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The Mean Girl Trope, Explained

Heather Chandler, Regina George, Blair Waldorf, and Cheryl Blossom - the Mean Girl rules high school and our screens with an iron fist. In this video, we take on the trope and the psychology of the Mean Girl: what makes her tick, what she represents and why she ultimately has to fall.

TRANSCRIPT

Whoever said girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice didn’t go to school with a Blair Waldorf, a Cheryl Blossom, a Heather Chandler, or a Regina George. These mean girls rule their high schools with an iron fist.

And if we break down the mean girl character type in movies and TV, we see some recurring elements…
Here’s our Take on the mean girl onscreen: what makes her tick, what she represents… and why she ultimately has to fall.

  • She’s confident and ambitious, but she takes these positive qualities to a dark extreme.

  • She’s often highly intelligent and cunning, with a canny understanding of how to manipulate people for personal entertainment.

  • She’s glamorous and charismatic even to those who hate her.

  • She’s driven by rage, which comes from her realistic yet cynical understanding of the world.

  • The status quo of the social hierarchy actually makes her miserable— but instead of overturning it, she chooses to perpetuate the toxic cycle, because at least she’s on top. So the Mean Girl is the high school version of the cautionary tale that power corrupts.

Grace Gardner: “You’re an awful person.”

Chanel Oberlin: “Maybe. But I’m rich and I’m pretty, so it doesn’t really matter.” - Scream Queens 1x01

The Rage of the Mean Girl

The core of the mean girl’s identity is rage. Mean Girls star Rachel McAdams described Regina George as “a really angry kid who had no boundaries or guidance,” and said director Mark Waters told her to listen to Courtney Love’s music and watch Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross for inspiration. Early examples of the mean girl already embody a raw anger or hatred towards the protagonist that’s hard to immediately understand.

Here’s beautiful, wealthy, popular Chris in Carrie talking about the awkward, painfully shy classmate who’s never done anything to her.

Chris: “I hate Carrie White.”

Billy: “Who?” - Carrie

And look at the intensity of the hatred that beautiful, wealthy popular girl Benny has toward Molly Ringwald’s Andie.

Benny: “Oh my god. Am I having a nightmare?” - Pretty in Pink

These mean girls of the 70s and 80s planted this mystery of why the girl-who-has-everything so fiercely despises the outcast-who-has-less— a pattern we’d see continue in later examples.

In 1988, Heathers gave us a more complex and alarming look at the pathological society that drove the Queen Bee to be so mean. But the trope really took off and became a fixture in 90s and early 2000s movies— and this timing is no coincidence. In the early 90s, Kaj Björkqvist’s research shed new light on female aggression. According to Björkqvist, “Girls can better understand how other girls feel so they know better how to harm them.” In 1995, Nicki R. Crick and Jennifer K. Grotpeter coined the term “relational aggression” to describe how— while boys tend to be overtly aggressive through physical violence or threats— girls are more likely to express aggression by weaponizing relationships. Relational aggression comes out in behaviors like exclusion and spreading rumors or lies. Early 2000s bestsellers like Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabes— which inspired Mean Girls— further spotlighted the subject of female bullying.

As young women grow up, their angry, aggressive, and competitive impulses become less socially acceptable— so they’re forced to express these emotions in under-the-table ways.

Rachel Simmons: “The aggression might be increasing to the extent that we are putting more pressure on girls to achieve in the same ways that boys achieve but again not giving them the license to engage in the kinds of competitiveness and aggressions that they need to go the distance.” - YouTube

The mean girls we see onscreen are often smiling assassins— their machinations are more sinister because they’re hidden under a cover of surface niceness. So part of the problem is that girls aren’t given license to deal with conflict honestly, out in the open. And the lack of communication leads to a toxic build-up of resentment. That’s why Mean Girls’ Ms. Norbury doesn’t tell the girls to stop feeling angry; she urges them to…

Ms. Norbury: “... express your anger in a healthy way.” - Mean Girls

There’s also an even more disturbing reason girls resort to relational aggression: they’re bored. We don’t have to look any further than Mean Girls’ burn book to see what this looks like.

Aaron: “That book was written by a bunch of stupid girls who make up rumors because they’re bored with their own lame lives.” - Mean Girls

Girls bullying each other for entertainment is very sad, and it points to a culture that’s not offering young women constructive outlets for their self-expression. What’s so interesting about the mean girl is that she’s full of potential. Her male equivalent is the jock bully who preys on nerds— but the jock is usually portrayed as dumb and boorish, while the mean girl is strikingly bright and perceptive. She can read the people around her like a book. Even if she’s a dark figure, she embodies many empowering qualities that teen girls should aspire towards: fierce ambition, determination, and belief in herself. We could imagine a very different version of her story where the mean girl gets to channel her talents into a worthwhile pursuit.

Looking at all this together, it becomes clear that this character’s meanness is really a coping mechanism. The sympathetic take on these frustrated young women is that they’re thwarted by a suffocating system that doesn’t expect them to be more than vapid sex symbols or allow them to embrace their full mental power.

The Worldview of the Mean Girl

The mean girl is under no illusions about how the real world works. She may be beautiful and rich, but the true reason the Queen Bee rises to the top in the first place is her cold, cynical understanding of the system. She gets that public opinion is everything. So she skillfully cultivates an image that makes her seem god-like. In Jawbreaker, Courtney’s rule about not eating in public suggests she doesn’t even want to be seen as human.

Like a monarch, the Queen Bee builds a larger culture around herself to keep her subjects in line and worshipping at her alter— she has a posse of enforcers, which often has its own group name and a strict code of laws that must be obeyed. Her hyper-vigilance in maintaining her reputation reveals that, while the student body sees her as untouchable, she knows how tenuous her position really is.

Courtney: “But popularity can be fleeting.” - Jawbreaker

There can be many different reasons for the mean girl’s pessimistic outlook. There’s the claustrophobia of being a teenage girl in a sexist, unfair world— and knowing you have so much more potential than you can realize.

Kathryn Merteuil: “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24-7 so I can be considered a lady?” - Cruel Intentions

There may be great suffering in the character’s backstory— on Riverdale, Cheryl Blossom’s hostility is really an expression of her pain. But most troublingly, the mean girl’s worldview represents a broader societal outlook. Usually, this character has inherited a corrupt value system from the privileged adults in her life. So essentially, this young woman embodies the elitism and superficiality of the most powerful people in our world. In Pretty in Pink, the only real reason we’re given for Benny’s problem with Andie is that she views this working-class girl as “less than”. But this is learned behavior— reflecting how the world at large defines Andie and her peers by how much money they have. So the real culprit is a messed up society that teaches impressionable young adults to value beauty, wealth, and fame over inner virtues like kindness.

Julie Freeman: “You were a good person, Fern.”

Fern Mayo: “A lot of good that did me.” - Jawbreaker

Ultimately, the mean girl is just ahead of the curve— she embodies the cutthroat attitude and materialist standards we expect from power players in the adult world, where there are no teachers trying to help everyone get along.

All this makes the Mean Girl so often the antagonist or villain of her story. Meanwhile, the protagonist is typically a rebel who tries to bring down a wrong society. Since the Mean Girl is the equivalent of a Queen or aristocrat, she doesn’t have any incentive to overturn the system that keeps her in power. She chooses to succeed within it— thereby protecting her popularity. Yet the irony is that she actively fights to preserve a status quo that makes her suffer.

Grace Gardner: “You put on a good front, but you’re miserable. Don’t you think any of that has anything to do with the fact that you’ve created an atmosphere based solely on negativity and raw ambition?” - Scream Queens 1x01

In Heathers, Heather Chandler acts like she’s helped Veronica by making her part of the in-crowd and Veronica should be grateful, even though Heather’s own social success clearly doesn’t make her happy. At the Remington party, Heather’s college boyfriend pushes her to do more than she’s comfortable with. But when Veronica resists the guy who’s trying to pressure her in the same way, Heather is outraged. Veronica’s refusal to conform bothers Heather so much because she lacks this spark to be an individual.

There’s a deeper symbolism in the term “queen bee.” Bee colonies are divided into castes, much like a high school hierarchy. Without the Queen, the bee colony can’t survive, so it relies on her to keep the whole structure alive. But the mean girl is actually at the mercy of her colony. Claire Gillespie writes, “While the queen bee is pivotal to everything that happens inside the hive, she is not, contrary to popular belief, in control of the colony. In fact, the thousands of worker bees control the queen.”

All this brings us to the answer to that mystery we raised of why the mean girl hates the misfit with such intensity. She fears the alternative outcast as a threat to the system she’s invested in maintaining. But even more than that, she envies that girl for her freedom and her willingness to rebel. Because while the kingdom the mean girl reigns over leaves her deeply dissatisfied, she can’t conceive of life outside it.

Bianca Piper: “And I realize now that none of this matters to me. But it does to you. It’s your dream.” - The Duff

This gives us more insight into what drives even the one-dimensional Benny in Pretty in Pink. She puts Andie down because her clothes aren’t expensive, but this outfit expresses a quirky, charming style that stands out. On some level, Benny probably wishes she had Andie’s individuality (which, significantly, has attracted the attention of Benny’s rich boyfriend, Steff).

The Fall of the Mean Girl

More often than not, the onscreen mean girl isn’t redeemed in the end (even if she’s humanized, it’s within limits). Instead, the main event is her being overthrown or exposed as the evil person she is, as her oppressed population unites against her.

In Heathers, after Heather Chandler dies, everyone jumps to believing she was more than a one-dimensional dictator. But the movie’s point is that they weren’t wrong. And the takeaway of many of these movies is that the mean girl is rotten to the core. Her aspirations often don’t extend far beyond becoming prom queen (or if they do, her goal is extremely superficial). In movies where we see the character as an adult, she’s fixated on her past glory days— perpetuating the narrative that those who are popular in high school peak early and go downhill from there… unlike high school losers and nerds, who will surely go on to great things. So we’re encouraged to feel a sense of superiority over the mean girl.

Yet it feels wrong to derive pleasure from the Mean Girl’s downfall. First, as we’ve discussed, she usually embodies strong, powerful traits that are generally rewarded by our society— so why wouldn’t she be destined for big things? In High School Musical, Sharpay is ruthless as she tries to maintain control over the school musical. She’s acting the way any highly competitive person would if their ambition were threatened. And this kind of behavior generally yields success in the adult world.

If we’re not the cool, rich, beautiful leader, it’s tempting to console ourselves that we must be better people, and she’ll get her comeuppance. But vilifying the mean girl through this black-and-white moral lens is missing the point. Because— to some degree— there’s a mean girl in all of us, waiting to come out.

Aaron Samuels: “There’s good and bad in everybody. Right? Regina’s just… she’s just more up-front about it.” - Mean Girls

It only takes one sip of the kool-aid to cross over to the dark side. In Mean Girls, as Cady replaces Regina, she finds herself effortlessly transforming into a master manipulatrix. Even Janis, who sees herself as Regina’s victim, is really her oppressor’s equal in scheming and cruelty. The movie’s writer Tina Fey has said that in high school, she was a mean girl— and she described her behavior as “a coping mechanism” for feeling “less than.” This is something Fey also explored in 30 Rock, where Liz Lemon is shocked to discover that in high school she was not a victim but a victimizer. Most of us don’t fit neatly into the high school character types we see onscreen— it’s possible to be both unpopular and cruel, or cool and smart.

Molly: “We didn’t party because we wanted to focus on school and get into good colleges. But the irresponsible people who partied also got into those colleges, they did both.” - Booksmart

To reduce your peers (or yourself) to just one thing does a disservice to everyone. And it distracts from the more important takeaway: It’s the world that’s mean— this girl’s just doing a better job of living in it.


Blair Waldorf: “I have an army to build, a school to take over and girls to blackmail.” - Gossip Girl 3x10