“So if you’re from Africa, why are you white?”
But what if that’s not all folks? What if there’s an entire undercurrent to a fairly simple movie that spins off of that quote and could potentially open up a world you didn’t know existed? Guess what! There is.
‘Mean Girls’ is not just a movie about a girl who is nice, gets sucked into “mean girl world,” then resurfaces and becomes nice again. (“Oh no,” they groan, “she’s going to analyze our movies!” Yes. Yes, I am) There is actually a huge piece to the movie that is often overlooked by the masses and has global implications if you look at Cady’s transition as an example. Cady Heron is representative of an entire group of people who thrive in tumultuous, often hard-to-navigate situations and are the perfect global nomads.
Enter Cady Heron, third culture kid and gateway to a term you may not have heard before.
Cady Heron is the perfect candidate for a situation like this because of her status as a TCK (who are people raised in a different culture than their birth country’s for a significant period). Her transition (see number 9) from laid-back, friendly Cady to “plastic” Cady can be explained through the adaptation techniques often displayed by TCK’s. Let’s look at the traits of third culture kids and then look at how Cady utilizes these to blend into her environment perfectly:
1) Growing up in Africa then moving to the U.S. – Here’s the real marker for a TCK. Technically, her “passport country” (or the place she was born) would be America, but after living in Africa for 12 years, one can assume that her cultural beliefs and knowledge would be rooted there. Her “third culture” then would be the blend of American culture she’s being thrust into and the African culture she grew up with.
2) Adaptation – TCK’s are adept at analyzing a situation to figure out how the community within a culture acts, then adapting to fit into that culture. Cady, from her very first day, is constantly analyzing how the people in her high school work, what is expected of them, and how she can fit in. When the Plastics (the hottest, meanest, most popular girls in school) approach her, she quickly changes herself to fit into their “rules.” For example, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.” BAM. The next Wednesday she’s in a pink shirt. A couple weeks later, she’s full blown Plastic from her perfectly curled hair to low-cut tank top and short skirt.
3) Feeling more comfortable with other cultures – TCK’s have experienced a wide variety of cultures and therefore understand or feel more at ease with other cultures. In one of the beginning scenes, Cady approaches a group of people she identifies as “African” and says, “Jambo!” in greeting. She’s shocked and saddened when the group doesn’t respond. This willingness to try to connect with someone she thinks is from her original culture is another trait of a third culture kid. She’s more at ease with this culture than the American one.
4) Superimposing multicultural experiences to figure out what’s going on – At one point in Mean Girls, Cady and the Plastics go to the mall. When she’s overlooking the food court, suddenly all the people start acting like animals around a watering hole. After spending 12 years in Africa, it only makes sense that she would use a scenario that she is accustomed to in order to understand how another social structure operates. This is another attribute of a TCK, and it’s also not the only time she does this, which speaks to her true nature.
Cady Heron is simply an example of a global idea that is taking hold – the Third Culture Kid. Her chameleon-like qualities and ability to adapt make her the perfect candidate for such a huge cultural shift.
There’s a perfectly valid explanation for why Cady Heron changed so completely throughout the movie, and it’s not entirely because of the Plastics. Her rapid adaptation, use of other cultural norms, and comfort with other cultures all point to one explanation – Cady is simply a misunderstood third culture kid, not the “hard, shiny, plastic mean girl” she’s portrayed as. She’s a representation of a group of people that often fly under the radar.