When I hear the word “plastics” in connection with movies, I immediately think of two: The Graduate, where the neighbor of Ben Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) advises him that plastics are the key to a financially successful future, and Mean Girls, where the most-popular girls in the high school are referred to as the Plastics, which is really a reflection of their personalities. With school starting again, maybe it’s time to sit down with our high school age kids or grandchildren and watch or re-watch Mean Girls.
Looking back at my own high school experience, I tried my best to be accepted, even popular, with the “right” (meaning cool) crowd. By my senior year, though, that popularity and acceptance became less important to me, as I realized there really was life after high school, and that to be part of the cool crowd, you often had to give up your individuality by talking, dressing and acting (whether genuine of not) like everyone else in that crowd. The saddest thing, though, is cool crowds are often not that cool, because to become a member, you sometimes have to ignore, put down, and even belittle anyone outside the clique. I think what really happened to me in high school was, somewhere along the way, I realized I was OK with myself; that if I kept worrying about what other people thought of me, I was showing more confidence in their opinion than I had in my own.
I learned two important lessons from watching Mean Girls, where Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan) attends public school for the first time. Previously, she had lived with her parents in Africa and was home schooled. At her new school, she befriends Janis and Damian, who warn her to avoid the Plastics, a clique of three rich girls, who reached queen bee status by bullying and gossiping about anyone who got in their way. But the Plastics take an interest in Cady, so Cady, Janis and Damian devise a plot for Cady to be assimilated into the clique for the purpose of bringing them down. The plan is working, except the Plastics have changed Cady. In this scene, Janis confronts Cady about not just becoming a part of the clique, but about actually becoming plastic:
It is sad that sometimes we think the only way we can be a part of a group or feel good about ourselves is by putting others down. It is especially sad when those put downs are based on hearsay or even lies. So the first lesson I learned from Mean Girls is to accept yourself for who your really are, despite what others might think about you. I love the character of Janis because, although different from most of the other students at school, she was comfortable with herself. Her message to all of us? Of all the different opinions people might have about you, the most important opinion is the one you have of yourself.
As a member of the Plastics clique, Cady learns of a “Burn Book,” a secret notebook kept by the Plastics containing rumors, secrets and gossip about other students and teachers at the school. As an act of revenge, the leader of the Plastics makes copies of the Burn Book and spreads its pages throughout the school. The result is chaos, distrust, shunning, and dissolved relationships that are not easily healed. Lesson two from Mean Girls, then, is really a corollary of lesson one: if we have a positive image of ourselves, we have no need to put down others, and worse, if we do engage in gossip, we are on a road of no return, for once the lies and putdowns are out in the open, there is no chance of taking them back.
One of the greatest demonstrations of the consequences of gossiping is found in this sermon delivered by Father Brendan Flynn (played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the movie, Doubt***:
Whether at home, school or work, let’s remember the word told Ben Braddock in The Graduate: plastics; not so much as a road map to financial success, but as a reminder to cultivate a powerful image of ourselves, and a warning against cruelty to others.
Postscript to “Winning with Class” (my previous post on this blog): a terrific example of winning without any class is the recent movie, The Program****. It is the story of Lance Armstrong, America’s favorite and best-known cyclist, and how he won seven Tour De France competitions by cheating. Armstrong is still America’s best-known cyclist, but now he might be the world’s least favorite one.
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenwriter: Calder Willingham and Buck Henry (adapted from the book by Charles Webb)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross
Released: December 22, 1967
Production: Paramount Pictures
Director: Mark Waters
Screenwriter: Tina Fey (adapted from the book by Rosalind Wiseman)
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett and Rachel McAdams
Released: April 30, 2004
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenwriter: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams
Released: December 25, 2008
Production: Anton Capital Entertainment, StudioCanal, Working Title Films
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: John Hodge (adapted from the book by David Walsh)
Starring: Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd and Jesse Plemons
Released: March 18, 2016