Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) from Mean Girls seems perfectly content being the number two to Regina George (Rachel McAdams). She’s a loyal follower who lives to serve and support Regina. But does she have any real power? Is she really happy in this role? Watch this video for a look into the psychology of Gretchen and other sidekicks like her.
Damian: “That’s why her hair is so big. It’s full of secrets.”
Every leader needs a follower, and Regina George’s reign over North Shore High would be impossible without her number two, Gretchen Weiners. Gretchen is Regina’s top enforcer, maintaining the strict social order that protects the Queen Bee’s power. She’s also Regina’s only true confidante, entrusted with the dark secrets the leader hides from everyone else.
But being (theoretically) the second most popular girl in school doesn’t give Gretchen any real power. She fiercely defends a set of arbitrary, oppressive rules that privately make her miserable, her status fails to command the respect of the guy she’s hung up on, and her best friend isn’t even nice to her. Nonetheless, Gretchen is completely subservient to her leader, no matter how badly she’s treated. So what drives the Gretchens of the world to put up with so much abuse, just to retain their positions near the top?
Cady: “The meaner Regina was to her, the more Gretchen tried to win Regina back.”
Through Gretchen, we can understand the mindset of the follower type, the one who falls in line behind a cruel authoritarian, even if it means giving up their own agency and identity. Here’s our Take on Gretchen Weiners, and why some people choose to follow—what they gain from it, what they lose, and whether they can gain the courage to go their own way.
The Psychology of the Sidekick
Gretchen: “Growing up female in this world is not easy.”
Mean Girls was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabes, a book of parental advice on helping young girls navigate the ruthless world of high school and its strict social structures.
Rosalind Wiseman: “To the outside world, it looks like they all are the best of friends. But in that group are very rigid hierarchies.” - Author, Queen Bees and Wannabes
At the top of these hierarchies, Wiseman describes is the Queen Bee. Directly beneath her is what Wiseman dubs “the Sidekick”—the one who “will back her no matter what, because her power depends on the confidence she gets from the Queen Bee.” Wiseman lays out four characteristics of the Queen Bee’s Sidekick. One, “She’s jealous of someone else being friends with the Queen Bee.” Two, if you’re the parent of the sidekick, “The Queen Bee is your daughter’s authority figure, not you.” The third attribute of a sidekick, Wiseman says, is that “She feels like it’s just the two of them and everyone else is a Wannabe,” And finally, Wiseman says parents will know your daughter is a Sidekick if, “You think her best friend pushes her around.”
Teen movies and shows about popular cliques ruling their schools almost always feature the Sidekick character by the Queen Bee’s side. Jawbreaker’s Marcie is so submissive to boss Courtney Shayne that she goes along with a plot to cover-up murder, no questions asked. The follower character in Heathers, Heather McNamara, even attempts suicide because she thinks all the cool kids are doing it.
Veronica: “If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?”
Heather MacNamara: “...Probably.” - Heathers
These stories illustrate that the power of the cruel mean girl at the top depends on the blind obedience of the second-in-command. Yet perhaps none of these stories gets at the dark complexity of the sidekick’s mindset as accurately as Mean Girls does through Gretchen Weiners.
While everyone in the school knows Regina is secretly a mean girl, the Queen Bee still wears a fake, sugary-sweet mask in front of most audiences; only Gretchen gets to see fully into the unfiltered depths of the Queen’s darkness. This makes Gretchen feel special. Yet this illusion of intimacy is just something Regina has cultivated to control her subordinate.
Gretchen: “If you even knew how mean she really is….”
In other kinds of stories, we’re used to seeing sidekicks as largely noble characters who support their leaders unconditionally with little concern for themselves. But this relationship is only as reciprocal as the leader allows—and when the leader is more villain than hero, their dynamic becomes more like a master and servant Gretchen exists solely as an extension of Regina, who gets the pleasure of carrying out the dictator’s dirty work.
Being Regina’s confidante also gives Gretchen structural power and, in theory, leverage over Regina because she alone holds the key to information that could bring her superior down. In this way, Gretchen also has elements of what Rosalind Wiseman calls “the Banker” type — whose specialty is “banking information about girls” to use to her advantage later.
Janis: “We gotta crack Gretchen Wieners. We crack Gretchen, and then we crack the lock on Regina’s whole dirty history.”
Yet Gretchen is deeply reluctant to wield that power over Regina. The Sidekick relationship relies on sublimating your own identity in service of someone else’s— But what is it about the Regina Georges of the world that inspires sidekicks, willing to set aside their own self-interest completely, for a leader who treats them so disrespectfully, even cruelly? What does Gretchen get out of being a follower? What is she following Regina toward?
The Lure of Status
Some followers stay close to their leader in hopes of overthrowing her and becoming the top dog themselves. But a true Sidekick personality doesn’t even think of replacing her boss. Craving closeness to power, rather than power itself, Gretchen self-identifies as a number two.
Gretchen: “Brutus is just as cute as Caesar. Brutus is just as smart as Caesar. People totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar!”
Instead of outright power or dominance, Regina’s followers, The Plastics, possess a specific type of popularity that University of North Carolina psychologist Mitch Prinstein calls “status.” Through their close proximity to Regina—the focal point of the school—Gretchen and Karen receive attention (that gold standard of teen world), and thereby achieve status. Likewise, their friendship group isn’t bound together by liking each other but by a shared sense of superiority—which is familiar to us from other depictions of rich, popular girls.
Cher: “She’s my friend, because we both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of us.” - Clueless
Also like other famous girl groups, The Plastics affirm and maintain their status through rituals of conspicuous consumption and by being hyper-vigilant about their appearance.
While Regina knows that her so-called “rules” are arbitrary fictions she’s made up to control her peers, Gretchen’s commitment to these structures of the social hierarchy is total. Her unquestioning devotion to the laws of The Plastics mirrors the zeal of members within a religious cult or an authoritarian regime. In our Regina George video, we looked at how Regina illuminates the tactics and psychology of a dictator. And in traditional autocracies, there is often a private army of enforcers, who pledge allegiance to the leader rather than the state. Karen — who’s known for lacking smarts — might represent the dictator’s unquestioning, mindless soldiers. Meanwhile, Gretchen, who knows everybody’s private information, resembles an autocrat’s secret police. She maintains Regina’s control by keeping a file containing each student’s weak points. As a wealthy heiress, Gretchen is also reminiscent of those rich citizens whom savvy dictators co-opt into their states, rewarding them with prominent positions in order to make them invested in the system and neutralize any potential threats to the dictator’s power.
Authoritarian structures like the ones Gretchen seeks out thrive largely by eliminating the need for their subjects to make decisions for themselves. Followers like Gretchen take comfort in allowing someone else to dictate their realities for them, and to clearly define the roles they have to play. Ultimately this authoritarian structure is so successful that the second-in-command ends up being more invested in Regina’s law and order than Regina herself is.
Gretchen: “Now, if you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch. I mean, not just you. Like, any of us.”
Even when Gretchen’s, at last, pushed to her breaking point and betrays her leader, she desperately searches for a new, similar ruler to fill that top spot. Then, as the dictator state itself is crumbling, she refuses to acknowledge the truth. And after the dictatorship gives way to a new order of freedom, Gretchen still manages to find a subculture with rigid hierarchies where she can continue being a subservient number two.
Cady: “And Gretchen found herself a new clique, and a new queen bee to serve.”
Mean Girls ends with a triumphant overthrow of the social order—the Queen Bee gets her comeuppance, her power is redistributed to her once-oppressed people, and her former followers are liberated and become self-actualized. In similar stories, too, we derive pleasure from the parting message that the influence of cruel leaders is limited to that small, short window of adolescence.
But Gretchen’s version of a happy ending is still to remain a follower.
What Becomes of the Follower?
Actress Lacey Chabert imagines a hopeful conclusion for her character.
Lacey Chabert: “I think she and Jason probably got married. She finally locked it down with Jason.”- Interview with HuffPost Live
And we might see some hope for Gretchen in her friendship with Karen, which genuinely is a caring, reciprocal relationship. Gretchen looks out for Karen when others don’t, and when everyone else turns on Gretchen, Karen is there to catch her. So Gretchen is capable of forming positive bonds not based on subservience to status. Yet when we leave her, she’s not hanging out with Karen; she’s still putting her need for a social hierarchy first.
Unfortunately, the research suggests that someone like Gretchen, who continues to prize status at the cost of her own individuality, will only bring herself future unhappiness. Dr. Prinstein observes, “Seeking status is a way of putting your happiness into someone else’s hands, saying the only way that I will feel good is if everyone else constantly tells me that I am high in status according to them.” Followers tend to grow into anxious adults, Prinstein says, more likely to suffer from depression and addiction, and have trouble maintaining a career or romantic relationship. This makes sense because Gretchen’s commitment to being the sidekick is also a commitment to the unhealthy mental habits she’s learned from being in The Plastics. These mean girls uphold their sense of superiority by belittling others. Seeking refuge from their own issues with body image and self-esteem, they project their anxiety outward, as relational aggression toward others. Yet while this gives The Plastics an illusion of control over the messiness of adolescent life, ultimately it doesn’t work to ease their deeper discontent, rage, and self-doubt.
Cady: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.”
While most people eventually outgrow many of the worst aspects of adolescent behavior, the deeper dynamics at play in high school cliques remain ingrained in our very nature. Our social behavior is an outgrowth of primal instincts, the same herd mentality that allowed humanity to elude predators. And we can only assume that Gretchen’s habits will die hard. Sadly, the Sidekicks of the world and their follower mentality continue to endure well into adulthood.
Gretchen: “Maybe we’re not in that book because everybody likes us. And I don’t want to be punished for being well-liked.”
Wiseman, Rosalind. Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World. Harmony, 2009.
Kris, Deborah Farmer. “Being Popular: Why it Consumes Teens and Continues to Affect Adults.” KQED, 19 Sept. 2017.
Family Action Network. “Mitch Prinstein: ‘Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.’” YouTube, 7 Oct. 2017.