Monday, April 9, 2012

Heathers: A Mean Girl Stereotype

In Heathers, the '80s movie classic, the cool girls wear jackets with shoulder pads and the reigning queen bee wears a bright red scrunchie to show her royal status. Goodness. The movie's pivotal moment comes when Veronica, the protagonist and underdog of the clique, poisons one of the beautiful but nasty Heathers and kills her.

In movies, books, and TV, the mean girls, bullies, and frenemies are often the ones with the socially desirable traits- they are pretty, thin, rich, well-dressed, have clear skin, and/or can be athletic and smart without being nerdy. Of course, there are girls out there with these qualities who can be very nasty. In fact, I find  that most mean girls in middle grade and young adult novels usually come from this group. But less frequently in kidlit do I find a girl associated with qualities from this group cast as the victim of bullying even though, from my own observations and experiences, I find that girls with desirable qualities can be just as susceptible to being picked on as those with undesirable qualities. I doubt a mean girl would openly admit she is bullying another girl for being pretty or smart or for receiving a desired boy's attention. Instead, the mean girl would declare another reason to explain why their target deserves ridicule (e.g. "You look like a slut" or "I hate your voice") while masking the real intent behind the resentment.

There are people who don't fit the stereotype of the classic mean girl, and they can be just as awful. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I want to point out that mean girls, bullies, and frenemies can also be average-looking, bigger, less privileged, plainly dressed, have bad skin, and/or be unathletic and nerdy. Yet I find this group depicted less frequently as bullies in books. In fact, girls with traits from this group are often depicted as the ones who get bullied,  the ones we're supposed to feel sorry for.  While I can see how someone with less desirable characteristics could get picked on, and I agree that isn't right, I've also witnessed situations going through school and even college where girls with these very qualities have been the bullies.

Let's just say that I don't believe the derogatory term "skinny bitch" was invented by a skinny girl.

Qualities from both lists can intermingle. You can have a pretty girl from a less privileged background.  Or you can have a rich girl struggling with her weight. Both girls, if you toss them into a book, can be bullies, the bullied, or even both. That's right- sometimes people who have been bullied might later look for opportunities to be the bully, so drop them into a new environment where they can reinvent themselves, like a new social circle, a new semester, a new school, or college, and you might find them reenacting the bullying they'd experienced, except this time they get to play the aggressor.

The mean girl isn't always the "it" girl and her target isn't always the "not it" girl.

However, when I read about mean girl bullying in kidlit, it's very frequently the same cliche where the pretty popular princess living in the nice neighborhood picks on the average-looking outcast from the other side of the tracks. 

Sometimes that is the case, but real life isn't always as simple as that. Sometimes it could be the other way around. 

What are your thoughts about mean girls?


Nick Wilford said...

I'm not as well researched in this topic as you, but I do agree that things are rarely as clear cut as they are often portrayed in TV, films etc. That is a good movie and very dark, but stereotypes can get annoying.

Sarah Pearson said...

I agree with this totally. I'm sure there were movies like this before Heathers, but it was still a reasonably fresh idea back then. It has truly become overdone now though.

Alex Villasante said...

first of all, I loved heathers when it came out (I was a teen with a raging crush on christian slater) but when I saw it recently, my sympathies shifted. The mean girls bully each other in the group, as well as bullying non-heathers.
As for the cliche, I never thought of it before, but it's a really good point. Perhaps it's easier to make a bully have all the advantages so that they seem one dimensional - so they can be the villain and not elicit any sympathy from us. If they have everything we don't, we can hate them more easily. My 2 cents!

Heather M. Gardner said...

Speaking as a Heather, I was not a Heather!
But, I would have been one they picked on. Lucky for me I never gave a hoot what they thought of me in school.
Great post!

Stephsco said...

Heathers is a brilliant portrayal of teen angst and bullying, still relevant despite the horrid fashion (by the time I saw this in the mid '90s their fashion was already completly embarrassing!). It's amazingly dark for a teen film, and for some reason became one of my favorites, to the point my friend and I MADE RED SCRUNCHIES. Not that we condoned the Heathers' behaviour but I don't know, we were weird.

Anyway. You're right that mean girls come in all flavors, sadly. I like when YA represents this more nuanced, instead of just the popular kids bullying. One of the girls I was personally bullied by was lower-income and not necessarily popular, and even though I wasn't rich or popular, this girl was determined to take me down a notch. I actually got made fun of for wearing nice clothes. Can you believe? They weren't even designer, just clean I guess. I went to a pretty rotten upper-elementary school where race and class played a huge part in how you were treated. And if you think white rich kids had the upper hand - not so much.

I really hope the documentary "Bully" makes it into classrooms eventually. It looks like a powerful teaching tool, although I think bullying will keep going as long as the world turns. :/

Lynn Proctor said...

so true--my thoughts are that they are everywhere---that girls are just pretty mean--too many of them---boys are a lot nicer

Daisy Carter said...

What a great post. I agree that the 'plain/heavy/acne-d' girls are often depicted as the bullied not bullies, and yet in boy books it's often these types who are the bullies.

In my manuscript, I have a bully who is a popular girl. She's also very poor and has a strange home life. So I hope that in some ways I've altered the stereotype!

Cynthia said...

Nick- I don't know everything about this topic but my observations just tell me what we see about bullying in books and other media doesn't always reflect reality.

Sarah- You just gave me an idea for a possible future post- movies that promote teen stereotypes.

Alex- I agree it might be easier to feel less sympathy for someone who seems to have everything. Although even when someone appears to have it all, we don't know what their private lives are really like.

Heather- I'm glad to hear you were strong enough not to give a hoot.

Stephsco- Heathers was also a fave of mine back in the day. How fun that you made red scrunchies! Thank you for sharing your personal experience.

Lynn- There are nice girls out there, but I think we hear more about mean girls in the media.

Charlotte Cheng said...

Great points Cynthia. You're right, a bully has a lot more dimension that the typical cliches. Mixing up those iconic character personalities of the bully and bullied would definitely bring more interest and complexity to a story :)

Mina Burrows said...

Eek! I remember Heathers! I loved that movie. So dark and disturbing! My kind of movie. Bullies come in all shapes & sizes. Hollywood just like to glam everything.

Mark Koopmans said...

Aloha Cynthia,

Thanks for stopping by my blog and mean girls have always traumatized me - to this day :)

I'm a new follower - I hope you're not mean to me :)

Rachel Morgan said...

Wow. Shoulder pads and a scrunchie would put you at the BOTTOM of the social order these days!
When I think of my own school experience, we didn't have all these clean-cut stereotypes. Popular girls weren't always mean girls. And pretty girls weren't always popular girls. Real life is different! (Usually!)

Cynthia said...

Daisy- I like your observations about how boy bullies are sometimes depicted in books.

Charlotte- Yes, I think a character is more interesting when they're not a cookie cutter figure.

Mina- I agree that bullies come in all shapes and sizes.

Mark- Haha, no worries.

Rachel- Yes, real life is different from the stereotypes!

Mina Lobo said...

Mean girls do come in a variety of meat-suits...and, though I do hope, in my heart, that they "grow out of" that kind of nasty behavior, that's not always so. I've worked with grown-up "mean girls" whose behavior has to be experienced to be believed. And their villainy swells to mythic proportions when there's a flock of equally small-minded women to ban with and indulge in the ick to their black hearts' content. As a child, and even now as I descend into middle-age, I never could figure out how to deal with this kind of nonsense. I find myself stunned by their malice and incapable of response.

Dunno if you're a South Park fan but tonight's (new, I think) episode dealt with the topic of bullying...and none of it came from mean "girls." :-)

Some Dark Romantic

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