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Paradigm and Syntagm in “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls

Targeting a young demographic, “Mean Girls” was released in cinemas in 2004 and grossed an impressive $130m worldwide. It has since developed a cult following and was even adapted into a Broadway musical in 2018.

The film tells the story of Cady Heron who becomes friends with a popular but incredibly vicious clique of girls at her new school. When she falls in love with one of their ex-boyfriends, the rivalry becomes bitter and vengeful.

Most of the promotional material focused on the representing the main characters in a way the audience could easily decode their role in the narrative. The posters and trailers are great texts to analyse because the relationship between the important signifiers illustrates Saussure’s concepts of paradigm and syntagm.


Analyse the following DVD box art in terms of Saussure’s sign theory, including paradigm and syntagm.

Mean Girls DVD cover
“Mean Girls” DVD cover

Points to Consider

Ferdinand de Saussure, who was an expert on language, believed that words and signs on their own were meaningless. He argued they only achieved some sort of definition through their relationship with other words and signs in a system or code.


In his concept of a paradigm, the linguist suggested these were categories of words which had a similar purpose or intent. The most obvious example of a paradigm refers to word classes, such nouns and verbs. The word “walk” describes a similar action to “run” and “trudge” so they could be easily substituted into a sentence and it should still make sense.

paradigm language diagram

In this example, the word choice suggests something about the girl’s attitude to school. Run could convey her excitement to get to class whereas trudge suggests her reluctance. Since any three of these verbs work in the sentence, it forms a paradigm and they become defined by their relationship with each other.

Therefore, the representation of the protagonist of “Mean Girls” in this DVD cover only makes sense when compared to the representation of the other girls, who are known as the Plastics in the film. Remember, you should comment on the physical from of the signifiers.

The theorist, David Lodge, offered clothing as an example of a paradigm and his approach is a useful framework to analyse this box art. He suggested clothing for the upper body and the lower body were two paradigms. Put simply, what does the choice of blue jeans compared to the short, pink skirts tell the reader about the characters? Is there contrast created between their soft pink clothing and the protagonist’s red top?

Look at the paradigms of body language and facial expression of the characters. Is there a different attitude being encoded for the Plastics and the protagonist? For instance, is the hand in the pocket a more casual action than placing your hand on your hip?


Next, Saussure defined the way signs combined into a message as their syntagmatic relationship. In other words, the representation of the protagonist derives its true value when compared to aggressive stance of the other characters. You need to also comment on the positioning of the Plastics behind the main character. What does this suggest about their relationship.

Note the placement of the three girls beneath the “mean” part of the title. Does that suggest anything about the function in the story?

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!