Since the beginning of our childhood and our first exposure to TV and film, we have seen the presence of mean girls and the power they had in every high school. From High School Musical to Glee to Gossip Girl, mean girls were everywhere and their influence and reign were undeniable.
The Mean Girls of Disney
They were initially portrayed as the girls who wanted what the protagonist had, whether it be the romantic interest or talent, the main source of the antagonists’ hatred was jealousy. We saw this in many Disney movies, such as High School Musical and Camp Rock. We also saw this trope in teen movies such as Mean Girls.
This was a common trope due to many of these films being set in high school and/or involving teenagers who experienced the wrath of these girls in their daily lives. While the common denominator was there, however, many of these movies strayed away from the norm and chose to do something different for the ending. In some, the mean girl became friends with the main character. In others, the mean girl won the “prize” at the end but was still unfulfilled. Although, the most common trope was the mean girl losing significantly at the end while the protagonist basks in her glory.
This ending was perhaps the most satisfying for the audience, considering we were guided to root for the nice girl. The children and teen movies appealed to the “normal” crowd, those who were not popular at school and some who even experienced bullying from the mean girls. These types of movies enticed this group of people by portraying a happy and successful life for the protagonist, despite the constant spew of hatred and animosity from the mean girls. They showed that it was possible for the “underdog” and even “loner” of the film to find happiness in their life if they overcame the obstacles society threw at them.
A New Mean Girl: The Protagonist
While they were portrayed as the villain in many of the media forms we love, we can see the evolution of mean girls shift from villains to protagonists to even victims. Our childhood TV shows and movies would portray the mean girls as the bullies of the school, those who wished to sabotage and destroy the protagonist. Sharpay repeatedly attempted to disrupt Troy & Gabriella’s relationship, Regina and her minions constantly bullied Cady and anyone different at their high school.
However, the show Gossip Girl took a new approach. It still depicted the mean girls as the vile and hateful group who own the school and bully anyone they deem lesser than them, but this time they’re not the villain – they’re the protagonist.
The show centers around the rich kids at a private school in Manhattan, New York. It is easily ascertained that they are the “popular group” with money and esteem, especially the female lead Blaire.
However, we are shown the world in their eyes, from their family trouble to friend drama to romantic dilemmas. This makes them the protagonist, and while the audience is aware of their malicious tendencies, we cannot help but root for them. Gossip Girl made the mean girls shift from villains to victims as we watched their lives unfold and the reasons behind their spiteful personalities.
By making the mean girls as the center of the story, everyone who wronged them or disobeyed them was the new villain. In the show, there are many “normal” people who try to go against the reign of Blaire and her minions, but they are quickly shot down by the queen. As the audience, we should feel empathy towards the little guy, the one who is stuck at this private school filled with cruel students and unusual punishments. However, the show is written in a way that empowers and even glorifies the mean girls. We are often coerced into rooting for Blaire when she sabotages a gala or disrupts a fashion show to get back at her friend.
This new phenomenon also opened the eyes of many people who dissected the previous mean girl representation we were exposed to in our childhoods. This led to a common conclusion amongst Gen Z and even Millennials who watched High School Musical as a child: Sharpay Evans was never the villain, she was the victim. Throughout the three movies, Sharpay is always seen sabotaging their relationship or exuding her jealousy towards Troy and Gabriella’s theatre feats, but people have concluded that she has worked her whole life to be the star of the theatre, so it is only fair for her to be mad.
Two students with little to no theatre experience joined the club and stole the spotlight, leaving her in the dust. The hatred she displayed was a response to her dream being crumbled before her eyes, people ascertained. This conclusion leads us to another question: are mean girls actually mean girls? Or are their actions a response to the hardships that life throws at them? Does this make them a victim?
The Glamorization of Mean Girls
By centering the mean and popular girls and villainizing anyone who defies them, it can be argued that the show normalizes and even glorifies their malice. Is this dangerous and problematic for the viewers? Gossip Girl portrays the filthy rich and affluent children as the protagonists who commit brutal acts and face minimal consequences. While this trope has been common in many forms of teenage media in the past, this show is the first example of one where the mean girls are still seen as the mean girls, but this does not necessarily make them the “bad guys.” Instead of creating more relatable characters which the audience can see themselves in, the show produced a group of people whose affluence and influence were unattainable for the average person, allowing for a way to live vicariously through the “popular” students. A similar approach was done by the creators of the Spanish show Elite, which also follows a group of popular students and their disordered lives in High School.
Just this past month, Gossip Girl was revived with a reboot consisting of a more diverse cast and more social awareness. While the show is trying to portray the rich students but stray away from the stereotypes that come with them, many people have criticized the notion. The argument is that people watch Gossip Girl to escape from their own life, but a group of rich students who still acknowledge the socioeconomic privileges they possess sounds tone deaf and not appealing. The conclusion can be drawn that while the original Gossip Girl moderately disregards the wealth gap, with the exclusion of Dan, the audience enjoy living in the ideal world of the super rich kids.
The Future of Mean Girls
If we base the future portrayal of mean girls on modern shows such as Gossip Girl (2021) and Elite, we can expect more shows where the pretty and popular girls are the protagonists and center characters. Instead of being portrayed as the villain, they will be included in the main group and we will see the world through their eyes and better understand what problems made them to be malicious. In a way, the media is moving from villainizing mean girls to justifying their actions.
This can be met with much resentment from those who have suffered from their indignation in real life, but this trope has been successfully executed in the media before and it will most likely be done again. Gossip Girl (2007) and Elite are extremely popular and liked shows, so it is not difficult to conclude that audiences are tired of the boring nice character always winning. They like change, they like drama, they like revenge, and they like cruelty.