Film

The evolution of Mean Girls on screen... from Heathers to Sex Education

In her new book, Unlikeable Female Characters, Anna Bogutskaya examines the female archetypes pop culture wants you to hate. She argues that bitches, trainwrecks, shrews, and crazy women have taken over pop culture and liberated women from having to be nice. Here she delves into the transformation of the Mean Girl from villain to something more human.

Sex Education Season 3. Mimi Keene as Ruby Matthews in Episode 6 of Sex Education Season 3. Cr.

Mimi Keene as "Mean Girl" Ruby Matthews in Sex Education season 3. Photo: Sam Taylor / Netflix © 2020

We’ve all got a Mean Girl in our lives. We’ve either suffered them or been one.

A staple of teenagedom and teen movies alike, she is the force that sets the plot in motion, the antagonist feared by every clique, the villain who must be taken down by our protagonist. The cruelty of girlworld is excellent fodder for teen movies, and the Mean Girl is particularly venomous towards other girls. She is designed to be hated.

The Mean Girl as a character has undergone a gentle evolution from the background meanie in teen classics like Pretty in Pink (1986) to lead character of some pretty toxic depths.

In Heathers, Daniel Waters’ and Michael Lehmann’s Kubrickian epic about the poisonous politics of high school, a string of murders is committed by a handsome sociopath with a god complex. Heathers shows teenagers who are victims of a toxic hierarchical environment. The powerful clique of mean girls, The Heathers (named so because they’re all named Heather, except Winona Ryder’s character, Veronica), are each riddled with insecurities, suffering from eating disorders and with such a low image of themselves, they push each other into their worst impulses.

Heathers, 1988 (Film still)
Heathers, 1988 (Film still)

Heathers gave interiority to a trope, and its influence can be felt on Jawbreaker (1999), Mean Girls (2004) and Sex Education (2019-), to name a few.

In Darren Stein’s 1999 masterpiece of nasty one-liners and colour blocking, Jawbreaker, everyone is a Mean Girl. Heavily inspired by Heathers (1988) but dripping in a distinctive Gen-X brand of bile, in this world, some girls are designated to be mean because they’re too hot to be anything else.

Starting off with the kind-of-accidental murder of a teenager by her girlfriends, the Mean Girls band together as they try to cover up their involvement in the death of one of their own. Cause of death: choking on a gobstopper. The meanest of them all is Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan), the ringleader of the girl clique Flawless Four, lovingly nicknamed “Satan in heels”. McGowan plays her like a grotesque love-child between Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson and Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent Harland. In a recent interview with Dazed, the actress called Courtney “a young, budding sociopath”.

Jawbreaker shows us that a Mean Girl can be made. Created to be both adored and despised. In the film, when Courtney realises that her oopsie-doopsie murder has been witnessed by Reagan High’s resident loser, Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), Courtney buys her silence by transforming her into one of their own. “You’re the shadow, we’re the sun”, she says – and she’s right, at least where high school dynamics are concerned.

Through the power of lip liner and bleach, Fern is transformed into Vylette. However, when Vylette starts overtaking her in popularity (and bitchiness), Courtney gets worried. The reign of the Mean Girl is a fragile one, so they are stuck in a barbed cycle of usurpation. “You taught me to rule,” Vylette (née Fern) spits at Courtney.

Most recently, Laurie Nunn’s Netflix series Sex Education has deepened every teen movie archetype – the nerd, the jock, the weirdo, the mean girl – to craft a kaleidoscope of poignant storylines. To my point, the show gives us two sides of the Mean Girl in Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) and Ruby Matthews (Mimi Keene).

Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley in Sex Education season 3.
Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley in Sex Education season 3. Image: Sam Taylor / Netflix

Both play into highly crafted personas that keep them in a relatively comfortable social position in their school: Maeve is the trashy weirdo, whilst Ruby is the pack leader of The Untouchables. As the show evolved throughout its four seasons, though, they are allowed breathing room, their stories fleshed out with sadness and nuance and their Mean Girl personas revealed to be just that, masks.

These films and shows allow the Mean Girl to be her human, where traditionally she has been anything but.

Anna Bogutskaya is a film programmer, broadcaster, and co-founder of the horror film collective and podcast The Final Girls.

Unlikeable Female Characters: The Women Pop Culture Wants You to Hate is out on 9 June.

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