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  • Photo by Joan Marcus Tina Fey, left, adapted her screenplay for “Mean Girls” into the Broadway-bound musical version, starring Barrett Wilbert Weed, center, and Grey Henson.

  • ABC Mean Girl Mellie (Bellamy Young) in a scene from ABC’s “Scandal.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 1:00 am

World changes, but mean girls still reign

Lavanya Ramanathan | Washington Post

It's the age of fourth-wave feminism, of Wonder Woman and widespread girl-truce and “I believe you.”

But flip on the TV, go to the movies or even slide into the soft velvet seats of a theater orchestra section, and still, somehow, the Mean Girl reigns. She's the pop-cultural archetype we just can't seem to quit.

There's Mellie Grant in “Scandal,” although Olivia Pope certainly has her moments. There's the sorceress with the enviable cheekbones in “Maleficent” and Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Even if a lifetime of traumas hadn't been flung her way, Cersei Lannister would probably still have been the most beguiling tyrant on “Game of Thrones.” In the protracted blood feud between the Swifts and the Kardashian-Wests, the Mean Girl is definitely Taylor. (Or maybe it is Kim. It's all so super-unclear.)

And now? She's Broadway-bound.

A freewheeling 21/2-hour “Mean Girls” musical, based on the 2004 cult movie written by comedian Tina Fey, is working out the kinks on Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre stage before it heads north for a Broadway run.

A serious contender for one of moviedom's most terrifying Mean Girls, Regina George, leader of the clique known as the Plastics, has a smartphone now, and skinny jeans, platform heels and tight leather jackets, not to mention a few slithery rock numbers.

She's also just like the Regina George of Fey's film, doling out her affection and seriously warped teenage vengeance in equal measure, until her victims attempt to turn the tables and replace her with one of their own.

“They betrayed you; that's what girls do,” her mother, a gossipy Mama Plastic in her own right, sings to Regina in the show.

Outside the theater, 13 years after “Mean Girls” hit the megaplex, womanhood has changed. In our era of kindness and allies and pink-hatted sisterhood, is betrayal really still what girls do?

“I'm not mean! I'm a woman,” argues Donna Rodney, 49, of Silver Spring, Maryland, as she waits to enter the National Theatre on a recent rainy afternoon. Women are her support system, she says, but she has a theory about why the Mean Girl persists.

“I think there's a lot of stereotypes people want to hang on to,” she says. “It's more interesting to be mean and nasty to other women than to be inclusive and understanding and to be a caring person.

“Being mean is far more interesting.”

On screen, and onstage, it certainly does make for a good time. But who among us hasn't known one – just one! – Mean Girl in real life? Who has not dreamed of secretly slipping her Kalteen bars?

The Mean Girl has graduated from her high school highjinks and now has a law degree from an Ivy and thinks your life is cute. She's in your Ashtanga yoga class, bending into her asanas just a little bit more deeply than you are. (Not that the class has anything to do with her perfectly carved calves, she wants you to know. Those are just good genes, probs.)

She doesn't just live. She thrives.

“Unfortunately, yes,” says Rosalind Wiseman, an educator and author who literally wrote the book on Mean Girls, laughing sympathetically.

Wiseman's 15-year-old book, “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” was the source material for “Mean Girls.” In it, Wiseman described girlhood as an animalistic landscape of Queen Bees (moneyed pretty girls who alternate kindness with reproach, basically just to gaslight their entire social group); Sidekicks (the totally indoctrinated disciples of the Bee); Targets (fairly obvious, this one); and other girls you should hope never to cross in a dark alley.

But “Queen Bees” wasn't fiction; it was a manual for parents whose teenage daughters were growing up so fast, and potentially into psychotic little Mussolinis.

Not everyone will encounter a Mean Girl in their lifetime, says Wiseman, but there continue to be girls – and grown women – who “disproportionately make life miserable for the other people around them.”

Now, she might just use social media to do it.

“For women, there's a sense of having to be this billboard of yourself, this Instagram post of yourself,” Wiseman says of the 2017 version of the Mean Girl, who has us all striving to appear as though we have achieved perfection, the curated life.

Worse, “her friends are mandated to say, wherever they are, 'Aw girl, you're so cute. You're so hot.' And none of that is necessarily true,” Wiseman says. “The girls feel obligated to say it.”

“Yeah, I have some friends that are kind of terrible,” confirms Elyse Collier, 26, of New York, as she waited for her cousin outside the National Theatre. “I'm getting married, and I have lots of bridesmaids, and they have lots of ... personalities.”

As she bats her long lashes, streaks of rose-gold glitter twinkle on her eyelids, and we can't help wondering aloud whether Elyse, who is lithe and blond, might be a Regina George. “Oh, no, no,” she replies without hesitation. She is a Karen – pretty, happily vapid and, um, how to put it? Not so committed to intellectual pursuits.

Even if Fey had never decided to adapt “Queen Bees and Wannabes” into a film, Wiseman might not have escaped the attention showered upon her after the book was published.

The media was obsessed with the Queen Bee – now better known as the Mean Girl – and with the notion that every day in America, girls were waging bloodcurdling emotional war against one another.

Wiseman, who has a quick laugh and a habit of dropping unprintable words, has written more than half a dozen books, including one on boy behavior. But she acknowledges that it's her field report on girls who feed on the destruction of other girls that has endured.

Just like the Mean Girl herself.