The Truth Behind ‘Mean Girls’
By Rosalind Wiseman
For almost twenty years people have congratulated me on my seemingly greatest achievement; that I authored the book Queen Bees and Wannabes that was the basis for the movie, musical and cultural phenomenon that is Mean Girls.
For me, Mean Girls has never been my greatest achievement. I am much more proud of the work I do advocating for young people and helping to bring dignity into communities.
In reality, my Mean Girls experience was one based on exploitation.
There are two parts to my story. Part one is about the movie industry and how it is fundamentally based in inequity and abuse of power. My experience is just one example; there are others that are worse but I can only speak to mine. I never received any compensation from Paramount for the movie or musical after my initial payment. Like many writers, my contract said I was entitled to 5% of net proceeds but it is accepted in the industry that movies never make a profit. In this case, Mean Girls grossed over 250 million dollars and cost around 37 million to make and publicize, yet, according to Paramount, it has always been in the red. In addition, my agent at the time made a mistake that allowed Paramount to claim they had more extensive power specifically related to theatrical rights than was originally contracted.
As a fellow female writer I hoped for more support from Tina Fey; especially as she publicly advocates for women’s equity in the workplace and women supporting other women. While none of this is her responsibility, in her shoes I would have advocated for more fair and balanced treatment towards the person who was the original source for everything that has come from Mean Girls.
Part Two, and more personal, was when Mean Girls, the Musical became a reality. In January 2017 the country was realizing more fully the presence of xenophobia and bigotry in our culture. That is when I wrote to Tina and asked her if the musical could partner with my organization, Cultures of Dignity, to support an anti-bullying campaign and give young people essential resources to support their mental and physical health. She agreed.
From September 2017 to April of 2018, Cultures of Dignity worked with the musical producers to develop an educational program for educators, parents and students. My team and I wanted to use Mean Girls Musical as a platform to raise dialogue and combat the bullying, bigotry, and discrimination young people were experiencing. As entertaining and funny as Mean Girls’ representation of high school is, experiencing these same issues in real life is far more complicated, hurtful and dangerous. We sought to train adults and empower young people to deal with the challenging realities upon which the musical was built.
As entertaining and funny as Mean Girls’ representation of high school is, experiencing these same issues in real life is far more complicated, hurtful and dangerous.
I also consulted on the script and trained the cast. But as it got closer to the musical’s opening on Broadway, those in power with the musical became evasive and claimed there was no money for our campaign.
In April, after attending the enormous and lavish opening night after party, I realized there was never going to be an educational program. It was all a sham. We were never compensated for any of our efforts nor did the program come to fruition. Later, one of the producers admitted that his role was to work with me so “I wouldn’t upset the apple cart.”
While my team and I had worked hard in good faith for months on what I thought was an opportunity to help families, it was actually a tactic to distract me so I wouldn’t do anything to stop the musical. It was a wasted opportunity to bring people together and give critical resources to young people. Why pretend that these issues are important to you beyond making money off of people who can afford to go to a Broadway show?
Why am I coming forward now?
To be clear, I have not been completely silent. I have reached out behind the scenes and asked Paramount and Tina Fey to work with me to find ways to lift all boats. I didn’t come publicly forward because I didn’t want my experience to be seen as a Mean Girls story and it was hard to believe that I was so misled. I was willing to keep trying because I wanted to work on these issues for young people and Mean Girls is an amazing platform.
I am incredibly inspired by young people who are calling out hypocrisy and abuse of power they see in their lives. So when I was given the opportunity to share my story with Aarti Shahani, a brilliant reporter for National Public Radio on The Art Of Power Podcast, I agreed to go on the record.
I want my principles to align with a life of dignity for myself. I want to share my experience to show just one more example of how the entertainment industry accepts and rewards exploitation and inequity. When there is systemic abuse of power it becomes easier to justify unethical behavior and normalize it.
This is what Cultures of Dignity and my life’s work is about, the difference between how we define respect and dignity. Dignity is recognizing people’s inherent right to be recognized for their humanity. Respect is showing admiration for someone because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Dignity is a given. Respect is earned. I don’t respect the actions of people who aren’t true to their word or exploit their power to marginalize others. I do need to treat those people with dignity. In the conversations we are having in our culture when a public figure acts shamefully, we tend to blame and attack. Dignity is what is missing from these conversations.