What is it about mean girls that excites us and calls our attention? Is it their visibility, their seeming otherworldly presence? Mean girls have become a staple in popular culture over the last several decades. Mean girl cliques are usually comprised of three girls, with one being the leader and the other being the follower (right-hand woman), while the final girl is known as the pretty, naive one, that seems to absolve the group of all of their wrongdoings (Heathers, Jawbreakers, Mean Girls).
Mean girls in the media have been subject to endless praise for their commentary on meanness in girlhood. However, have we truly examined their representation through the lens of girlhood aggression under a patriarchal society? We should really be asking the question–how do these girls walk the line between familiarity and dissonance?
Since childhood, girls are taught that they must be in direct competition with one another. We are not supposed to find friendship and community in other girls, only competition and animosity. Perhaps this is why the mean girl feels so familiar and we cling to her presence as something that is so intrinsic to society and the performance of girlhood.
The late 90s and early 2000s media exemplified this constant competition. In Gossip Girl (2007), the competition between Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen is at the forefront of the entire series despite the framing of them being good friends. Friendship and jealousy are inextricably linked within friendships between women. Instead of uplifting the other, one maintains a closeness to them so they can constantly one-up her. While Blair and Serena fight for the scarce love and respect in their patriarchal society, the other girls look to them as the standard, not knowing the hardships that they face in their positions. This knowledge only fuels Blair and Serena’s cruelty and animosity toward each other throughout the series.
Projecting onto this role as a powerful, deity masquerading as a woman is something that is satisfying to girls because they are raised to be perfect in every aspect of their life. They identify with these mean girls hoping to absorb some of their power. This theme is demonstrated in Pretty Little Liars (2010), in which the main character, Alison DiLaurentis, uses her beauty and power to instill fear in the hearts of all the citizens of Rosewood. She creates chaos and uses it to her advantage, blackmailing friends and adults alike. Her friends, Emily, Aria, Spencer and Hannah, latch onto her intoxicating power in hopes that they would become stronger and more desirable women. The girls often remark that Alison had a way of making them feel special. The gulf between the mean girl, her friends, admirers and enemies is expansive and overwhelming. Jealousy and envy lurk beneath the surface and schadenfreude develops.
Whether it is acceptable or not, all of her friends remain optimistic that the mean girl will fall and they will be able to usurp leadership from her.
This quiet envy and discontent are pervasive in mean girl cliques. Quite frankly, it underlines a problem in the expectations of girlhood where girls are forced to live their life in a very narrow way, one that prescribes to traditional Western ideals of womanhood. There is envy towards the girl who has it so easy and discontent towards their own perceived faults.
In actuality, the mean girl herself often struggles with upholding and maintaining the cultural institution. Being the paragon of perfection weighs heavily on her shoulders, and she knows that if she were to alter her image negatively, she would not be rewarded the kindness and reverence that other women yearn for. The conditional respect that she is afforded can be taken away at any moment without forewarning.
The mean girl understands the rules that dominate society, she understands the harsh realities of the world greater than the other girls. This knowledge is what informs her decisions, her cruelty.
Mean girl cliques capture the essence of girlhood aggression but the framing is misguided. There seems to be the naive belief that transforming the pain and torment that girls receive under a patriarchal society into anger helps them. However, that anger manifests in targeted attacks toward women and girlhood.
The dramatization of girlhood aggression says that girls are either the victims that need saving by an outside force or empowered aggressors that are fighting against the patriarchal society that they live in. This framing denies girls their agency and misreads what the mean girl represents.
Cruel behavior and mean girls are, more often than not, a lot more subtle in real life; however they will, in fact, befriend, gaslight, and emotionally manipulate their peers in order to control them. Mean girls are not all-powerful, mystical beings that are revered as portrayed in the movies; they are simply hated and feared by many. Meanness in adolescence can be rationalized by the self-hate that comes with being a girl, especially around the time of puberty. This social aggression can manifest in indirect aggression (rumor spreading, gossiping) and direct aggression (physical violence).
These acts of aggression often get conflated with female empowerment. Being recognized as a mean girl is seen as taking back the power that has been stolen under a patriarchal society; however, that is where the dissonance comes into play. Equating dominance and coercion with feminism is antithetical to the ideology and only seeks to further the ideals of the patriarchy where everything and everyone must be owned and conquered. In that same vein, a lot of mean girls specifically target other girls and seldom do they target men. This performance, of what I will refer to as “phallic feminism”, is not meant to uplift women as a whole, but instead works to empower only a certain group of women; particularly white, cisgender, heterosexual women.
The phallic feminist does not undermine the goals of the patriarchal society and instead furthers them because she participates in misogyny and misogynoir. She cannot co-opt the behaviors that are used against women to gain power. That is the folly of the mean girl and her perception in contemporary society.