Everyone is familiar with the Mean Girl trope. She’s cunning and glamorous, confident, ambitious to an extreme, and charismatic. She’s the character we love to hate, a ruthless ruler of an academic setting: the It-Girl, the Queen Bee.
A number of Mean Girls have graced our TV screens over the years, including Regina George, Rizzo, Cheryl Blossom, Blair Waldorf, and Sharpay Evans, to name a few. What ties these women together? How have they stayed so relevant in pop culture when we, for all intents and purposes, were rooting for their fall all along?
The sad, mad girl
Contrary to her male counterpart, the Jock Bully, who is usually dumb and lacks a promising future, the Mean Girl is full of potential. She believes in herself and is aware of her own intelligence. Her personality drives these positive characteristics to a hyper-competitive extreme and makes her a skilled yet cruel and devious ruler.
The core of the Mean Girl’s character is often deep insecurity and anger. She is guided by her rage and her cynical and deep understanding of the world. Rachel McAdam’s portrayal of Regina George captures this eloquently in Regina’s meltdown after finding out that Cady was deceiving her along – or in the regular, rude outbursts she has towards her mom. The Mean Girl is really just an angry girl in need of boundaries and guidance. Unable to deal with her emotions, she projects her anger into selfishness and protects herself from the outside world climbing the social hierarchy.
The Mean Girl is well-aware of how society works. Instead of fighting these structures, she upholds them, because at least that way, she can end up on top.
Based on real-life
Studies show that girls are more likely to express their aggression by weaponizing relationships. This has to do with the fact that they aren’t given the social license to deal with conflict as openly and honestly as men.
The Mean Girl has a posse of enforcers, a clique that often has its own name (think: the Plastics), which exhibits borderline cult-like behavior. Most commonly, these cliques come in groups of three: a terrible trio terrorizing the school hallways.
Each girl in the group has a role. In the group of three, these roles usually consist of the Alpha, the Second-in-Command and the Pretty One.
The Mean Girl is the Alpha. She possesses the vision for the group. Her manipulative and strategic personality keeps the rest of the school in awe and envy. Dethroning the Mean Girl means dismantling the entire system.
The Second-in-Command enforces the leader’s vision. She is blindly obedient, though often being mistreated by her leader. She acts as the Alpha’s confidant and legitimizes the Mean Girl’s intentions. Her commitment to the clique is unwavering. If her faith in the leader were to fall apart, so would the whole group. In Mean Girls, this is Gretchen Wieners’ role.
Finally, we have the Pretty One. This is the beautiful, nice girl, who makes others feel like they may actually like the group. She is either oblivious to or willfully ignores the group’s problematic behaviors.
The bee colony
The term “Queen Bee” is more accurate than many might expect. Without their queen, a bee colony can’t survive. Bees live in a strict hierarchy, each assigned its place with the queen at the top. And still, the queen bee is at the mercy of her colony, who protect and care for her.
The Mean Girl’s downfall
The Mean Girl falls when she loses her power. Her power is always directly tied to her social status and is usually heavily backed by her posse. As Janis identifies in Mean Girls, Regina George would be nothing without “her man-candy, her hot body, and her army of skanks.” Often, the Mean Girl also holds a lot of material power.
The Mean Girl loses most of these things throughout her downfall. Her story ends with her no longer resting atop the social hierarchy, often without any form of redemption. If she is humanized, this humanization has limits and her legacy remains, even though she may not.
The evolution of the Mean Girl
The Mean Girl trope solidified itself in the 1970s with movies like Carrie and Pretty in Pink. Then, in the 80s, Heathers took the spotlight. This movie defied sexist expectations for teenage girls and became the blueprint for the archetype. The film showed the consequences of societal misunderstandings, angst, and mean girls’ actions, all while poking fun at the characters and subject matter with self-awareness.
By the 90s, the trope was so widespread that it was universally known and recognized. Since then, it has become even more popular as Mean Girls became more fleshed out and multifaceted, giving girls not just someone to hate but someone to relate to, as well.
What a good Mean Girl needs
A successful portrayal of the Mean Girl trope should include a motive to the meanness. Sharpay Evans wanted to star on Broadway. Regina George was addicted to the power of being influential and saw her own self-worth in her popularity. Blair Waldorf relied on her status to achieve her dreams.
The Mean Girl needs a backstory to make her authentic. Explaining her behavior simply on the basis of her gender is sexist and unsatisfying. Her life also isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Regina George is on a constant diet to maintain her figure. Cheryl Blossom lost her brother and closest friend. Rosalie Hale hates being a vampire, the foundation of her existence.
The Mean Girl is smart. She has a signature look, and, most importantly, she exudes desirability on several levels, which remains even after her downfall.
A cunning villain instead of a sexist trope
The Mean Girl may be the super-villain in many stories, but her character is much deeper than that. In many ways, she is a parody of womanhood itself. To exist as a woman in this world is to constantly compare or be compared to other women. It is to find power in numbers, in physical attractiveness and social status, even when your intelligence and academic or professional achievements should speak for themselves.
The trope explores the dark side of femininity, such as catty and conniving behavior, all while giving us an explanation for it. Arguably, the Mean Girl is mean out of necessity.
She is meant to be loved, feared, and hated at the same time. She is meant to remain prominent long after her story has ended. And while we may not think of her as a role model or an inspiration, we can all relate to her in one way or another. After all, there’s a little bit of Mean Girl in all of us.