For the last two decades, Hollywood’s fictional high schools have — by and large — clumsily lumped teen lesbians into two dehumanized categories: fetishized or feared.
For the objectified lesbian, “American Pie 2 (2001)” set the tone. The film’s dude leads are spending the summer painting houses, and Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) becomes convinced the two women living in one home are lesbians, so he breaks in, hunting for “proof.” The women (who, in heels and short skirts, are presented as a male fantasy of what lesbians look like) arrive home to change, watched by three of the house painters who are now hiding in the closet. The two guys left outside describe the “hot lesbians” over their walkie-talkies, gaining a rapt audience of men (cashiers, truck drivers, police officers) whose radios accidentally pick up their channel.
When the women discover the boys have broken in, they kiss and touch each other for the enjoyment of their intruders. In its assertion that lesbians exist for male pleasure, “American Pie 2” was just reflecting a mainstream contemporary understanding of what being a lesbian means.
“Mean Girls,” released three years after “American Pie 2,” epitomizes Hollywood’s fear of lesbians. The beloved comedy, written by Tina Fey, feels like it belongs to a later, more progressive generation of teen movie (not least because it continues to be referenced by people like Ariana Grande and Hillary Clinton). But the central revenge plot is based on lesbian panic: Janis (Lizzy Caplan), so traumatized by a rumor that she’s a lesbian, becomes determined to destroy Regina (Rachel McAdams), the classmate who started the rumor.
Janis is staunch in her rejection of feminized girl culture, wearing a suit to prom. In a different version of the movie, she could have an empowering arc in which she comes out and is accepted. Instead, by the end of “Mean Girls” she has a boyfriend, and the assumption that being a lesbian is both life-destroying and shameful remains uncontested.
“Mean Girls” is far from the only teen movie to marginalize lesbians: “Bring It On,” “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “Pitch Perfect” all have jarring jokes that laugh at queer women.