staple since Andy Hardy.  Sure it was chock-full of insights into the pettiness of teenage girls, but you don’t have to dig very deep to get to the bottom of the shallowest age of human development. As far as I was concerned it was Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul interlaced with a few undissolved cubes of salty comedic bouillon.

What a difference ten years can make. When I watched it again this week, my once cavernous yawn became the slack-jawed gape of wonder.  This was no mere teen comedy, but a prophetic vision of the future of American society startling in its clarity!

Not that Mean Girls has gotten any better with time; it’s still as shallow and superficial as ever. Rather, society has sunk so low that the leaders of culture and industry are now seeing eye-to-eye with teenage brats. Indeed, we may already be looking up to the Plastics (the movie’s nickname for the elite faction of mean girls) as artifacts of a more civilized age.  Forget the serious business of civilization that occupied previous generations of adults: this society is consumed with assessing popularity, finding an advantageous place in the byzantine hierarchy of demographic cliques, eagerly trafficking in illicit gossip and shrieking hysterically over any perceived slight.  Case in point: the hubbub surrounding Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

The scandal might as well have been ripped from the scented pages of the Plastics’ “burn book” – a giant pink bible of scathing “burns” heaped on the other girls in school. In a private phone conversation with his mistress V. Stiviano – secretly taped in a manner strikingly similar to the sneaky 3-way calls the Plastics use to entrap each other – Donald Sterling hisses his disapproval of her public associations with star black athletes. Whether his distaste for these black men is driven by envy or prejudice isn’t quite clear from the tapes; perhaps it’s the same blend of both that drives the Plastics’ queen bee Regina to ravage the girls around her.
While Sterling and Regina are seemingly secure in their wealth and status, they still keep their most anti-social inclinations private.  In public, they make nice: Sterling with his ostentatious displays of charity and eager accumulation of humanitarian awards; Regina with her phony compliments and thirst for prom queen affirmation. Though their peers privately revile them – Sterling’s cocktail of sleaze, greed and racism has been an open secret for years – they reciprocate niceties in public. Only when a rogue Plastic takes disruptive action do the underhanded hostilities break into open conflict.

Enter Sterling’s mistress V. Stiviano, the incarnation of everything Plastic - still fighting the good high school fight at age 38. Apparently firing back at Sterling over a lawsuit (his wife trying to recover all the luxury items Sterling bought for her), Stiviano betrayed her sugar daddy and leaked their taped conversation to TMZ.  It’s not quite as neat as Regina posting the pages of the burn book in the halls, but the reaction has been the same: mass hysteria.  In both cases, the uproar springs not from material damage but from hurt feelings.  Apparently the realization that someone really loathes someone else is far too much to take sitting down.
Unfortunately, in the real world Tim Meadows isn’t around to bring the sprinklers down on the rage parade. Instead we have NBA commissioner Adam Silver joining the fray with a lifetime ban for Sterling, a $2.5 million fine and a push to force him to sell his team. Meanwhile, the pitchfork media clamors for anyone with any past connection with him to publicly denounce him, reverse Manchurian style: “Donald Sterling is the meanest, coldest, most despicable human being I have ever known in my life” (though with Sterling’s rap sheet, you wouldn’t think they’d need the brainwashing). A bunch of LA nonprofits are even sending his donations back - UCLA cancelled his $3 million pledge for kidney research.

Nor does the real world seem to believe in the healing power of inclusiveness, preferring inquisition to acquisition. Whereas the Plastics were ultimately broken in by the compassionate authority figures and reacclimated to a nicer (albeit utopian) world, there are no such better angels of our nature to be found on the modern scene. Whereas Mean Girls preached a message of overcoming evil with good, envy with empathy and arrogance with humility, in the real world we've reverted to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and 2,000 minutes of public hate for 2 minutes of the private variety. There is no longer any humanization of the offender, no self-analysis. Before removing the speck from our neighbor’s eye, we take the plank from our own and beat him to death with it.

Cady, the heroine of Mean Girls, becomes obsessed with Regina in much the same way that we have been consumed with Donald Sterling for the past week.  She hates and envies her just as we hate (for his racism) and envy (for his money) Sterling.  By the end of Mean Girls, Cady had come to an important realization: “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. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” It’s a lesson the leaders of the Sterling witch hunt would do well to learn.