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The Hollywood Insider Mean Girls

Photo: Mean Girls

“Mean girls” have existed in television since its inception, creating a popular trope that has remained popular and infiltrated its way into film, literature, and daily life. The idea of a “mean girl” is to create an understandable super villain that embodies all the perfect traits of a female. They’re rich and beautiful and at a higher status than everyone else, but at the cost of their good character. Typical mean girl behavior includes gossip, verbal put-downs, bullying, backstabbing, and manipulating people to stay popular and ahead.

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Who Introduced the Idea of “Mean Girls?” 

The earliest and most popular mean girl trope can be traced to the 1989 cult classic, ‘Heathers.’ The film is about a group of girls named Heather who all pursue popularity and status at the eventual expense of people’s lives. While acting as the blueprint for the archetype it also created some of the sexist ideals that are inherently tied to a “mean girl.” 

Perhaps most iconically, the ‘Mean Girls’ film released in 2004 romanticized the trope with Gretchen Weiner and Karen Smith who are trying to vilify the main protagonist, Cady Heron when she arrives at their school. Both films are a good example of mean girls who are idealized for their beauty and status but are pushing negative and unrealistic standards for women, especially the young ones watching these movies. 

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Defining Characteristics of a Mean Girl 

The top telltale signs that the character you’re watching on screen is a mean girl include:

  1. If they’re preoccupied with being on top and in constant control
    1. Regina George from ‘Mean Girls’ is the it girl of their school, she’s the leader, the alpha and nobody doubts it. It takes the exposure of the Burn Book, where she writes horrible things about people in her class, to see that being in control doesn’t mean you deserve that status. 
  2. If they’d sacrifice someone else’s wellbeing, physical or psychological in order to get ahead
    1. In an iconically evil scene, Regina George decides to stress out new girl, Cady, by putting her on blast about her crush. George asks Cady in front of everyone whether she wanted to have sex with Jason and when she said no, Jason was humiliated and shamed in front of everyone, culminating in the line, “then it’s settled, so you can go shave your back now.” 
    2. George was also known for her crazy phone games, where she’d get one of her best friends to admit something bad about the other while they were secretly on the line. She even manipulated Cady into saying back things about their other friend, Gretchen, before ending the call and leaving all the girls in confusion and anger. 
  3. You shame others for things they can’t control 
    1. George starts the movie with a cruel joke about Cady’s time spent in Africa and the rest of the film is punctuated by jokes about her time in the place. George often makes Cady the butt of the joke by pointing out that her parents were zoologists, she was homeschooled, and that she’s “a martian” and an amusement for the school. 

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The Problem With Mean Girls And The Harm They Cause

Especially for 90s kids, the “mean girl” symbolized a bleak and cruel side of social hierarchy. It wasn’t about being popular, it was about dominating over everyone else and using psychological warfare and subterfuge to get there. It furthers the idea that the only way to be successful as a woman in a patriarchal society is at the expense of other women. This unhealthy comparison and competition has become a huge source of insecurity and bullying among young girls. It also convinces the general public that the dark side of womanhood is being catty and conniving over anything else, without explaining the logic, if any exists, for the behavior behind the mean girl. 

This manifests in real life as well, with women using meanness and aggression to pave a way for themselves in a testosterone-dictated world. But, the differences between real life and a tv screen are the forces and reasons behind this cutthroat attitude. In this day and age, your race, gender, identity, class, and other forms of intersectionality, can create the need to be “mean” to get the respect that you deserve. In film, the cattiness has no explanation and creates a false narrative for young audiences. Rather than give an example of women trying to work through the tokenism that comes hand in hand with being a female in the workplace, shows are displaying girls who are mean and spiteful for no reason. 

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The Evolution of the Mean Girl Trope and Its Role in TV Today

In the pursuit of solutions and change, waves of feminists have tried to posit theories that focus instead of kindness and uplifting. One said theory known as, ‘The Shine Theory,’ is about a woman’s ability to befriend another woman and learn and grow from them through acts of kindness and appreciation. This proves that societal forces play the biggest role in the aggressiveness and competition between women and if given the right environment, we can assume the best intentions between females. 

Thankfully this has translated into recent films as well, with today’s “mean girls” containing some nuance and dimension. It’s more about their background stories and motivations rather than just a surface-level cattiness. Examples include Cheryl Blossom from ‘Riverdale,’ who’s mean and preppy and very competitive but also has a rich back story full of tragedy and drama. It proves that allowing mean girls to remain on television isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, if done correctly it can parallel the real-life environment that women have unfortunately been put into. And if rectified and given context, rather than teach young girls to be ruthlessly mean, they can teach them to try and use kindness as a conduit for success amongst other women, women who can become allies. 

By Mireille Karadanaian

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