Mean Girls, Adult Style

Rosalind Wiseman, the author who wrote the book that inspired the hit movie Mean Girls is suing Paramount Pictures. According to her lawyers, she is trying to share in some of the earnings from the blockbuster hit her work has turned out to be. You can read about it here or here or anywhere else, really.

I recently saw the Broadway musical version of the story, and had anyways planned to share what is becoming one of my most obsessive interests: how genre itself shapes a story. The main plot points of the story are the same in both cases, but musical theater has more tools of sharing a character’s interiority, and used well, it is able to bring a deeper story to life. Either that, or it just was an insanely clever adaptation.

And adaptation is maybe one of the more significant ways to look at this, because one of the key things that I wondered about when I read this story was exactly how much credit is due to Wiseman’s book. She wrote a non-fiction book about the different roles that teenage girls play in and among various typical cliques found in high schools, aimed at helping parents understand their daughters better.

After reading an interview with Wiseman, Tina Fey optioned the book (for $400,000) and wrote a story around it. She made up a character, Cady, who enters high school for the first time after spending her childhood being homeschooled in Africa. When Cady has to navigate an American high school, she uses what she knows from the savannah to map the terror of the high school’s most powerful clique onto apex predators, and the movie fabulously plays with these metaphors at Cady tries to find her way, liking boys, liking math, wanting to be liked by everyone.

How much credit a non-fiction author deserves for describing the circumstances that led to a fictionalized story will be for the courts to sort out, even though it is one of the more salacious places to jump in with an opinion. Meanwhile, two other things strike me as noticeable about the story. The first is that Wiseman herself notes that she has been credited at every turn. 

“What’s hard is that they used my name in the Playbill,” she said. “And Tina, in her interviews, said I was the inspiration and the source, but there was no payment.”

Tina Fey has, apparently, generously credited Wiseman at every turn. In Wiseman’s words, “We created this thing, Tina took my words, she did an extraordinary job with it. She brought it to life and the material has been used and recycled for the last 20 years. I’m clearly recognized and acknowledged by Tina as the source material, the inspiration. I’m recognized and yet I deserve nothing?”

The most significant thing about this to me is that, it would seem to me, that if Tina Fey had never credited Wiseman, she wouldn’t be in this position. Having seen the movie, the play, and read sections of the book, I have to say that I would never recognize the book as the inspiration for the story. Its subtitle is “Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World.” It has chapters on the early onset of adolescence, cliques and popularity, communication, technology— all the while trying to help parents understand what their daughters are navigating. 

Here’s what it doesn’t share with the actual story of Mean Girls: an audience, a plot, an author. Tina Fey could have said, “I got inspired to think about girls bullying each other in high school” and it’s not like Wiseman had the corner on that market, even though she perhaps had documented it better than anyone ever had.

Instead, Fey put striking arrows and credit to Wiseman at every turn, by all accounts sat down generously with Wiseman, and they all took a risk to see if an audience could come to love a story that came out of Wiseman’s research. I’m not saying Wiseman should be happy with what she got; I’m saying that it’s ironic that the effort to give her more credit made her more discontent.

Which is perhaps where it’s worth talking about compensation. I don’t know what is customary in Hollywood, or how studios make money on movies, so I’ll just mention the figures the article establishes:

  • 1) Wiseman was paid $400,000 for the film rights in 2002, and has not received additional payments since.
  • 2) The film grossed $130 million.
  • 3) Paramount claims that, despite this box office number, they have not made any money from the franchise.
  • 4) The movie has been turned into a Broadway musical, and they have claimed that Wiseman has no rights to the musical. (This is interesting in light of what I said above).

At any rate, it seems that it was the Hollywood excesses that drove Wiseman to finally try to get more compensation. Her pet project on an educational program for high schoolers was being tossed aside as the musical opened. And, in her words:

“There was a moment for me, I was at this incredible party and I’m thinking how much money this party must have cost, probably more than I was paid,” Wiseman said. “There were all these Paramount execs who had no idea who I was and I’m just walking around going, ‘Wow, wow.’ I had to leave. I realized that night that nothing was going to happen with the educational program and that made me really angry. That’s when I reached out to my lawyers and they pushed Paramount and said, ‘How can you be doing this to her?’”

Which is a funny way to think about how Paramount could make no money. If they made, let’s just say, half a million dollars out of that $130 million, but then they turn around and throw a party for exactly that amount, it ends up zeroing out their profit again. They don’t owe any taxes to the government on their gains, and they don’t owe any money to Wiseman because they haven’t made any.

The way Wiseman narrates it, she almost could have forgiven it all if they hadn’t just thrown it in her face this way, shown excess and lack of gratitude at the same time. 

I don’t think she wants more money— I think she wants a story that seems coherent and fair. Crediting her for the book and not the play, telling her she inspired it and paying her for it but then not paying her more when her work helped change the cultural conversation, and then throwing corporate greed and indifference at her— well, I guess that’s what the legal system is for.

Good luck to the Judge.

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