Ariana Grande is teaching a masterclass in handling breakups like a boss, and we all ought to be taking notes. From the moment Thank U, Next dropped at the beginning of November, it was lauded for its emotional maturity. Especially in light of the way Pete Davidson seemed to be endlessly milking the limelight he’d gleaned from dating Grande, the single was revenge enough on its own. From its title, “Thank U, Next” could’ve been about a pop star on the rebound, breaking hearts and taking names. Instead, the song was an anthem of empowerment—about learning from past relationships and letting it shape your future actions—and it proved, definitively, that Grande is a more evolved pop star and woman coming into her own.
When images and intel from the “Thank U, Next” music video shoot started surfacing online, the internet went into a tizzy. It appeared that Grande was recreating scenes from her favorite movies, like Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and Bring It On, in meticulous detail.
The “Thank U, Next” video dropped on Friday with fanfare that, frankly, feels unprecedented in the YouTube era. Grande’s Twitter feed for several days before the video release was dominated by responses to eager fans begging to see the final version. In the minutes before the video premiered on Friday, nearly 500,000 people tuned in on YouTube for the live countdown. And the video itself delivered—its five and a half minutes are chock-full of star cameos (Hello, Kris Jenner!) and allusions for Grande stans to unpack.
Hers is a particularly dedicated fanbase, but the movies Grande references in the “Thank U, Next” video are also beloved, especially by millennial women who grew up with them. Bring It On, Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, and 13 Going on 30 (a curveball for some, but it’s an underrated gem) all came out between 2000 and 2004, during Grande’s older fans’ most formative years. These movies are the entertainment equivalent of comfort food and a fluffy pillow—they’re perfect to watch when you’re sick or sad or, yes, going through a breakup.
But, kind of like pop music, you’d be wrong to write off these films as fluff. They’re really fun, yes, but they’re not rom-coms in the typical sense. They’re all about women facing challenges and coming out on top. Including them in the “Thank U, Next” video goes beyond nostalgic, early 2000s cosplay. After the year Grande has had—between a terrorist attack, the death of an ex-boyfriend, and a very public whirlwind engagement—paying homage to feel-good movies about triumphant women totally tracks.
In Legally Blonde, for example, Elle Woods starts out as a vapid stereotype: a sorority girl aspiring to marry into wealth and status. At Harvard Law School, her classmates underestimate her because of how she looks—a relatable feeling for most women I know. But by working hard and finding her people, Elle beats her critics at their own game, becoming a high-powered lawyer and trading the toxic man in her life for a group of loyal friends and a supportive Luke Wilson.
Mean Girls is sort of the inverse of that. Cady Heron starts out knowing who she is and what she stands for, but she loses track of those parts of herself in pursuit of popularity. Like Legally Blonde, the journey is about self-discovery and the importance of hanging onto true friends. 13 Going on 30 touches on this, too. Jenna Rink wants to be popular so badly, she ditches her best friend Matty to get in with a nasty gang of girls. The struggle of the movie involves figuring out how to turn back time and be a kid again, but the climactic scene of 13 Going on 30—the one Grande references in her music video—is Matty preparing to marry another woman and Jenna realizing she had everything she needed to be happy all along.
Then there’s Bring It On, where cheerleader Torrance Shipman realizes her team’s prize-winning routine was stolen from a cheer squad in East Compton. It’s about privilege, creativity, resilience, and women coming together to right a wrong. Just like Elle, Cady, and Jenna, Torrance ends her story as a far better version of herself, one who’s learned from her struggle and come out stronger for it on the other side, and doing what’s right even if it doesn’t mean she wins.
The movies don’t parallel Grande’s journey perfectly—the things she’s confronted are way harder and darker than figuring out how to become America’s Next Top Cheer Squad. This is where the sweetness of pop music and feel-good movies dovetails. Both offer escapism, but at least in the case of “Thank U, Next” and the films referenced in its music video, the message being pushed is empowerment.
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