From 'Mean Girls' and 'Clueless' to 'Tall Girl': all about fitting in

Hollywood high school teen comedies have always sparked reflection about the ‘outsiders’ in society

September 24, 2019 03:17 pm | Updated September 25, 2019 06:14 pm IST

Nzingha Stewart’s Tall Girl, that began streaming on Netflix a few days ago, set me thinking again about the delicate constructs of society where people who look different from the other, so-called ‘normal’ people, struggle to fit in. Left to myself, I would reject the norm and lead a solitary existence and laugh at such notions, but sadly, such is not the case. Tall Girl is set in that most exacting society — the American High School. As you may have deduced, the film deals with a tall girl, winsomely played by Ava Michelle, whose height makes her the object of ridicule from some in the school. She has friend-zoned the one (shorter) boy who loves her, and there is a full-on love triangle when a tall, handsome Swedish exchange student joins the school.

The movie is your average, clichéd high school teen romantic comedy, that aspires nothing more than to be a Sunday evening pabulum to the brain-dead masses wanting a break from the rigours of the new season of Mindhunter , but it does spark reflections about the outsider or the marginalised, if you will.

In another American high school teen comedy, Ari Sandel’s The DUFF (2015), based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, Mae Whitman finds out that she is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, who her classmates use to gain access to her friends who are the school’s most socially sought-after students. DUFF, here, is just another social construct, as she fits neither of the epithets in the acronym.

With apologies to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), perhaps the most widely seen, and influential film in this category is Mark Waters’ Mean Girls (2004), adapted by Tina Fey from the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. Here, Lindsay Lohan’s hitherto home-schooled character discovers the world of cliques when she joins high school. The cultural impact of Mean Girls has been considerable. There has been a sequel, a stage musical and a video game based on the film, and thanks to an innocuous line of dialogue in it, October 3 is celebrated as Mean Girls Day, where aficionados don pink. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to these characters when they grow up, there was supposed to be a follow up called Mean Moms , but that seems to be stuck in development hell.

I therefore imagine that the always-terrific Amy Schumer’s character suffered some high-school trauma in Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein’s I Feel Pretty (2018), where she is plagued by insecurities due to her appearance. She has a saddening few lines: “I have a crazy idea. Let’s be honest for a minute. No matter how many times we hear, it’s what’s on the inside that matters, women know deep down that it’s what’s on the outside that the whole world judges.” Things improve for her when she suffers a knock on the head at her gym and her confidence and self-esteem improve dramatically because she now realises, at least in her own eyes, that her appearance has changed to fit in with conventional norms of beauty.

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