Sugar, spice, not always nice: what’s a “mean girl?”

Sugar, spice, not always nice: what’s a “mean girl?”

Story | Penny Rae Hawkins

Graphic | Marisa Sobotka

Chris Hargensen from Carrie and Sadie Saxton from Awkward seem to have very thin motivation for torturing the Fern Mayo and Jenna Hamilton of their schools. A common misconception of the mean girl is that she’s one-dimensional, mean and uninterested in anything but maintaining her status at the top of the social hierarchy.

Lisi Harrison, author of best-selling series The Clique and Alphas, said there is more to mean girls in media than what meets the eye.

“I love pulling back the curtain and just seeing who they really are,” she said. “What makes them tick? And the ones that tick loudest are usually most disturbed.”

Harrison’s books explore the complicated dynamic of The Pretty Committee, a quartet of ultra-rich seventh graders who wouldn’t be caught dead in last season’s Armani.

If the mean girl or clique doesn’t exist for the purpose of tormenting the main character, she can feel superfluous. With almost no bearing on protagonist Elle Evans’s plot, save for one scene, the “OMG Girls” from Netflix’s hit series The Kissing Booth seem to exist in the film to fill the slot of the token mean girl trio.

In the episode of The Take titled “The Mean Girl Trope, Explained,” Alani Walters said mean girls are ambitious and confident, in addition to being intelligent, cunning, glamorous, and charismatic.

While these are typically celebrated traits, girls like Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf or Mean Girls’ Regina George “take it to a dark extreme,” driven by a “realistic yet cynical understanding of the world.” Several scenes reveal a lot of rage and anger beneath her perfect presentation.

“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,” Walters said.

An important facet to any story about young women in adolescence is the presence of an antagonist, someone who adds conflict or foil to the main character. While it’s tempting to make the mean girl a two-dimensional paper doll, as some movies have historically done, that almost never reflects reality.

An oft-explored trope in The Clique and its spin-off series Alphas is the idea of the alpha-girl, the girl who is effortlessly beautiful, smart and overall successful. But with a standard that is impossible to achieve let alone maintain, what does the alpha-girl look like in the real world?

“I think the ultimate alpha is the one that doesn’t care about being an alpha,” Harrison said. “The definition of ‘cool’ is somebody that doesn’t give a shit.”

Harrison stressed the best way to connect a mean girl with the audience is to make her relatable. 

“Massie wasn’t just a mean girl and Claire wasn’t just a nice girl,” she said said. “They were fully-formed humans in that Massie could be mean, but she also was really insecure and vulnerable…she’s just really insecure and she’s not getting certain things at home and so she’s trying to control the world.”

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