Variations on the terrible trio, like The Plastics and the Unholy Trinity, have long dominated cinema’s and TV’s fictional high school hallways. So what is it about this rule of three and these particular recurring character types that add up to the perfect recipe for high-school popularity and oppression? The “mean three” are ruthless and deceptive with a girly veneer, seeming to tell us that women in power are manipulative, cold-hearted, and dangerous—or at least they feel they have to project this in order to wield power in a man’s world.
Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, and Karen Smith are one of girl world’s most iconic cliques — a terrible trio of personality types that, when put together, have the power to lord over all other teens at North Shore High.
In fact, variations on the terrible trio have long dominated cinema’s and TV’s fictional high school hallways — so what is it about this rule of three and these particular recurring character types that add up to the perfect recipe for high—school popularity and oppression?
Looking back further to frightening female triads in Greek mythology and Shakespeare, like the Three Fates or Furies and Macbeth’s Weird sisters, we might argue this trio actually taps into our society’s fear of feminine power.
Here’s our Take on why the terrible trio rules, the forms it still takes, and what each of these three characters captures about female power.
The Three Mean Girl Leader Types: A Profile of Power
Each of the terrible trio brings a distinct personality or ability to the group that helps sustain their status as rulers.
The alpha female or leader stands unquestioned at the top of the trio’s hierarchy, effectively acting as a dictator. She possesses a specific vision that defines what the group should stand for.
Every detail of the group’s image and lifestyle is determined by the number one — from what they wear to who they like — cultivating a distinct, prestigious look that visually separates the trio and creating a cult of personality around the group. An evil genius, the leader is strategic and manipulative and she exploits the fact that she’s often beautiful and wealthy (or at least can project that she is) to keep the rest of the student body in a constant state of envy and awe.
The Blair Waldorf’s, Ruby Matthews’s, and Regina George’s of the world also grasp that in high school, rejection can be key to worship: so the leader crafts her trio to be both extremely appealing and extremely exclusive to maintain public interest and leverage over others. Since the entire social hierarchy is built around protecting and reinforcing the Queen Bee’s will, dethroning her means dismantling the entire system.
If this hierarchy is built on the myth of the alpha female’s perfection and God-like status, the trio’s number two is crucial in perpetuating that myth.
The second in command makes sure all aspects of the leader’s vision are being enforced. Number twos like Gretchen Wieners, Sex Education’s Olivia Hanan, Heather McNamara and Jawbreaker‘s Marcie Fox are utterly, blindly obedient, the “follower” personality type taken to an extreme.
Like the henchman to a Bond Villain, she’s unquestioningly loyal and more willing to do the leader’s dirty work, even when she’s mistreated in return. Whether carrying out a secret plan, enforcing the trio’s strict outfit policies, acting as the leader’s confidante, or collecting useful information, the second in command is key in legitimizing the leader’s intentions, providing a buffer to make the leader seem “above it all,” and framing her rules as matter-of-fact laws. So her unwavering commitment to the group is crucial to maintaining its efficacy and sense of valid authority —- which also means that if her faith in the leader is threatened, that can lead to their whole regime falling apart.
Janis Ian: “We gotta crack Gretchen Wieners. We crack Gretchen, and then we crack the lock on Regina’s whole dirty history.” - Mean Girls
Number three is the group’s pretty face, with an outward beauty and kind manner that help paper over the group’s true terrible nature and make them feel like a more palatable posse. Her pretty, nice girl façade further legitimizes the trio’s rule, making the student body feel that they may actually like the trio and not just fear them. This token nice girl is somewhat exploited by the terrible trio for her looks, innocence, and often ignorance (whether it’s actual obliviousness or a willful desire not to acknowledge that, in choosing popularity, she’s probably chosen not to be a great person.
Although they orbit as a unanimous force, each member brings something distinct and essential to keep the group together and in control. The visionary, the enforcer, and the spokesperson create an impenetrable power dynamic, focus the conversation on who’s in the clique and who’s not, and make sure other girls’ importance is measured in terms of their proximity to this power center.
Because each of these roles is so important, and the hierarchy is so fragile, when any member of the group stops acting according to type, the order breaks down. And as we see in Mean Girls, adding a fourth member can mess up the stability of the triad’s completeness — adding competition for favor with the leader or threatening to replace them, and stirring up resentment over whether this power structure is actually fair. Since a single mean girl could easily be overthrown, a duo would compete, and a quartet is too tricky to rule effectively, three mean girls is the optimum number for achieving stable power.
The Reigning Rule of Threes
The rule of three — a narrative device that delivers plot points or characters in threes in order to establish a pattern audiences can latch on to — is widely believed to be one of the most perfect foundations for storytelling. Because threes make a pattern but not an overly complicated one, they help us remember plot details and make sense of complex ideas.
Like plots that fit the rule of three, characters who come in trios are memorable, with a pleasing symmetry and completeness. Greek mythology included (among others) the three Fates and three Furies — in charge of human destiny and vengeance respectively, and honored by a public that feared angering them. Supernatural sisters also have taken the form of witches, most famously in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as well as, later, in iconic movies whose witches came in threes.
The Furies, Weird Sisters and the Plastics are all antagonized trios of women who are scary because they have knowledge and insights that mortals don’t fully understand. If a hero stumbles on the Fates, Furies or Weird Sisters, they likely face a test of their will and ability to remain true to themselves — just as we see when still-innocent Cady meets Regina and the Plastics and is manipulated into becoming one of them.
The hero is forced to confront who they are through meeting the terrible trio, and their personal growth or doom is a result of what the group forces them to face about their inner nature and place in the world. The modern teen version of this trio projects an appealing, almost seductive aura through lavish cars, glamorous looks and fashionable clothing that tempt the protagonist into joining them - a callback to the alluring power of the supernatural sisters’ magical ability. Popularity is also one of their tempting draws — while most of the student body may dislike or privately dismiss the trio, publicly they accept the group’s rule because they fear the trio’s punishment or hope to absorb some small piece of their power and prestige.
Cady Heron: “The weird thing about hanging out with Regina was that I could hate her, and at the same time, I still wanted her to like me.” - Mean Girls
Rather than prophecy, the modern terrible trio’s “knowledge and insight” that their peers don’t possess is a savvy realism about how their social world at large operates, both in high school and beyond. The leader (if not the whole group) is aware of the zero-sum hierarchy they’re part of — and the way they’ve set up their power structure reflects an understanding of how unjust societies outside the high school lunchroom work. We can blame terrible trios for acting terrible all we want, but really, they’re just teenagers projecting learned behaviors, acting out what they read about and see happen in the adult world.
Strikingly, the traditional rule of three rarely applies to powerful male characters on screen. In teen movies, the student body typically pines after a single popular guy who stands at the top of the pecking order, and whose status as ruler isn’t as questioned or vilified. A lone girl wielding the same kind of uncontested power over her high-school peers is much rarer on screen. This reflects a society in which numbers validate female power.
In politics or media, too, a single woman’s voice tends to not quickly be held in high regard until a larger group of both women and men support her, especially when that voice goes against long-held views. Once the Plastics are separated through Cady’s and Janis’ sabotage, their individual members are pretty ineffective, easily swept aside, villainized and even ridiculed by their peers. So with a sexist societal script working against them, the female power trio stands together and maintains a harsh front as a defense mechanism — arguably becoming terrible out of necessity. They may actually be frustrated with the society we live in, but they adapt and figure out how to thrive in hostile conditions.
Why The Terrible Trio Still Reigns Today
Sex Education — a show celebrated for the way it unpacks and complicates classic high school tropes — of course has its own terrible trio, led by the typically fashionable, brutal, and calculating “mean girl” antagonist. But while Ruby Matthews and her Untouchables consciously echo the Plastics, we also see behind the curtain at how Ruby’s meanness is a front hiding a private, guarded person who selflessly cares for her father and fears her peers finding out that (unlike archetypal mean, popular girls) she comes from a modest background. We actually feel bad for her when (for the first time ever) she makes herself vulnerable with Otis, and her feelings aren’t reciprocated. We also see why it makes total sense, in her social position, that she feels she has to spin the story in a different light.
Ruby Matthews: “After all, I did break his heart.”
Student: “Oh, that would make a lot more sense, actually.” - Sex Education
The Untouchables include a male member, Anwar Bakshi, who may be rude and arrogant, but is shown to be pushing others away because he is insecure and fears intimacy. Olivia Hanan, who takes on the role of loyal enforcer, can also be pretty empathetic but also with plenty of complex issues involving family and relationships. And Aimee, the “nice” and pretty one who fits the Karen /girl number three mold, leaves the Untouchables early on and challenges herself to put more thought into who she really is, growing through her friendship with “alternative” Maeve and through newly discovered passions for both baking and female anatomy.
While the portrayal of the Untouchables reveals their reasons for feeling they have to be mean, and their casting is more diverse and complex than that of terrible trios of the past, they’re still terrible — not because they’re bad people but because they understand how power works.
The terrible trio can even be seen in reality television (and real life): the Kardashians (who began as a featured trio of sisters before expanding out into a dynasty) aren’t necessarily villains, but to many they do personify our culture’s wealth inequality and obsession with celebrity, in a similar way to how the Plastics embody the “girl world” of Mean Girls.
Like the students of North Shore High eagerly hoover up rumors about and adopt any clothing style Regina George puts on, many in the American public crave information about the Kardashian clan, and find themselves mimicking Kim’s or Kylie’s behavior or fashion sense. And like the Plastics, the Kardashian sisters find their power together, often citing their sisterhood as the reason why they’re so strong.
The public’s simultaneous fascination and scorn of the Kardashian’s fame and influence shows us how we’re still looking to versions of The Plastics in adulthood: we may lust after the Kardashian’s wealth, glamour and status, but we’re also extremely quick to scapegoat them for the larger materialism and vanity of our culture at large.
The terrible trio’s backstabbing, exclusivity, and cruelty does in part reflect the real behavior of teenagers, and adults. They’ve managed to very cleverly perceive what their zero-sum world rewards and penalizes, all while giving us some of film and television’s most iconic and beloved antagonists. From influencer culture perpetuating the same awe and envy, to Ivy League institutions relying on rejection for prestige - our society is built on ingroups and outgroups, winners and losers - and it is the trio’s clear-eyed understanding of this, that makes them truly terrible.