Tina Fey’s portrayal of Ms. Norburry in 2004’s Mean Girls is an authentic teacher is a very modern way. She is a supporting player in the film, portraying the protagonist Cady’s high school math teacher. Cady is new to the American high school scene, having spent her life thus far home schooled while living with her parents in Africa.
When we first meet Ms. Norburry she comes in on the first day of school and quickly demonstrates that teachers are in fact real people. She has just gotten divorced. Coffee spills all over her. She mistakes the African American girl in her room as the new student from Africa, instead of Cady. She tries to cover her embarrassments and maintain composure with a smile.
As the film progresses we find she often uses humor (a combination of wit and sarcasm) which gives this teacher a very human edge often missing in teacher portrayals. She says what we often think. There are other elements of the reality of teaching in the American high school added in. In one scene we discover that Ms. Norburry works a second job waitressing to make ends meet (wearing a very embarrassing button covered green vest).
The importance of Sharon Norburry in Mean Girls is in her relationship to Cady. Cady is someone who struggles to find her true place in the American High School social scene. We know from the get go that Cady is very a smart, academically oriented student. She is in 11th grade taking 12th grade calculus. Ms. Norburry picks up on Cady’s intelligence and makes attempts to come along side her and encourage her in academics. We can imagine that Ms. Norburry knows a thing or two about being a smart woman in a field traditionally frowned upon by men and social peers. She teaches high school mathematics. As Cady gets caught up in the social life of high school, she allows herself to intentionally begin failing her courses (in the mistaken effort of gaining a boy’s attention). Ms. Norburry sees through Cady’s ruse and attempts to reach out to her. At one point she speaks out stating, “I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now, but you don’t have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you.” A point ignored by Cady.
As the movies winds up to its climax all hell breaks loose in the school. A burn book created by Queen Bee Regina (Cady’s friend and nemesis) is released out into the school by Regina as a way of getting back at Cady. The principal of the school gathers all the female students together in the gymnasium to try to sort out their behaviour. Feeling very male and ill equipped to reach out to the female population, he turns the meeting over to Ms. Norburry, who he believes would be better able to relate to these girls. What happens next is a moment of improvised teaching brilliance and honesty. Ms. Norburry is able to redirect the anger of the girls into some soul searching work. She takes the thoughts and intentions behind the burn book and turns it around on themselves. She makes it very clear that what is written in the book is what they are thinking and doing to each other in secret and that it is not okay. One of the most quoted lines from the movies happens here: “OK, so we’re all here ’cause of this book, right? Well, I don’t know who wrote this book, but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.” What follows is a time where these girls are able to be real with each other. The masks of high school are dropped and they are (for the most part) able to open up.
Although Cady doesn’t come clean about her involvement with Regina and the messages in the burn book at that point, she does begin to become more real. She begins to take note of how her actions have affected herself and others, including Ms. Norburry (about whom she wrote a very nasty message). She joins the Mathletes in an attempt to bring up her failing calculus grade, allowing her and Ms. Norburry to bridge the gap in their relationship as well. Ms. Norburry could have chosen to allow Cady to fail, but in a demonstration of how teachers can put aside their own feelings to teach and guide their students she comes alongside Cady, forgives her and encourages her in her journey. One of my favorite lines here demonstrates how well she knows and relates to her student Cady just before the Mathlete competition:
Tina Fey created and wrote the movie, Mean Girls after reading Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabees.
The book is a non-fiction book, created to address the very real school issues of girl fighting, cliques, and gossip. Tina Fey turned the heart of the message of that book into this movie. What I find interesting is the character she portrays, this teacher, sees the social battles that these girls are facing and tries to guide them through it. She was once one of them. This is the hidden curriculum that can often be ignored. Yes, teenage girls are at school to learn, but teenage girls are also at school for their social life. That is often where their focus is. So many of us have walked that journey and navigating the halls of high school are difficult, often shaping our perceptions of ourselves for years afterwards. Having navigated these halls herself, Ms. Norburry knows that there is so much more to life than those 4 years. These girls are better than how they treat themselves and each other. She wants them to know that it is okay to be who they are, they can be smart and successful and still be likable in the end.