The best Mean Girls are almost exclusively written by women, which is of course because a Mean Girl is not the same figure of fear for boys. Mean Girls are only ever mean to boys in passing – their targets are other girls. The highly economical one-sentence put-downs deployed by Mean Girls have the power to leave scars that will endure for decades, shuddered over occasionally and quickly shut away again. Female writers understand – they may even bear such scars themselves – and so they are able to write such fabulously Mean, Mean Girls. The ultimate genius for this was, as with so many things, Jane Austen. She had an eye for the pointed punchline herself and each of her novels have at least one female character with sharp verbal claws. It’s not true that meanness is an exclusively female quality – I have known several very mean-spirited boys but the Mean Girl is not to be trusted, she may seem sweet as sugar but she is the false friend, she is looking out for herself and she will turn on you like lightning. Be warned.
In Mean Girls, the nice teacher, who as I recall was played by the ever-wonderful Tina Fey, tells the girls after the Burn Book breaks out that girls have to stop calling each other sluts and whores, because this makes it all right for guys to call us sluts and whores. This is very true. Anne Boleyn had her reputation destroyed five hundred years ago when her husband’s chief advisor fabricated charges that she had slept with five men including her own brother. The world has never really stopped embroidering on her reputation since then. According to legend, she was mean, she tried to kill Catherine of Aragon and the Lady Mary. She had six fingers, she had a weird Adam’s Apple thing, she was a witch, she conjured up the devil. She stole her sister’s boyfriend, she seduced Henry away from his wife and child, she deserved what she got. She was a Mean Girl who got hers. It’s weird how non-fictional historical figures can gather up accepted tropes about their personalities over the centuries so that we feel as though we recognise them when they pop up. Similar examples include Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville. We remember Jane Seymour as the Good Girl with the gentle spirit, which makes Anne Boleyn the nymphomaniac Mean Girl. Neither was exactly true. Beware attaching the Mean Girl label too quickly.
Emma Woodhouse is an example of the Mean Girl who doesn’t even know that she’s mean. Selfish, arrogant and convinced of her own superiority, Emma heartily believes that Emma Knows Best. Of course, Aunt Jane repeatedly points out that she does not. Unlike Regina St George, Emma is not inherently spiteful but the way that Emma steamrollers over Harriet and is horrible to Miss Bates who she has known since childhood in order to impress Frank Churchill, that is Mean Behaviour. She does Learn From Her Experiences but first of all she has to feel ashamed of herself. Overbearing and interfering, Emma Woodhouse is the Queen Bee.
Mrs Elton puts Emma Woodhouse in the shade for unpleasantness. She is the sugary sweet kind of mean, making those winsome little barbed comments that drive you bananas but which poor Emma can never quite nail down as mean. Patronising and predatory towards the unfortunate Jane Fairfax, Mrs Elton holds her ‘happily married’ state to ‘Mr E’ over others – speaking as a single woman, there are many of this type out there and they don’t even recognise their own awfulness. I was chatting away happily to someone I had not seen in a while and excited to tell her fresh developments in my life, when she put her head to one side and said gently, “So, you’re still single then?” Never mind that I was so happy and enjoying what I was doing, I was still an object of pity in her eyes. I never liked that girl as much again afterwards. The reader pities Mr Elton for his foolish choice but more than anything, Austen makes clear that Mr Elton is not the prize that Mrs Elton believes. Emma concludes with Mrs Elton still overflowing with opprobrium towards a world which had moved on past her without a single glance – nobody cares what she thinks of Emma’s wedding. Smirk all you want Mrs E, nobody’s listening any more.
Katie-Scarlett O’Hara is perhaps the classic Mean Girl – she doesn’t even like other women and they certainly don’t like her. Except for Mellie of course who adores Scarlett (and although it takes Scarlett a ridiculously long time to realise it, the feeling is mutual). Ruthlessly manipulative and with a killer survival instinct, Scarlett is prepared to tell any lie and to plight her troth to any man when the situation demands it. None of the Plastics would have stood a chance against her. To be frank though, I am a little loath to put Scarlett on this list at all because in a tight spot I would definitely want her around but there is no doubt that she would be a scary lady to cross. In general in literature, the positive resolution comes when the Mean Girl is punished/redeemed – Scarlett’s finale is just plain tragic.
In many ways, Bellatrix bypasses meanness and goes straight to pure Evil. Unlike Rita Skeeter who is motivated by ambition or even Umbridge whose personal road to Hell is paved by her twisted good intentions and racial intolerance, Bellatrix is driven by spite and her own sexual desire for Voldemort. Helena Bonham Carter pulls off a fantastically excessive performance in this role. It is so strange though that for a series that is set so much in schools, it is very light on the mean schoolgirls – compared to Malory Towers et al, they are very scanty. Lavender Brown may have her moments but she’s more stupid than spiteful and Pansy Parkinson is simply an air-headed idiot running after Draco Malfoy. JK Rowling is too dismissive of either of these for them to be a serious threat and in general this series skips over many of the mundane aspects of high school for the flat out fighting for one’s life. Bellatrix is vicious and cruel and when Mrs Weasley takes her down, one senses a wider victory as Mrs Weasley’s domestic determination overpowers Bellatrix’s perverted and sadistic desires.
Isabella Thorpe is the Queen Bee who you meet at school, who showers you with affection and then abruptly withdraws her favour when you step out of line. She visits her friendship upon the naive Catherine Morland, pulls Catherine’s brother and then abruptly flips when she gets a better offer. Isabella is infuriated to discover that Catherine has betrayed her by befriending Miss Tilney, that their ‘old friendship’ of barely two weeks is being superseded by this person who Catherine of course barely knows. Isabella is a figure familiar to all of us who went through high school – cross her to your cost.
Nellie Oleson is the first fictional Mean Girl who I can ever remember hating. She is rude to Laura’s Ma, mean to Jack the Dog and she makes fun of Laura. This is just what she does as a child in Plum Creek, when she reappears in De Smet in Little Town on the Prairie she is downright awful and tries to steal Laura’s boyfriend (and eventual husband) Almanzo. Actually, Nellie is just a consolidation of several Mean Girls who Laura knew growing up but the result is certainly memorable. Nellie chummies up to the teacher Miss Wilder then gossips behind her back, flirts shamelessly with Cap Garland and complains constantly about the West – her every action seems geared to cause offence. Yet to a certain degree, one senses that this is Laura’s perspective, that Nellie represents someone who Laura personally loathed but there are hints every so often that the other girls in Laura’s class have more time for Nellie and that this may (just may) be more to this. Or maybe not. Maybe Nellie is just a pure Mean Girl.
Caroline Bingley is not only Austen’s best-known Mean Girl but in my view, she is also the Grand High Supremo overall. She hits every single criteria; she is the false friend to Jane Bennet and drops her like a brick when it suits her, she is patronising and tells Elizabeth that her society is too limited to have met truly accomplished women and she back-stabs any women in her way in her quest to win Darcy’s heart. I think that the ultimate Miss Bingley is Anna Chancellor but it does interest me how every single adaptation adds an extra layer of awful. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has her snobbishly extolling the virtues of macrobiotic food and using the power of Youtube to spin things to her own advantage. The ‘uneven’ prequel Follies Past hits its high point when it imagines Miss Bingley enjoying Christmas at Pemberley and doing her best to come down hard on the servants since she expects to be their mistress soon. I did laugh imagining the staff of Pemberley breathing a collective sigh of relief when they heard that the master would not be marrying the dragon lady after all.
Miss Bingley receives her due desserts however, her public denigration of Elizabeth leads to Darcy coming out in her defence and the startled disappointment on Anna Chancellor’s face was one of my favourite moments of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. She is left to the ‘singular pleasure of having forced [Darcy] to say what gave nobody any pain but herself’ and will have to ‘make up every arrear of civility to Eliza’. Caroline Bingley did not want to share either her brother or Mr Darcy and her comeuppance is that she ends the book with nothing at all. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to be sorry about that.