bitchy group of women photo

Many girls and women think being a “mean girl” is a sign of empowerment. Picture: Thinkstock Source: Supplied

BROUGHT to the forefront of popular culture with the 2004 Lindsay Lohan film, Mean Girls, what was once fiction – the hateful manner of certain girls – has become a reality.

Celebrating a decade of Mean Girls , there’s a jewellery line being launched in the USA with friendship necklaces inscribed with lines from the movie such as “best bitches” and “you can’t sit with us”.

The “mean girl”, a term created by Queen Bees and Wannabes author, Rosalind Wiseman, is defined as someone who uses “girl aggression” – nasty comments, trickery, deceit, the spreading of rumours, and stealing boyfriends – to manipulate other girls.

Populating classrooms, social media, mothers’ groups and workplaces, the “mean girl” is flourishing. So much so, psychologist, Meredith Fuller, wrote a book Working with Mean Girls , offering advice on how to deal with destructive workplace relationships cultivated by bitchy, insecure women whose manipulative manner towards their female peers and the damage done often flies under the radar.

Social media has allowed mean girl conduct to both boom and be displayed. Able to shoot off a few nasty words or spiteful lines on various platforms, cyberspace is a breeding ground for bitches, bullies and their victims.

What about ladette culture, born of pre-loading, binge drinking and a desire to emulate a tiny element of male culture? Young women, fuelled by too much alcohol let their meanness find physical and other expression, abusing and fighting girls and sometimes videoing and sharing their anti-social actions for others to ogle.

What was once hidden is now broadcast, shared like a trophy.

With the media latching on to these activities to condemn them, there’s also a degree of defiant notoriety in the (negative) publicity they attract and thus kudos in being caught. Wilfully ignorant parents who refuse to see they have raised a “mean girl” don’t help either.

Afraid of being the next person in the mean girls’ sights, those around them (Wiseman calls them “wannabes”) will often support rather than censure the dominant girl and so rewards for being mean accrue and faux popularity governed by fear dominate.

Another sign of the insidious acceptance of “meanness” as an admired characteristic can be seen in the mass circulation of a well-known Marilyn Monroe quote on Facebook, Twitter and as a meme. Appearing in variations like: “If you can’t accept me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best,” it pops up regularly.

Functioning as an affirmation of the (female) self, deemed empowering by the mostly adult women who post it, it announces a refusal to change. It’s an in-your-face-stance to prospective friends and partners and declares, take me as I am or p-ss off.

It’s a problematic relationship test.

But what an entitled, narcissistic, selfish statement! It infers that any bad behaviour (from the postee) must be accepted unconditionally.

Any relationship with a person that insightless has failed before it’s even begun.

A successful relationship is when people (be they lovers, peers or friends) bring out the best in each other. It’s never about tolerating behaviours and attitudes that are mean, unattractive and highly dysfunctional.

Somewhere along the line, meanness has been construed as acceptable and/or inevitable. It’s regarded as an entertaining if not attractive trait to cultivate – especially if you want to stand out from the crowd.

Reality TV, where competitions create opportunities for mean-girl behaviour, is where this conduct thrives.

Shows like My Kitchen Rules actively foster this. “Keep the contestants mean, keep the audiences’ keen” is the new mantra. The latest stereotypical “mean girls” are the well-travelled Western Australian friends, Kelly and Chloe, whose snide comments, bitchy asides and judgmental looks (cast mainly towards the “two heads, one brain” twins, Helena and Vikki), polarise people.

With ratings in the millions, meanness – especially when delivered by female participants – has become a recipe for success.

The RTV show, Vanderpump Rules, starring 25-year-old Stassi Schroeder, is another program that relies on the “mean girl” status for its global recognition. Described as “outrageous”, “catty”, “feisty”, “she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants” – Stassi’s the “woman audiences love to hate” and is unapologetic.

Being malicious, let alone staggeringly drunk and violent in public, used to be regarded as disgraceful. It made you a social pariah. Meant to feel remorse, not glee, apologies followed. Nowadays, young women appear to relish the infamy the “mean” tag and its consequences carry. Whether it’s false bravado on their part or genuine is sometimes hard to tell, but sorry, they ain’t.

“Mean” should never be confused with strength, honesty or feistiness, which are all wonderful traits. Nor should it be wielded as a cowardly weapon to control or strike down those perceived as “weak”.

While we’re all capable of being mean occasionally, I’m tired of it being misrepresented as a form of feminine power.

Being mean is not powerful or normal and nor should it be consistently in the spotlight or regarded as aspirational. Women, even mean ones, are the sum of many parts. But until our best traits are also celebrated, “mean” will set the scene.


Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.


Henry Sapiecha


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