In countless teen movies, one easily identifiable trope seems to pop-up like a zit that won't go away: the girl who just wants to fit in. Why are so many movies made about teens navigating the waters of the status quo? The explanation is that we all want to fit in to some degree and therefore identify with these young characters who are going through the same thing we are.

Although, fitting in can sometimes cause massive problems for the young protagonists in these movies. These problems stem from the extent that they are willing to go in order to fit in, even if it means altering their current self to suit the norm.

This phenomenon is perfectly summed in the 2004 cult movie, mean girls, by director Mike Waters and writer Tina Fey.

Mean Girls Break Down

If you aren't familiar with the film, it details teenager, Cady Heron’s experience in a high school over-run with segregated cliques of homogenous people. She and her two new friends, both of whom are social outsiders, hatch a plan to break down the dictators of the status quo, the Plastics, the three most popular girls in school by sabotaging them. Through this plan, she integrates herself into their lifestyle and ultimately finds herself becoming more and more like the Plastics as she subconsciously falls for the tantalizing seduction of ultimate social acceptance to the point of becoming a trendsetter, or a dictator of the norms.

She goes from a down-to-earth, studious, and caring person, to a lipstick toting, high-heel wearing, and insult-throwing mean girl. And she changed herself completely due to the need to be closer to the social norm, or in this case the social ideal in order to gain the ability to be the dictator of the cultural expectations and norms to the point of having ultimate acceptance by her peers.

The Science of "Fitting In"

But, in Cady’s worldview, she was just following the path of a psychological concept called Social Control. According to Janet M. Ruane’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Problems tilted “Social Control,” social control “refers to all the ways in which a society establishes and enforces its cultural standards or group expectations” (868).

In Cady’s case, she felt that she had to conform to suit the social group that she was initially trying to infiltrate. This was due to the positive sanctions she received from peers that enforced her perceived “good” behavior towards satisfying the norm.

Ruane explains, “Positive sanctions reward our conformity to norms…Negative sanctions punish deviation from norms” (868). We may think that we would notice these sanctions, that they would be obvious enough to avoid, but really we have been abiding by them for years without noticing it.

Since childhood, we have been receiving positive sanctions for things like, dressing nice, looking pretty, losing weight, and caring about finding a significant other.

We have also been receiving negative sanctions for things like being a slob, wearing no makeup, gaining weight, and not caring about love interests. These all align with either conforming to or deviating from norms.

Unfortunately, as Ruane states, “Properly socialized individuals come to care about what others think of them” (868). Because of this, the real reason we care about self-image is due to our socialization. We cannot go back in time and get rid of that; therefore, we cannot blame Cady for questing for acceptance and subsequently going way too far to get it.