University of Amsterdam
MA Television & Cross-Media Culture Master’s Thesis 2022
Supervisor: Dr Diego Semerene Second Reader: Dr Tommy Tse
The Sartorial and the Crafting of the Streaming Series Mean Girl
Celine Lika 13821792 firstname.lastname@example.org
Word Count: 20023 Due date: 21 June 2022
The long-standing female character trope of the Mean Girl is still common in popular culture today, especially in teen films and television series. Such representation of women in popular media is significant because it reproduces societal notions about femininity. This specific
“mean” young woman has been closely connected with a characteristic way of dressing, which I term mean fashion. This thesis aims to examine that connection. Specifically, it explores the function of the sartorial in the construction of the Mean Girl in contemporary television shows. To this end, it analyses two recent examples of Mean Girls in streaming series, Ruby in Sex Education and Cheryl in Riverdale. It combines a close textual analysis of the series, focusing on the respective Mean Girl characters and the costuming for them, with studying interviews with contributors, like the costume designers. This analysis makes use of theories on costume from film and television studies as well as psychoanalytic theories like Joan Riviere’s concept of womanliness as masquerade, Naomi Wolf’s work on the beauty myth, and feminist theory on the term Bitch. This analysis demonstrates how the Mean Girl instrumentalises the sartorial to wield power within the patriarchal system. On the one side, she uses it for asserting authority and exerting violence against her peers, and on the other side, for masking herself as harmless and conformist. This thesis also examines how the Mean Girl’s increasing complexity today complicates her relationship with the sartorial.
Keywords: Mean Girl, fashion, television costume, femininity, power, masquerade
1. Dressing to Impress and Gain Power 6
2. Hyperfemininity and Female Rivalry 23
3. More than a Bitch 35
Works Cited 49
A bustling school corridor full of students. The camera follows an adolescent woman making her way through. She struts through the hallway as if it was a catwalk, and with every step, her high heels make a click-clack noise on the floor. She carries a bag in the crook of her right arm and uses the left to throw back her long, shiny hair. The other students make way for her – all it takes is one haughty look. They whisper comments like “Oh my God, it’s Ruby” and
“That girl’s outfit.” All eyes are on her, full of admiration, desire, and fear – because she is not only the most popular girl in school but also the meanest. While this is the beginning of
“Episode 1.5”1 of Sex Education (2019-), a scene like this is typical of the popular culture trope of the Mean Girl, also known as the Queen Bee, Alpha Female, High School Diva, or Teenage Bitch. This character is “an integral part of many movies made for teen audiences”
and “widely reproduced in teen series” (Cecil 263; Whitney 367).
But who is the Mean Girl? This figure was first discussed in the social sciences, specifically developmental psychology, in the early 1990s in the context of a specific type of aggression among adolescent women, called “relational” aggression (Cecil 262f., Ringrose 405). As opposed to “physical or verbal aggression,” female teenagers were said to “use social and verbal tactics such as spreading rumors and excluding individuals from groups”
(Oppliger 259, 5). In the late ‘90s, then, Mean Girl behaviour “became a hot news item,”
followed by numerous pop psychology books on the matter (Cecil 262f.). Specifically, several scholars trace the establishment of the Mean Girl in public consciousness back to Rosalind Wiseman’s foundational parenting guide Queen Bees and Wannabees (Downing 4; Cecil 262). This book later became the basis for the film Mean Girls (2004). Except for a few earlier examples, like Chris in Carrie (1976) or Rizzo in Grease (1978), the standard Mean Girl became a common character trope in the ‘90s and early 2000s, featured in films like Heathers (1989), Jawbreaker (1999), A Cinderella Story (2004), and High School Musical (2006).2
In popular culture, the term has come to refer to a woman in her teens or early twenties who can be found at high school or university.3 Wiseman defines the “Queen Bee” as a popular girl in school who bullies and controls her peers (25). Sarah Whitney defines the
1 The episodes of Sex Education are originally titled in the format “Episode 5” and each season, the numeration starts from one again so that multiple episodes have the same title. To avoid confusion, this thesis cites the episodes by adding the number of the season. For instance, “Episode 1.5” is the fifth episode of the first season.
2 For a selection of films and television series featuring Mean Girls see, for instance, Patrice A. Oppliger’s Bullies and Mean Girls in Popular Culture.
3 There are only a few examples of older standard Mean Girls, such as Alexis Colby in Dynasty (1981-89) or Lemon in Hart of Dixie (2011-15).
Mean Girl as “a privileged female adolescent” who behaves aggressively towards her peers,
“often through indirect methods like gossip or social exclusion” (365). More recent examples, such as The DUFF (2015) or Tall Girl (2019), and series like Scream Queens (2015-16), Pretty Little Liars (2010-17), or Elite (2018-) indicate the Mean Girl’s enduring cultural relevance.4 However, it needs to be examined whether she has changed since the ‘90s and early 2000s because the Mean Girl is a sign of the zeitgeist, reflecting the ideas about the role of women at a given time and place.
Crucially, previous scholarship on the Mean Girl has neglected the role of the sartorial for this figure. The Plastics and their leader Regina George are known for wearing miniskirts and all-over pink in Mean Girls, the Chanels and their leader Chanel Oberlin are dressed in pastels and fur in Scream Queens, Sharpay Evans is characterised by voluminous blonde waves and her love for everything that sparkles or is bright pink in the High School Musical films, the Heathers and their leader Heather Chandler wear padded shoulder blazers, coloured tights, and hair scrunchies in Heathers. Since the sartorial is crucial to how the female characters come to life in these fictional narratives, a specific type of conspicuous dress has been essential to the Mean Girl. I call this mean fashion.
It is important to first define the ambiguous terms fashion and dress since various scholarly authors employ different definitions or use the terms “interchangeably” (Entwistle 50). This thesis draws on Elizabeth Wilson’s, Joanne Entwistle’s, and Joanne Eicher’s definitions. Entwistle defines “dress” as a “term that denotes all the things people do to their bodies in order to modify them,” with a focus on aesthetics, “as in ‘adornment’” (50, 54). In this thesis, “dress” therefore refers to everything that is used to adorn the body, such as cloth, accessories, makeup, perfume, or hair (Eicher 271). Like Wilson, I use the term synonymously with “sartorial behaviour” (Adorned 3). These terms are employed for discussing concrete outfits worn by a Mean Girl. In contemporary Western societies, people’s dress is determined by fashion (Entwistle 24; Wilson, Adorned 5). It is defined by Entwistle
“as a specific system of dress” characterised by continuous change (53f.), which Wilson specifies as a “continual changing of styles” (Adorned 3). What I call mean fashion is therefore a specific, constantly changing system of dress that determines how the Mean Girl dresses. In everyday life, fashion is “embodied” and “translated into dress on the part of
4 Apart from fictional representations, Mean-Girl-like characters can today also be found in social media:
influencers with their so-called “resting Bitch face” attitude, the resting Bitch face as a naturalised expression in memes, but also teenagers who engage in cyberbullying – a contemporary form of being mean to others.
individuals” (Entwistle 24). Mean fashion is accordingly embodied by an individual Mean Girl, materialised in her everyday outfits.
In the context of film and television, characters’ dress is commonly discussed as costume (Gaines, Wolthuis, Bruzzi). In this thesis, “costume” is used only when discussing the level of media production and consumption, so outside the diegesis. “Costume” is, however, often used interchangeably with “fashion” in film and television studies,5 which demonstrates how the boundaries between real-life fashion and costume design are at times blurry (Warner 185).
Film studies have traditionally considered costume as a means to convey the narrative and contribute to characterisation (Gaines 193; Bruzzi, “Dressing” 397). There has been little research on costuming on television, and the few existing studies “have attempted to transfer previous work on fashion and film without substantial re-imagining or revision” (Warner 182). Television’s “medium-specific characteristics such as seriality, small-screen intimacy and its cultural understandings” have consequently been overlooked (Wolthuis, “New Uniforms” 47). Art and spectacle have rather been linked to cinema so that the role of costume on television has been neglected due to the “(outdated) idea that television consists of fleeting, insignificant images produced for small, low-quality screens” and that it “reflects”
reality (48). Especially today’s fragmentation of television into streaming platforms contradicts this traditional logic as they offer an assemblage of elaborately produced and stylised fictional series. Viewers actively choose what they watch, controlling the sensory experience. This thesis, therefore, challenges the long-standing notion that television costume merely serves narrative and character so that it should be looked through, corresponding to Helen Warner’s and Josette Wolthuis’ research (Warner 182; Wolthuis, “New Uniforms” 45).
Building on Wolthuis’ claim that “style has substance” (“New Uniforms” 49), this thesis examines what role the sartorial plays in the construction of the Mean Girl.
Studying the connection between this figure and the sartorial, the following thereby looks into what characterises mean fashion, what the Mean Girl wants, and how she achieves it using sartorial means. It also investigates what meanness or being a Bitch6 means in this context. Focusing on the contemporary Mean Girl, it explores if she differs from her predecessors. By analysing specific Mean Girl characters and their dress, this thesis shows
5 For example, Bruzzi and Church Gibson discuss instances where “[c]ostumes or fashion are ‘spectacular’ …”
(123), and Helen Warner speaks of both “fashion” as “excessive” on television and of “costume … as spectacle in television” (183, 186).
6 Due to the inherent misogyny of the term, I am using a capital letter (unless it is part of a direct quote) to distance myself from the term and indicate to the reader that I am only voicing it.
how this figure makes use of the sartorial to wield power within the patriarchal system that subjugates women.
This analysis focuses on two recent examples of Mean Girls on screen: Cheryl Blossom in Riverdale (2017-) and Ruby Matthews in Sex Education (2019-), which are both distributed on the streaming platform Netflix. Examples from television series are used as case studies since they provide more time to show this character than films. The two analysed shows are set in high school and fall under drama and comedy, the genres that typically include Mean Girls (Oppliger 55, 260; Cecil 265). The US drama series Riverdale is based on characters from the comic book series Archie (1942-). It features an ensemble cast, focusing on the friends Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica. Cheryl, captain of the cheerleading squad and “the queen bee” of Riverdale High, is one of the main characters (“Fast Times at Riverdale High”). The show is about teenagers’ experiences surrounding school, friendships, romantic relationships, and family as well as mysteries in the fictional town of Riverdale in the State of New York. Despite being set in the present day, old-fashioned cars and costumes that combine contemporary and “vintage” pieces create an out-of-time feel and “mysterious”
aesthetic (Sorensen-Kjelstrup, “Elaborate Conspiracy”; “Doctors’ Uniforms”).
The British comedy-drama series Sex Education follows the daily lives and issues, usually related to sexuality, of mostly the students but also parents and teachers of Moordale Secondary School. It also features an ensemble cast, with a focus on nerdy Otis and outcast Maeve, who start giving other students sex advice. Ruby, “the most popular girl in school,” is another main character (“Episode 3.1”). Contrary to Riverdale, the show is “grounded in reality” and focuses on “things that teenagers actually experience on a daily basis” (Dias,
“Creating”). Its “wardrobe based on reality” also includes vintage and contemporary clothes, contributing to an aesthetic that is colourful, “timeless,” and combines a school in the UK with American elements like varsity jackets (“Creating”).
This thesis conducts a textual analysis of the 79 episodes à 42-46 min from the first season of Riverdale to the characters’ high school graduation in the third episode of the fifth season, focusing on the first two seasons,7 as well as the 24 episodes à 47-60 min of the currently three seasons of Sex Education. It specifically studies Cheryl and Ruby and their dress. The characters are approached through a close reading of the plot, dialogue, character
7 For comparison’s sake, this analysis only considers those episodes that depict the characters as high school students, up until the seven-year time jump in “Graduation.” Additionally, it focuses on “ordinary” teenage experiences and omits or only briefly mentions the show’s increasingly mystical elements: While the first season includes (only) a murder mystery, the following seasons involve a serial killer, a deadly role-playing game, biker gangs and gang wars, a cult that turns out to be an organ harvesting farm, Cheryl keeping her brother’s conservated corpse and talking to it, and eventually the characters developing superpowers.
relationships, and above all costuming. Moreover, interviews with contributors to the series are taken into consideration, including Riverdale’s costume designer Rebekka Sorensen- Kjelstrup, Sex Education’s Rosa Dias and this show’s creator Laurie Nunn as well as the actresses Madelaine Petsch and Mimi Keene, who play Cheryl and Ruby respectively.
The following is structured around the three central aspects that characterise mean fashion today. Using literature on spectacular costuming on screen, the first chapter examines how mean fashion is marked by excess and how the Mean Girl uses it to present herself as superior yet harmless. The concept of glamour, explored by Wilson and Elizabeth Wissinger, is employed to outline how she creates a public image that attracts attention, including the female gaze, as discussed by Diana Fuss and Paula Marantz Cohen. Overall, the first chapter introduces how the Mean Girl instrumentalises the sartorial to maintain a powerful position in the social hierarchy. Her route to power crucially involves meanness, specifically being what is considered a Bitch. The second chapter, then, explores the hyperfemininity of mean fashion. Using Joan Riviere’s concept of the masquerade, it outlines how the Mean Girl presents a specific image of femininity to hide her meanness. This enables her to freely bring down other women, which is explored by drawing on Naomi Wolf’s notion of the beauty myth. Most of these theories are of course from a time when television series either did not exist or were not as elaborately produced as today and when streaming television was still unheard of. This thesis will show how they are nevertheless relevant for analysing contemporary case studies. The last chapter examines how mean fashion has transformed in recent years. It uses Jason Mittell’s work on complex television characters and Wolthuis’
research on complex television costuming to outline the increased complexity and depth of contemporary Mean Girls and their dress.
This thesis thereby demonstrates how studying representations of women in popular media is important since they reproduce societal notions about femininity. It accordingly sheds light on stereotypes, systems of oppression, and how women navigate them. My research additionally contributes to filling a persistent research gap by exploring the neglected role of fashion on television. This function of the sartorial specifically needs to be studied in the context of the elusive figure who continues to be popular after over three decades: the
“mythic bitch”8 that is the Mean Girl.
8 A student uses this expression in Heathers to describe Heather Chandler.
1. Dressing to Impress and Gain Power
The first feature of mean fashion that this thesis explores is the excess that marks the way the Mean Girl dresses and that consequently creates spectacle and attracts attention. This chapter uses literature on spectacular costuming in films and television series to examine the meaning conveyed by the sartorial, specifically by its excess, in the context of the Mean Girl. To answer the overarching question what role the sartorial plays for this figure, this chapter introduces how she instrumentalises it to wield power – adhering to the narrowly defined routes available for women in patriarchal societies.
It therefore explores how she strives to secure a powerful position in the social hierarchy as she uses the way she dresses to express her superiority, which is crucially linked to class. She also employs these means to attract attention – in the form of different gazes, including the female gaze – and to create a carefully designed image of herself, which is approached through the concept of glamour. This chapter also analyses how she instrumentalises the sartorial for her specific kind of meanness to weaken others. In this context, it also links the Mean Girl to the figure of the Bitch and studies how she makes use of the ideas about femininity connected to it.
“How Extravagant a Wardrobe Should I Pack?”9
Eye-catching, extravagant, flawless style, luxurious fabrics, striking colours, super high heels, sparkling accessories, shiny waves with not a single hair out of place – the Mean Girl dresses in superlatives. Her dress thus attracts the attention of onlookers within the fictional world and in front of the screen. Costuming has been understood as “spectacular” if it draws attention to a character’s clothes rather than transparently contributing to the narrative and characterisation (Gaines 192; Bruzzi, “Dressing” 398). However, echoing Warner’s and Wolthuis’ claims, the Mean Girl complicates the persistent assumption of costume being either spectacle or serving the narrative (Warner 182; Wolthuis, “New Uniforms” 43). On the one side, the Mean Girl’s costume is spectacular, often without relating to the surrounding narrative. On the other side, conspicuous dress is part of the essence of this character. She is therefore an example of what Bruzzi and Church Gibson seemingly paradoxically term a
“fashion-as-spectacle character” (126), where a fashion-made spectacle is intimately tied to a character.
9 This is Cheryl’s second inquiry when she learns of a weekend trip: “So, where are we going and how extravagant a wardrobe should I pack?” (“The Hills Have Eyes”).
In the context of the Mean Girl, spectacle is created through excess on two levels. This aligns with Wolthuis’ claim of “the complication in television costuming that a character is
‘dressed’ in two ways”: A character “has both been dressed by a costume designer … and has dressed herself within the diegetic context” (“Simplicity” 111). There is thus excess firstly on the level of production in the sense of being more than the narrative demands: Spectacular costumes “do not corroborate scripted sentiments but provide a level of excess which obscures them,” according to Bruzzi and Church Gibson (125). However, the analysis of the Mean Girl’s costume challenges this idea. Rather than disrupting the narrative, the excess adds to it. This goes beyond being just “an additional audience pleasure,” as Warner understands it (190). Indeed, spectacular costumes “can forge meaning beyond script” and
“tell us something that the diegesis will not,” according to Wolthuis (“Simplicity” 116). In other words, such excess adds meaning beyond the narrative: The Mean Girl’s costume tells its own story. Mean fashion can therefore also be understood as a language. What the clothes articulate can be examined on the second level of excess: within the diegesis. There is something excessive about how the Mean Girl dresses herself, which creates spectacle.
Mean fashion is excessive in the sense of being more than what is demanded by the occasion. This is influenced by social conventions of how to dress in specific situations and locations. She is usually dressed up and appears overdressed for the location and occasion, which is usually an everyday setting like school. She consequently provides a stark contrast to the people around her. Ruby and Cheryl wear stylish, thought-through, and colour- coordinated outfits. Their clothes are intricate through diverse fabrics or details like buttons and teamed with many accessories. “It always feels like she’s going to an event,” asserts Sorensen-Kjelstrup about Riverdale’s Cheryl (“Vintage and Contemporary”), which indicates how her dress is more than what is needed for an everyday occasion. For instance, the skin- tight red top, black miniskirt with red buttons, red heeled thigh-high boots, thin black scarf with red dots, and small red leather backpack, which Cheryl wears in “Fast Times at Riverdale High,” is a standard school outfit for her. In “Episode 3.2” of Sex Education, Ruby similarly goes to school wearing a sheer purple blouse with puff sleeves and a knot in the front, purple heart print trousers, purple high heels, large shiny blue hoops, a hair clip, purple sunglasses, and a tiny lavender bag with a fur handle (see fig. 5). The high heels that Cheryl and Ruby usually wear underline the contrast with their peers’ more casual dress. This is apparent from figure 1, where Cheryl’s red heeled thigh-high boots provide a stark contrast to the bleak classroom with its purely functional furniture and the other students’ trousers, t- shirts, sneakers or boots in dark or muted colours.
Figure 1: Cheryl (right) is sitting among other students in class (“The Midnight Club”).
Contrary to the Girl Next Door with her modest and down-to-earth dress, the Mean Girl dresses up to be the most noticeable among her peers. This is particularly apparent when she wears uniforms, which usually homogenise the wearers and rule out fashion for them, here for the students at school. When the new headteacher temporarily makes school uniforms obligatory, Ruby adjusts hers to differentiate herself, rolling up her skirt’s waistband to make it shorter, wearing it high-waist, and adding a burgundy headband (“Episode 3.3”). Similarly, Cheryl’s blue cheerleading uniform stands out from the other “River Vixens”: She wears red lipstick, her skirt is shorter, and her top is cropped, which can be seen, for example in
“Varsity Blues.” How she strives to establish her presence is particularly evident from her preference for striking colours. Cheryl’s signature colour is red, specifically the bright
“Pantone’s Flame Scarlet” (“The Raid”). In addition to her ginger-red hair, red lipstick and red nails, she either wears red all over or at least one red item. How she thus stands out among her peers is most apparent during the high school graduation ceremony in “Graduation”:
While all other students have the same navy-blue gowns and caps, Cheryl is wearing a bright red gown with a pink bow at the collar, a red cap, and red plateau pumps. Ruby also wears bright colours, often pink, as well as bold, contrasting patterns, in line with Sex Education’s less mystical and warm aesthetic.
The Mean Girl also differentiates herself from the rest of the popular clique, whose dress is a less spectacular, toned-down version of hers. For example, figure 2 shows how the
bright colours of Ruby’s outfit outshine the other members of the so-called “Untouchables,”
Moordale’s popular clique, in the school’s parking lot. Her bright yellow top and jacket, golden jewellery, colour-splash skirt, and cross-body bag with a colourful pattern are more striking than Anwar’s and Olivia’s clothes. Although their dress also features patterns, these are balanced out by the more muted colours of his dark green jacket and her burgundy jacket (“Episode 3.1”). The initially fourth member of the Untouchables, Aimee, also dresses fashionably but usually in all-over blue denim, which is surpassed by Ruby’s bright colours.
Likewise, Cheryl not only differs from the other Vixens in her uniform, but her red clothes generally outshine the light pink and black of Tia and Ginger, her fellow Vixens and constant shadows during the first season. This excess of mean fashion is meaningful beyond attracting attention. Fashion serves as “an accessory she employs to separate herself from others as a marker of exclusivity,” Joel Gwynne claims, discussing the Mean-Girl-like protagonist of Wild Child (2008) (80). In other words, through dressing up and wearing striking colours the Mean Girl also articulates superiority over her peers.
Figure 2: Anwar, Ruby, and Olivia are standing next to their car school in front of the school (“Episode 3.1”).
However, the Mean Girl knows that a woman asserting dominance in any way is suspicious and frowned upon in patriarchal societies, where men are in control. This is because it appears threatening to the phallus, the master signifier that organises men’s power and women’s subordinance. This myth of invincible, omnipotent man holds up patriarchy by tricking people into believing that man’s power is unshakable and creating the illusion that the
way things are is natural and an unchangeable reality. The Mean Girl has seen through this oppressive myth and the patriarchal system. To compensate for her assertion of authority, her dress simultaneously articulates harmlessness through an apparent preoccupation with physical appearance.
Mean fashion indeed takes the aesthetic element of dress to such extremes that it cancels out its practical application. Mean fashion is therefore also excessive in the sense of being more than would be practical in a given situation. “Comfortable, no. Warm, no. Cute, yes,” Petsch accordingly describes Cheryl’s dress (“Best Riverdale Looks”). This suggests she is usually dressed impractically, especially for an everyday setting like school. This is most apparent from high heels, for example when Cheryl drives her car in pointy-toed heels in “In Memoriam” or when Ruby wears them for bowling (“Episode 3.3”). Mean fashion also includes numerous, conspicuous accessories, like jewellery. For example, Ruby’s and Cheryl’s colourful belts seldomly hold up trousers but rather serve the function of adornment, enhancing the waist and adding colour to an outfit. They both often carry handbags, which are so small that they rule out any practical use, like carrying school supplies or books. For instance, Cheryl brings a tiny red leather backpack to school (“The Hills Have Eyes”). Ruby either carries a handbag in the crook of her arm, like a yellow leather one with a fur ball attached to it (e.g. “Episode 1.5”), or a small cross-body bag, such as a round pink one (“Episode 2.7”). Instead of carrying their belongings, these bags rather function as a fashion statement, articulating her superiority over her peers while assuring that she is superficial, only interested in aesthetics. These tiny bags are literally shallow: Nothing meaningful fits in there, so she only carries and by extension cares about “frivolous” items like lipstick or a phone. She uses this emphasis on aesthetics to communicate that she has nothing to hide – neither in her bag nor regarding her character and intentions.
Crucially, excess in the case of the Mean Girl means “more than necessary” and “more than sensible” but not “more than desirable”: Mean fashion conveys that the Mean Girl essentially adheres to social rules by sticking to “acceptable” sartorial behaviour. This serves to display harmlessness to ultimately reassure the phallus. Despite her alterations, Ruby still wears the proper school uniform and does not violate policy like her fellow student, Bad Girl Maeve, who is repeatedly told off by the headteacher for her nose piercing and blue dip-dyed hair in “Episode 3.4.” Her conformism is particularly evident in her makeup and hairstyle, which contribute to the spectacle of mean fashion: The Mean Girl is conspicuously but moderately made up. Cheryl uses bright red lipstick, while Ruby wears pink lipstick or lip gloss. Both usually wear black mascara, nude eyeshadow, sometimes dark eyeliner, and only
light contouring and blush. The makeup thus focuses on lips and eyes, while being light on the rest of the face. Cheryl applies red nail polish, and Ruby has long acrylic nails in light pink. Both have waist-long hair that is flawlessly styled: Cheryl’s hair falls in immaculately blow-dried waves and Ruby’s is blow-dried straight. They thus create a spectacular, polished look that is not showy or “tacky.” In the streaming series Elite, Lucrecia differs from fellow student newly rich Rebeka, who flaunts her wealth by wearing large, thick gold hoop earrings on her first day of school. Lucrecia distances herself from people like her who “show up at school in a car with blacked-out windows and 24k gold earrings” (“20 Hours Missing”). By contrast, she shows her wealth more subtly or “classy.” This demonstrates how the Mean Girl’s excess remains within the frame of what is considered classy. This depends on an individual Mean Girl’s cultural context.
Despite numerous examples of American films and series that feature a Mean Girl, she is not essentially American. After all, Ruby is British, Lucrecia in the Spanish show Elite is Mexican, and the German teen comedy Meine Teuflisch Gute Freundin (How to Be Really Bad) (2018) features Mean Girl Melody. Layan in the Jordanian streaming series AlRawabi School for Girls (2021-) exemplifies how the Mean Girl is influenced by her specific cultural context. At the private school in Jordan, where Islam is the dominant religion, Layan omits the tie of the school uniform, unbuttons the top button of her blouse, revealing a fine necklace, and rolls up the long sleeves so that they show half her forearm and a silver watch. She also wears no hijab as several others do and instead wears her long, dark hair, which features blonde highlights and artificial waves, down. Unlike others, she applies makeup, but only black eyeliner and nude eyeshadow. In short, Layan dresses less sexual and spectacular than Western Mean Girls but stands out within her cultural context. The Mean Girl’s polished look already indicates that socioeconomic class plays a role as it restricts the excess of mean fashion.
However, class also fosters the excess of mean fashion: Very expensive clothing is a central part of it. Excess is thus connected to capital, so a high socioeconomic class.
Accordingly, the Mean Girl is traditionally upper-middle to upper class (Cecil 273, Ringrose 407). Patrice A. Oppliger agrees in her study of Mean Girls in film and television that they are
“generally rich” and wearing “designer fashions” (21). Indeed, the father of Elite’s Lucrecia is the Mexican ambassador in Spain, and in Fate: The Winx Saga (2021-), Stella belongs to the royal family. Cheryl also comes from the old, wealthy Blossom family that controls Riverdale’s “lucrative” maple syrup business (“La Grande Illusion”). Corresponding with the notion of mean fashion as a language, Eicher asserts, “Dress ordinarily communicates aspects
of a person’s identity” (271). In the context of mean fashion, excess is therefore also used to express the Mean Girl’s upper-class status. For instance, Cheryl wears designer pieces, like Christian Louboutin Ferme Rouge 100mm pumps (“La Grande Illusion”), luxurious fabrics like a fur jacket (“The Lost Weekend”), and valuable accessories. Her signature spider brooch is also worth “a pretty penny”, as she says (“The Sweet Hereafter). Although in the third season, Ruby reveals to Otis and the Untouchables that she in fact comes from a working- class background, she presents herself as upper class. She accordingly wears – or pretends to wear – expensive dress. For example, Ruby emphasises how “very expensive” her perfume is in “Episode 3.7” and that her yellow bag is a designer piece (“Episode 1.5”). She aims to dress “cool and expensive” (“Episode 3.2”), which demonstrates how the monetary value of dress is at least as important to the Mean Girl as its appearance. As Joel Gwynne puts it,
“[F]or Poppy the appearance, quality and style of the clothing is of secondary importance to the cost,” and “the value of the clothing is inseparable from her own value as a human being”
because it materialises her status (81). Mean fashion consequently articulates that those wearing less expensive clothes are worth less and below the Mean Girl.
She also expresses her socioeconomic class by dressing fashionably. According to Entwistle, “Fashionable dress is dress that embodies the latest aesthetic; it is dress defined at a given moment as desirable, beautiful, popular” (23). Therefore, by wearing fashionable dress the wearer shows they can afford to constantly update their wardrobe. The Mean Girl makes use of this elitism of fashion, its inherent meanness so to speak, to elevate herself. Her clothes are “mean” as they articulate that those who are not able to dress according to trends are inferior. Apart from money, another form of capital is crucial for the Mean Girl: fashion knowledge, so knowing what “the latest aesthetic” is and how to style clothes. This second form of capital can be acquired through a sort of work: “the effort to keep up with the trends by reading fashion magazines, watching awards shows, and expending the energy to stay hooked into what’s happening now in terms of styles, desirable brands, and how to get them”
(Wissinger, “Introduction” 3). Contemporary Mean Girls use social media to keep up with trends, which is apparent from Cheryl’s frequent use of Twitter and Ruby’s interest in celebrity gossip, like Kim Kardashian’s “surrogate baby” (“Episode 3.3”). In short, the Mean Girl’s sartorial excess is intimately tied to her high-class status.
All Eyes on the Mean Girl
The spectacle created through her dress makes the Mean Girl “the center of attention”
wherever she is (Wiseman 27). Analysing the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner (2001),
Cohen argues the female protagonist is “the maker and controller of spectacles, including her own,” and “it is her clothes and how she wears them that promote her centrality as an eye- catching, in-control presence” (84). The Mean Girl similarly makes and controls spectacle, consciously using the sartorial to differentiate herself and attract attention. She intensifies this effect by typically assuming a position detached and elevated from her peers, where everyone can see her. For instance, Cheryl and her girlfriend Toni position themselves on a red sofa in the middle of her pool party in “Labor Day,” and the Untouchables often sit on a bench in the centre of the schoolyard with Ruby in the middle, like in the pilot. This indicates how the Mean Girl actively draws the gaze to herself.
This is a “gender-neutral” gaze, which is here not understood as queer but in the sense of the Mean Girl casting her net very wide. She does not exclusively attract a sexual gaze, by which I mean generally a gaze of sexual desire. She thereby differs from the Femme Fatale and the Vamp, who manipulate sexual desire, typically of men, and thus command a heterosexual gaze. The Mean Girl, by contrast, also attracts the female gaze. Cohen’s understanding of the gaze of viewers of rom coms is also applicable to the gazes of fictional characters on the Mean Girl. Cohen claims that attracting the female gaze means “appeal[ing]
to the ‘material girl’ in viewers (male and female alike)” (79). In contrast to “a conventional male economy of desire” (80), the female gaze is more materialistic (87). Many accessories, such as tiny purses, and style decisions, like Ruby matching her sunglasses to the colour of her outfit as in figure 5, do not serve to increase sex appeal. Fuss similarly argues that in the world of fashion, women are supposed to look at women. Analysing women’s fashion photography, she uses the concept of the “homospectatorial” look to argue that the images of posing female models in women’s magazines are not aimed at the male gaze but “for the explicit appreciation and consumption by a female audience” (713). The images included in Fuss’ article from thirty years ago barely differ from the fashion photography in today’s women’s magazines: Female models still seductively pose for mostly female readers. Fuss claims that such a magazine, indeed “the entire fashion industry … provides a socially sanctioned structure in which women are encouraged to consume, in voyeuristic if not vampiristic fashion, images of other women” (713). Similarly, while the Mean Girl is also sexually desired, many of her female peers rather want to be her.
The female gaze is here, however, not necessarily taken as empowering for women, suggesting that the Mean Girl does not attempt to rebel against women’s inferior position in patriarchy. Indeed, Cohen admits the female gaze can be seen as “another means of manipulating women into dependence on a consumer culture” (87). Additionally, Fuss argues
that an unconscious homoerotic gaze is created in magazines to “eradicate or evacuate” it in the real world and “fashion female viewers into properly heterosexualized women” (730, 713). Moreover, a gaze between women might also serve the function of the phallus. It can help keeping up this myth since one reason why a woman admires or envies another is that she attracts the gaze of heterosexual men more than her.
To the Mean Girl, the female gaze is just another kind of attention. She uses the sartorial to attract the gaze of as many people as possible. How she desires attention is evident not only from their eye-catching dress but also, for example when new couple Otis and Ruby arrive at school together for the first time, and their peers stare at them. Otis asks, “Why is everyone staring?”, and she smilingly answers, “Because you’re with me, obviously” (“Episode 3.2”). Similarly, while Cheryl is strutting through the corridors and distributing invitations to a party, she waves and blows kisses to onlookers (“Fast Times at Riverdale High”). They are thus seemingly pleased about their peers’ attention and present themselves as a person worthy of admiration.
The Mean Girl attracts admiration and attention, particularly the female gaze, through being “glamorous” (Oppliger 20). But what does this so commonly used yet evasive term mean? “Glamour is primarily an attribute of an individual. It is an appearance …,” Wilson defines it (“Note” 105). She states that this impalpable appearance of a person is “created”
together with material dress, including elements like hairstyle and perfume (105). Although Wilson, writing in 2007, uses examples of stars from classical Hollywood cinema, her notion of glamour is still relevant today. Indeed, digital media have furthered the distribution of unflattering paparazzi images that harm the glamour of stars (100). Glamour is, however, apparent in digital influencers and their self-presentation on social media. The intimate exposure of their everyday lives might indeed seem to contradict with the concept of glamour.
However, influencers strategically present a glamorous version of what might usually be unglamorous and only show selected, glamorous aspects of their lives. This demonstrates something beyond Wilson’s ideas: Glamour is not limited to a selected number of stars, but
“ordinary” people can actively create a glamorous appearance – by carefully selecting what they reveal and how they present themselves.
The Mean Girl above all achieves glamour through her strategic use of sartorial means, exploiting the fact that glamour is “closely associated with fashionable dress”
(Wilson, “Note” 95). This is because the sartorial enables the wearer to achieve glamour through “daring departures from the conventionally well dressed” (98). The Mean Girl likewise differentiates herself by exceeding what it means to be well-dressed in her cultural
context: After all, mean fashion’s excess goes beyond what is suitable and practical in a given situation. In other words, she combines the elitism of fashion and the “elitism of glamour,”
which “sends a message that we cannot all be glamorous. We can aspire to, but will never reach the stars” (100). Although Wilson means “stars” in the narrow sense of figures in the public eye, the Mean Girl is indeed a star at her school, with her peers admiring her and aspiring to be her.10 Cheryl accordingly introduces herself to an outsider as “Riverdale’s resident it-girl” (“When a Stranger Calls”). The elitism of fashion and glamour both convey the message that others are less than, and the Mean Girl instrumentalises this inherent meanness to differentiate herself from her peers.
As mentioned above, dress needs to be combined with a more abstract quality of a person to create glamour. After all, “glamour is untouchable,” according to Wilson (“Note”
101). This “aura” is evident in the Mean Girl (98): it is literally translated into Ruby’s role as the leader of the so-called Untouchables. Moreover, the Mean Girl cultivates a too-cool-to-be- approached aura, for example with her resting Bitch face, apparent from Ruby in figure 2.
This serious, unimpressed, haughty expression paired with a confident posture – chin up, shoulders back – is also typical for fashion models and influencers. Its widely popular use obscures the inherent sexism of the concept of resting Bitch face (Hester 1493). How men often tell women to “smile” while catcalling them already indicates that women are expected to constantly smile and be friendly. Therefore, when women show what is, in fact, “a neutral, or ‘resting,’ expression,” they are perceived as unfriendly and labelled a Bitch (Hester 1490).
The Mean Girl, who carefully constructs all parts of her image, at the least willingly accepts these associations when displaying this face and even fosters them, often intensifying the expression through subtle cues like a slightly raised eyebrow. She thus instrumentalises the resting Bitch face to create an air of untouchability, so glamour.
How the Mean Girl creates glamour suggests that it is “the result of work and effort,”
as Wilson puts it (“Note” 100). Expanding on this notion, Wissinger studies fashion models to explore what she coins glamour labour (“Introduction” 9). This concept “fuses both physical and virtual aspects of bodywork” (3). By virtual glamour labour she means continuously staying up to date with fashion trends, as the Mean Girl does, and to overall “create an image of ‘cool,’ edginess, or relevance” (8). This corresponds with what Karen de Perthuis and Rosie Findlay call digital fashion influencers’ “constant self-presentation” (232). The physical element of glamour labour consists in “maintaining a fashionable hairstyle” and overall “a
10 In Mean Girls, another student explicitly introduces Regina George as “She’s the queen bee, the star.”
body that fits the current ideal” (Wissinger 3). Influencers also work to “embody” this constantly changing “fashionable ideal,” according to de Perthuis and Findlay (229). In contemporary Western societies, this means being “young, slender, conventionally beautiful, able bodied, and, most often, a cisgender woman” (221). Wissinger adds whiteness to this list (“Fashion Models”). To maintain her glamorous image, the Mean Girl therefore puts much effort into conforming to these standards. She is slim and typically white, like Ruby and Cheryl (Cecil 273, Ringrose 407). Moreover, Ruby often files her nails, undergoes cosmetic treatments like having her “eyebrows done” (“Episode 1.5”), and she and the other Untouchables “only drink coke zero” (“Episode 3.2”). Cheryl regularly gets a manicure and is wary of carbohydrates (“Bizarrodale”). The satirical comedy-horror series Scream Queens caricatures this physical glamour labour of the Mean Girl by depicting sorority president Chanel and her clique eating only cotton balls dipped in sauce (“Haunted House”). Like a star, model, or influencer, the Mean Girl thus uses the sartorial and overall glamour labour to elaborately construct a carefully designed image of herself.
Obsessing over Social Status
The Mean Girl thus actively influences how she is perceived in society. She has realised that other people’s opinion of her crucially impacts her value in society, so ultimately her position in the social hierarchy. Chanel accordingly asserts, “A lot of people talk smack about how sororities are exclusive and they’re a class system. Well guess what? Life is a class system!”
(“Pilot”). This illustrates the Mean Girl’s cynical worldview. She primarily cares about, is indeed “obsessed with social status” (Oppliger 27), striving to be popular and admired. This preoccupation with her public image is evident when the Untouchables arrive at a party in
“Episode 1.2,” and Ruby immediately asks if more people are coming, since they “can’t be seen at a lame party.” Moreover, she worries about her reputation after a one-night stand: “I can’t be seen buying the morning after pill …. People will talk” (“Episode 2.7”). Cheryl likewise cares about the exclusive image of the Vixens, as she tells them, “If I would have known that Mama Lodge was working at Pop’s [diner], I never would’ve given [her daughter]
Veronica a spot on the Vixens. It’s off-brand, a false message about acceptance” (“The Last Picture Show”). This demonstrates the Mean Girl’s awareness of how members of lower socioeconomic classes are disadvantaged in society, and she consequently works to emphasise her upper-class status.
In other words, she understands that occupying a high position in the social hierarchy gives her power. It is evident how convinced Ruby is of the significance of being popular
when she scoffs, “People don’t call it quits with me” after her boyfriend Otis has indicated he might end their relationship (“Episode 3.2”). Cheryl demonstrates the same confidence when she tells the new principal, “I will always be the queen bee. You have no power over me”
(“Fast Times at Riverdale High”). Ultimately, what a Mean Girl wants is power (Ringrose 415) – and several authors agree that she is powerful (e.g. Oppliger 264, Cecil 273). To be precise, the Queen Bee has “power and control over her environment,” Wiseman asserts (27).
However, this also indicates that her power is limited to the people in her immediate social setting, usually her school or at best, her town. After all, when Ruby goes to a local pharmacy, the pharmacist tells her, “I have no idea who you are” (“Episode 2.7”). Nevertheless, within these limits, she indeed wields power. This is apparent from how other students make way for Ruby in the hallways at the beginning of “Episode 1.5.” The Untouchables “rule over” their peers, according to a Moordale student (“Episode 2.1”), and Ruby in turn rules over the Untouchables, ordering Olivia to make space for her bag or scheduling meetings at Aimee’s house without asking her (“Episode 1.5”). The Vixens likewise obey Cheryl’s orders, and she easily manages to start a manhunt for a suspect in her brother’s murder case: “I just tweeted this out to all of my minions, so the pressure’s on, Sheriff Keller,” referring to all other students as her subordinates (“In a Lonely Place”). This illustrates the influence that the Mean Girl has over the people with whom she interacts.
In addition to sartorial means, she relies on symbolic positions to secure her high social standing. Both Ruby and Cheryl subtly yet effectively assert their leadership by making a point to sit, stand, and walk in the centre of the popular clique, such as in figure 2.
Moreover, the Mean Girl typically competes for prom queen to cement her popularity and authority. For instance, Gossip Girl’s (2007-12) Blair wins prom queen (“Valley Girls”), Mean Girls’ Regina “always wins Spring Fling Queen,” and Cheryl becomes prom queen at senior prom in “Climax.” She is also the leading actress in the school musical for two consecutive years (“A Night to Remember”, “Big Fun”),11 and in addition to being cheerleading captain, she is the centre of every Vixens’ performance. Crucially, these are all positions where the Mean Girl competes exclusively with her female peers and asserts her superiority over them. She does not compete for leadership positions typically occupied by men at school, like being the football captain. Moreover, positions like leading actress, head cheerleader, or prom queen come with no, or only very little, actual power. They are consequently insignificant in the grand scheme of things. In other words, they are “power”
11 Riverdale’s writers employ an intertextual reference to emphasise Cheryl’s Mean Girl status: in the second musical, she plays the role of Heather Chandler (“Big Fun”).
positions that are acceptable for women in patriarchal societies. However, they are momentous for the young women who compete for them and receive much attention at the school in question. These positions therefore have crucial symbolic value in the Mean Girl’s immediate social environment.
She also knows a person’s social network crucially influences their social status. This is evident, for instance, in the pilot of Sex Education when Ruby and Olivia tell Aimee to
“dump” her boyfriend, the unpopular school bully: “They say he’s bringing down my social status.” This indicates how the Mean Girl ruthlessly instrumentalises other people. She typically surrounds herself with other popular students, like the Untouchables or the Vixens.
This correlates with Wissinger’s argument that “personal connections” and “friendships” are part of virtual glamour labour of creating a specific public image (“Introduction” 3).
Accordingly, in the Mean Girl’s eyes, friendship is tactical work that results in carefully curated social networks as a form of capital that increases her social status. Instead of real, mutual connections, her friendships are typically characterised by one-sided feelings – only the others feel admiration, devotion, and envy towards her. Chanel’s indifference and indeed contempt towards the members of her clique is evident from how she describes them: “These are my minions. I don’t know their names, I don’t want to know their names,” and instead names them Chanel #2 to #5 (“Pilot”). This demonstrates how the Mean Girl uses friendship as a means to an end and takes advantage of her “friends,” whom she merely regards as pawns in her game.
She has a similar business-like view on romantic relationships, instrumentalising them for social status as well. She considers her partner an extension of her image and traditionally dates the most popular male student. For example, the Mean Girl dates the popular football captain in A Cinderella Story, Mean Girls, and The DUFF. Instead of having real feelings for her partner, she cares more about his high status. Cheryl and Ruby also focus on status as a criterion in tactically choosing a partner. For example, when Ruby first sees new, French student Rahim, who is considered very attractive and has a mysterious background, she immediately tells her friends, “He will be my boyfriend, okay?” and flirts with him (“Episode 2.1”). In “La Grande Illusion”, Cheryl strategically manipulates football captain Archie to escort her to family events by supporting his music career. It becomes obvious that she has no feelings for him when he announces he is leaving and she threatens, “If you leave, the radiant sun that is the Blossom family stops shining on you. … You may not want anything from me, but you do from my mom and dad. That’s why you’re here.” This outlines the Mean Girl’s
cynical belief that people use each other to get ahead in life, which she accepts and practises herself.
“I’m a Bitch”
To maintain her grip on power, she brings others down – she is mean. The Mean Girl “is battling for social status,” as Oppliger puts it (24). In other words, she has realised she must compete with others in the social hierarchy to wield power. The Mean Girl “want[s] power at all costs,” according to Jessica Ringrose (415). In other words, she is ambitious without consideration for and even at the expense of others. Her aggression is directed at her peers, including the members of her own clique (Oppliger 20; Cecil 268). While they target everyone, other women are “their primary victims” (Ringrose 415). How the Mean Girl seldomly attacks men suggests that she is aware of the greater difficulty and risk of challenging men in a society that favours men and is designed to keep them in control.
To bring someone else down, she damages their image or relationships through manipulation. This is part of relational aggression, with which the Mean Girl is most associated. Wiseman accordingly asserts that through “manipulation” the Mean Girl “reigns supreme over the other girls and weakens their friendships with others, thereby strengthening her own power and influence” (25). Manipulation requires knowledge about human behaviour and about where people are vulnerable, which indicates how the Mean Girl skilfully controls her peers like a puppeteer. And like puppets, unaware of the strings that pull them, the other students do not notice that they are being manipulated by her – or only when it is too late. For instance, in Riverdale’s pilot, when new student Veronica questions Cheryl’s authority during cheerleading practice, she invites Veronica, Betty, and Archie to her party. Having noticed that Betty is in love with Archie, Cheryl makes him and Veronica go into a “Seven Minutes in Heaven” closet, where they kiss, thereby destroying Veronica’s new friendship with Betty.
Similarly, Ruby manipulates another female student: “I told her that Jordan secretly liked her and that she should ask him to the dance” and watches the other embarrass herself by approaching the popular athlete, getting rejected, and running away crying (“Episode 1.5”).
The Mean Girl’s strategy is thus effective but unnoticeable, which makes it difficult to expose her as responsible. She therefore does not have to fear repercussions. After all, she does not do anything but brings others to commit the actual offense: Veronica is the one who kisses Archie, and Ruby’s fellow student humiliates herself. “She manipulates the girls around her, often pitting one against the others …,” Oppliger asserts (21), which indicates how the Mean Girl rather makes her peers weaken each other while she appears innocent.
These two examples not only indicate how the Mean Girl uses her schemes to empower herself but also that she enjoys them – manipulating others “partly for sport and partly to maintain control,” in Oppliger’s words (21). This is evident from how Cheryl comments smilingly, “I’m in the mood for chaos” before inviting Veronica, Betty, and Archie to her party. Similarly, Ruby smiles while watching her fellow student embarrass herself and afterwards comments laughingly, “Poor thing.” In short, her manipulation skills in combination with her disregard for others’ feelings provide her with control and pleasure: It is her game and her peers act like she wants them to, which allows her to maintain her powerful position.
Apart from indirect methods, she also verbally attacks others directly to increase her social status, which previous studies of the Mean Girl have neglected (e.g. Oppliger 19, 259;
Cecil 266). Her comments usually target, firstly, others’ social status. During assembly, Ruby tells new student Rahim, “These people are insignificant,” referring to unpopular “Sex Kid”
Otis and his friend Eric, and that he “may sit with” the Untouchables instead, which emphasises what a privilege their company is (“Episode 2.2”). When students from the poor south side of town transfer to Riverdale High, Cheryl insults them as “Southside scum” and
“ragamuffins,” telling them to “find some other school to debase with your hardscrabble ways” (“The Blackboard Jungle”). Along with their social status, she thus also criticises what she considers their ragged, poor clothes. This suggests how the Mean Girl’s disapproving comments, secondly, target others’ dress, which is linked to class. Gwynne also underlines
“the role that fashion plays in … Poppy’s assaults on other women,” precisely “her comments on other women’s fashion choices” (81). Apart from her own mean fashion, the sartorial therefore plays another central role in this figure’s meanness: She turns others’ dress into a weapon that she uses against them. For example, Ruby calls Olivia’s bag “fake” (“Episode 1.5”), and Cheryl tells Veronica that her “mother has to sink to such unspeakable lows,” of collaborating with a gang member, “just to keep those knockoff Hermès bags on your arm”
(“The Last Picture Show”). While such disparaging comments on dress and social status are effective in bringing others down and asserting superiority, they are generally regarded as petty and traditionally associated with “catty” fights between women.
This meanness towards others leads to the Mean Girl’s image as Bitch. After all,
“Teenage Bitch” is often used synonymously for this trope. This aligns with Mittell’s assertion in his research of complex characters on television that “an aggressive, morally questionable female character … is often viewed as more of an unsympathetic ‘ball-busting bitch’,” in contrast to a similar male character (“Characters” 150). This stresses the afore-
mentioned sexism of the term Bitch. Indeed, today many women attempt what Sherryl Kleinman et al. call “reclaiming” the term by “using it among themselves in a positive way,”
including as a casual term of affection (58). It is commonly used in popular culture, especially in music, as an empowering term (54f.). Examples of this are Britney Spears’ “It’s Britney, bitch” and Megan Thee Stallion rapping, “I’m that bitch” in her song “Savage.” However, Bitch is still also used as a gendered insult (51), referring to someone who “has been
‘insensitive’ to a man or a woman,” so intentionally hurting feelings (59). It is this version of Bitch that is employed for the Mean Girl, also by other fictional characters. For example, Olivia says that Ruby is “such a bitch” (“Episode 1.5”). The Mean Girl indeed uses explicitly the negatively connotated label for herself. Blair accordingly says in Gossip Girl, “Haven’t you heard? I’m the crazy bitch around here” (“Much ‘I Do’ About Nothing”). Moreover, the top of Cheryl’s cheerleading uniform has HBIC for “Head Bitch in Charge” printed on the back, and in “The Outsiders,” she wears a crop top that says “bitchy” on the front. Both she and Ruby are aware of how their behaviour is perceived, as Cheryl tells Archie, “People hate me, Archie. … that’s fine, whatever” (“La Grande Illusion”), and when Ruby is asked, “What girls hate you, Ruby?”, she replies, “All of them. I’m a bitch, Maeve. I’m a bitch to everyone”
(“Episode 1.5”). This illustrates how they knowingly embrace this label.
Why does the Mean Girl, who so carefully constructs her image, accept and even foster her reputation as Bitch? She in fact uses it to her advantage. Indeed, Kleinman et al.
deny the possibility to reclaim the term since it still serves as “a means of social control of women, benefiting men” (59). This is because it suggests “that what a woman is doing is of no challenge to men, or to patriarchy”: Bitch is used for a “woman who fails to live up to feminine standards – which sounds like a real threat – but her grievances aren’t taken as seriously as a man’s (she’s just a bitch)” (61). In other words, the term works to harness deviating behaviour by putting it into an accepted frame, incorporating the unruly woman back into the patriarchal system. While not desirable, it is therefore nevertheless acceptable for a woman to be a Bitch – it is a sanctioned type of female aggression, which can be dismissed as just bitchiness.
The Mean Girl has seen through this oppressive function of the term and instrumentalises it. Framing herself as a Bitch with all the term’s negative connotations, so being underestimated and appearing non-threatening, means she is ultimately accepted within the patriarchal framework. “The ‘bitch’ has no real power; she can wear the word as an individual, but … it is not part of a movement,” according to Kleinman et al. (61). That holds only partly true for the Mean Girl. This Bitch has power: She does not try to be part of a
movement but just seeks individual empowerment, which she achieves because being a Bitch allows her to get away with her behaviour. She has thus found a way to make use of an oppressive stereotype to gain power – within accepted limits – by being on the side of the oppressor. The Mean Girl thus complicates the concept of the bully because meanness is here also a way of declaring defeat to the phallus.
This chapter has shown the Mean Girl’s cynical worldview and how she sees through the patriarchal system. To maintain a high position in the social hierarchy, so to be powerful, she makes use of everything she can – first and foremost the sartorial, which she employs to create an image of herself as glamorous and superior yet deceivingly innocent. She also unscrupulously manipulates and attacks other people, using them to her advantage, including those who consider themselves her friends. She is indeed a master manipulator, who controls her image, her peers, and even instrumentalises the very features built into the social system to keep women from rising to power. The Mean Girl thus walks a fine line between empowering herself and appearing harmless to the phallus, exhausting the limits of acceptable dress and behaviour as much as possible without violating them. She has therefore found a sweet spot where she is protected and even experiences pleasure through manipulating others.
This chapter has already indicated how she makes use of her femininity – specifically of stereotypical ideas such as the apparent insignificance of roles like prom queen, “bitchiness,”
or insults targeting the sartorial – which the next chapter explores further.
2. Hyperfemininity and Female Rivalry
This chapter explores the second central characteristic of the system of dress that is mean fashion: The Mean Girl dresses in a way that it hyperfeminine. In other words, it examines how she takes the connection between fashion and femininity to the extremes. She employs sartorial means to construct a specific kind of femininity that is desirable in patriarchal societies and consequently useful to her. Using Riviere’s notion of the masquerade and Vinken’s contribution regarding the role of fashion in this, this chapter demonstrates how the Mean Girl not only creates an image but performs it.
The Mean Girl uses her mask of femininity to deceive and hide what the last chapter has established as her “masculine” meanness, her role as a Bitch. The following also uses Wolf’s theory of the beauty myth to examine how the Mean Girl deliberately complies with patriarchy’s scheme to subjugate women and how she indeed instrumentalises the beauty myth. To be precise, she competes with her female peers and brings them down to secure the success of her masquerade and maintain her powerful position.
Fashion has traditionally been associated with femininity. In the eighteenth century, men’s dress ceased to convey a difference in class status and instead “became a harmonizing and homogenizing uniform” intended to differentiate men from women, which John Flügel termed the “Great Masculine Renunciation” (Silverman 140). In her article on the sartorial and gender roles, Kaja Silverman argues that since then, “sartorial sobriety” and “modesty” have defined male dress (139f.), whereas women have been linked to fashionable dress and
“spectacle” (141). She concludes that dress above all serves to highlight sexual difference and thereby define gender roles (148). Indeed, “Fashion and femininity have become synonymous,” agrees Vinken (37). The Mean Girl makes use of this intimate connection, carrying the sartorial’s function as a marker of sexual difference to the extremes. She not only wears spectacular dress and expresses her interest in fashion, which is already considered typically feminine, but also highlights her femininity further.
To achieve this, she combines multiple aspects of dress that are traditionally considered feminine in Western societies. After all, the Mean Girl prefers the traditionally feminine garments of dresses and skirts. Fabric details like ruffles, lace, or ribbons often add to the feminine appearance. Cheryl, for example, wears a red short-sleeved skater-style minidress with a black belt (“The Blackboard Jungle”). Apart from denim miniskirts, Ruby