I’ve heard it said often that there is a child star curse. History has shown us, since the dawn of cinema, that sending your kid into the world of celebrity from a tender young age seldom leads to untarnished greatness. Our culture is littered with cautionary tales of the doe-eyed stars of screens big and small, the cutest kids with all the catchiest turns of phrase, who fall of the rails once they stop being so adorable and start talking back. Some go broke, others enter dark periods they never truly return from, and others become martyrs to the curse, forever destined to be cautionary tales. There are exceptions, of course, but whenever I see the latest tween idol waltz the red carpet as paparazzi bellow their name, my first thought is always one of concern. That being said, I don’t believe there is a curse, because to define this trend in such a manner suggests that it is inevitable. A ‘curse’ removes agency from the people culpable in the commodification of children, from those who turn such naivety into a disposable toy that can be tossed aside without a second glance. To call it a curse implies that these all grown up tragic figures deserve what they get.
I think about that a lot whenever Lindsay Lohan returns to the headlines. She’s been a ‘has-been’ longer than she was ever an A-List hot property, and the media seem to delight in reminding people of that at every opportunity. She got too big for her boots, they say. She became a diva who liked to drink and snort more than act. Oh, she was never that talented to begin with. She deserves what happened to her. After all, she was a child star and that’s just how these things go. They overlook the suspect parents and the intense pressure of child-stardom. They have little understanding of that liminal period in celebrity of the mid-2000s, pre-Twitter when TMZ ruled all and the Paris Hilton party girl figure ruled all. None of them seem to want to interrogate that strange era, so near and yet so far, where it became more acceptable than ever to call women ‘stupid spoiled whores’ while obsessing over their every move for page views and tabloid sales. Nobody ever wants to talk about being complicit.
But this is not about that era. Maybe some day I’ll get into that. For now, I want to talk about the role that Lohan may forever be defined by, at least when it comes to her status as an actress.
2004’s teen comedy Mean Girls, written by SNL alum Tina Fey, never should have worked. It was an adaptation of a parental advice guide on how to deal with wayward adolescent girls. The genre had become over-saturated to the point where it had its own parody film, Not Another Teen Movie, starring baby Chris Evans. The prospect of yet another story about how horrid and borderline evil teenage girls were didn’t inspire hope, yet it worked. Mean Girls was savvy enough to keep the one-liners flying while developing its complex ecosystem of high school life. It’s heightened to a degree that’s just absurd enough yet even British teens like me could recognize many of its internal conflicts. The story of a home-schooled 16 year old who finds herself ill-prepared to cope with her new school’s intense hierarchy made stars of Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried, but the name above the title is Lindsay Lohan.
Lohan’s work in Mean Girls is often overlooked. She’s the audience avatar and her character arc is damningly unsympathetic at times so she’s not the figure viewers tend to latch onto. That would be Janis Ian, the sardonic goth girl with shades of Daria, played by Lizzy Caplan. You hate Regina George, you laugh at Gretchen and Karen, and Cady Heron is mostly our focal point into the jungle of high school. Because of that, and the historical rewriting that hindsight gifts us with, Lohan doesn’t get a lot of credit for her acting. Sure, she’s not the standout performance of the film, but in the role of the passive observer who falls in too deep with the popular crowd, she truly excels.
With her deep voice and expression of cynical bemusement, Lohan makes for the ideal viewer stand-in. Her unease with this new environment, one everyone but her seems to understand, is palpable. When she eats her lunch in a toilet cubicle, her expression is one of weary acceptance, one of a figure aware that this is how it may be for the rest of time. There’s enough innocence in her cadence and responses to ring true, like when Regina so obviously patronizes her about her bracelet. If you’re in the know, it’s pathetically easy to tell how nasty she’s really being, but for a novice like Cady, sincerity is taken as the default. Cady moves with the herd because that’s what great observers do. When it leaves her torn between two worlds, neither of which is particularly accepting of the real Cady, Lohan makes that conflict work. You wholeheartedly believe that Cady genuinely doesn’t know how deep she’s gotten into this civil war.
When Cady becomes the unwitting mole into the Plastics circle, encouraged by Janis and Damien, Lohan’s passive unease is at its sharpest. You can see the discomfort she has when she bears witness to the Plastics’ bullying, but you understand why she sticks around. Power corrupts for a reason: It’s fun being on top. She likes being adored, even if it’s for a version of herself that’s been created by friend and foe alike. By the time she becomes ‘full Plastic’, the evolution is so natural that it feels inevitable. What else are you supposed to do when everyone wants you to be like that?
When you’re a teen girl watching this film, the horror of Cady’s conundrum doesn’t fully register. By the time you’re old enough to have gotten over the high-low stakes of adolescence, you fully understand how Cady doesn’t have any real friends. As I get older, I wonder more about Janis and what Tina Fey intended with her. She’s clearly not a great person either, but her casual goth stylings and rejection of pastel femininity is coded by the film as the better option for Cady. Never mind that she’s all too excited to force Cady into a life of Plastic infiltration under the guise of helping others. If Cady is the audience’s avatar, I think Janis is Fey’s. She’s ‘not like other girls’, but really, she’s as bad as the baddest in Mean Girls.
That may be what makes Cady and Lohan’s portrayal ultimately more complex and layered than many of us give it credit for. Lohan, arguably more than any of her acting peers, gets what it means to want to be the cool girl and how intoxicating that role can be, even as it smothers you. Cady is a chameleon, and while Lohan never reached that level of range in her own acting career, she’s the perfect fit for the role of a young woman who is forced to be what everyone wants her to be, regardless of the cost. You must be the outcast, then the mole, then the bitch, then the peacekeeper. Boys will pay attention to you if you play stupid, girls will want someone to idolize and lambast in equal measure, teachers will want someone to invest in then be disappointed by. It’s unfair of Lohan’s work to say the parallels may hit too close to home for some, but when you watch Cady go from heroine to pariah, don’t you feel those twinges of memory as well?
I find myself perpetually rooting for Lindsay Lohan. It’s not just because she showed such immense potential and is so effervescent in Mean Girls, but because it felt like she had been deprived of her options before she could get a head-start on life. The system was stacked against her, and while I can’t approve or excuse some of the more unsavoury parts of her life following her peak, I understand it more intensely than is comfortable. Nowadays, Mean Girls is a meme classic, but seldom relating to Cady or Lohan, unless it’s to be cruel about the latter. Now and then, Lohan talks about wanting to make a sequel - even she pretends the straight to DVD pseudo-follow-up didn’t happen - but it’ll never happen. It shouldn’t happen either. By the end, Cady is just a normal person, free of the social hang-ups that plagued her. Who would want to repeat it all? What a curse.