The cult of good feelings surrounding Mean Girls—my own included—leaves undisturbed some problematic power dynamics. The iconic “Prom Speech” best illustrates this complicated relationship between feeling good and speaking truth to power. In this post I argue that the “Prom Speech” is a rhetoric of tokenism couched as a moment of democratic redemption. Put differently, I argue that when “we are all winners,” as Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady puts it during her speech, no one is a winner, which means that the people already winning are still ahead.
Democracy and Redemption: Double Edged Swords
Cady’s redemptive moment arrives at her homecoming coronation. Looking down at the plastic crown in her hands and, presumably, reflecting on all of the strife it has caused, Cady asks aloud, “why is everybody stressing over this thing?,” before audibly snapping the crown in two. Then, declaring (though she is ostensibly not the queen) equality across the land, Cady continues snapping the plastic into small pieces to be distributed among the hundreds of “partial spring fling queens.”
Like all things rhetorical, Cady’s redemptive moment is “ambivalent,” in the words of communication scholar Brian McCann, radically undecidable in its “rhetorical and political functions,” capable of simultaneously resisting centralized power and “creat[ing] a point of legitimation” for its authority. We want so badly to believe that, rather than taking up the power and popularity she had so eagerly sought the entire semester, Cady symbolically redistributes that power and popularity to what one (very optimistic) rhetorical critic describes as “random, average girls:”
Not the popular jock or the queen bee, but instead just random, average girls. Stating that Jessica Lopez looks “amazing” in her dress and that Emma Gerber’s hairdo looks “really pretty” especially since she took a lot of time on it really makes the school think she likes her fellow students. Since students like these girls characterize most of the average students in the grade, the other average students feel welcomed.
From Redemption to Tokenism
But the critic misses an important point: Jessica Lopez and Emma Gerber are neither random nor average. They are tokens or members of a minority group awkwardly positioned among the dominant group in order to diversify but not fundamentally restructure the social order (read about tokenism in Oprah Winfrey’s biography and the film The Blind Side). Lopez and Gerber are conspicuously positioned front and center in the audience for feel-good exploitation. Lopez is in a wheel chair—quite literally unable to stand up to seize the crown—and Gerber is noticeably overweight (see picture below) in contrast to the women on stage who are host to a number of privileges: thin, white, beautiful, mid-upper class, physically and mentally abled, etc. Don’t believe me? Try finding ONE picture of Gerber and Lopez during that scene anywhere on the internet–you won’t.
Tokenism enables Cady to share in symbol only her resources and authority with the masses without seriously threatening the status quo because when we are all winners, then none of us are winners. And if none of us are winners, then Cady and her runners up continue to hold the status quo. There cannot simply be a power vacuum; either new power is assumed or the old guard stands. Power never simply disappears in a utopia of pure equality and egalitarianism, as much as that final moment of Cady’s speech, when she asks Mr. Duvall to “wrap it up,” might want us to believe. Therefore, what Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote about history in The Prison House of Language also stands for prom queens: Where everyone is a prom queen, the idea of prom queenness itself as seemed to empty of content (xi).