What ‘that’ Mean Girls joke means to a real Lebanese lesbian

The highly anticipated film adaption of the smash hit Mean Girls musical is finally upon us and it offers viewers some fresh – and very queer – twists on the original story, including for legendary misfit and rumoured lesbian Janis Ian.

One exciting update to the enduringly popular satirical tale of high school social hierarchy is that the character of Janis – played this time around by Moana star Auli‘i Cravalho – will be an “out and proud” lesbian rather than the subject of a joke. 

“Previously, in our ’04 version, ‘lesbian’ for Janis was used kind of as a slur, and we’re taking that back,” Cravalho told Screen Rant prior to the movie’s release in the US.

“I am a pyro-lez, loud and proud. I will light your backpack on fire if you talk s**t about me.” 

In the original film, which starred Lindsay Lohan, it is revealed that misfit Janis, then played by Lizzy Caplan, and queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams) used to be besties in middle school but their friendship fell apart when the latter thought her pal was a lesbian. 

While the lesbian rumour is put to bed by the end of the film, with Janis shown smooching Mathletes president Kevin Gnapoor, it set up one of the film’s most underrated and subtle jokes

To cut it short: Janis is Lebanese. It is something which she only mentions in passing when Kevin asks if she is Puerto Rican and a fact that Regina seemed to entirely misunderstand, instead believed she was a lesbian.

Auli‘i Cravalho (R) plays Janis in the 2024 musical. (JOJO WHILDEN/Jojo Whilden/2023 Paramount Pictures/IMDB).

To any seasoned viewer, the Lebanese/lesbian joke is well-trodden ground. 

It appeared in 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, which is not explicitly gay but has a cult following who wished it had had a lesbian ending (including star Keira Knightly herself), when one of Jess’ old aunts interrupts Jules’ mum accusations of her of being a lesbian, to say: “She no Lebanese, she’s Punjabi.” 

In I Can’t Think Straight, a 2008 film about Jordanian and British Indian women falling love, the movie ends with an older family member saying: “She’s what? Some of my best friends are Lebanese.” 

Lebanese lesbian Saraya Haddad told PinkNews: “In movie and TV culture over the past few decades there seems to have been an interchangeability between being ‘Lebanese’ and being a ‘lesbian’.”

For Haddad, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute, Janis’ Lebanese identity was a small bit of representation for her growing up in Surrey.

“When I first watched Mean Girls as a 12 year old, I heard Janis’ remark at the end of the film about being Lebanese and thought: ‘That’s me’. I identified with the jovial comment because of Janis’ ethnicity, not realising that years later I would identify with it for my sexuality as well.

“I often joke that I’m ‘Lesbanese’.” 

Haddad said it was refreshing to see Janis’ sexuality depicted on screen in a more open way in the new film, rather than being discussed through subtle jokes about her ethnicity.

“It’s brilliant that Auli’i is playing Janis as an out and proud lesbian,” she said. “Doing so sends a much more powerful message, particularly as rather than a separation of ethnic minority and sexuality, here we see a celebration of intersectionality and all of the different threads we can be at the same time.” 

Janis will be an out and proud lesbian in the new Mean Girls film. (Paramount Pictures/IMDB)

However, with Cravalho in the role this time round, the Lebanese/lesbian joke is noticeably absent from the film, which does not shy away from incorporating the star’s Hawaiian heritage into Janis’ character. 

To reflect this, Janis’ surname has been changed from Ian 20 years ago to ‘Imi’ike. It was changed to Sarkisian for the Broadway musical. 

And Haddad feels it is time to put the Lebanese/lesbian joke to bed, as a bygone relic.

“Perhaps this is me reading into it,” she said, “but there seems to be an underlying message in this common joke that it is outrageous to compare someone from the Middle East, a place notorious for its homophobia, to queerness, when in reality the Middle East is as queer as the rest of the world.”

Mean Girls opens in UK cinemas on Wednesday (17 January).

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