I’m thinking about mean girls this week. Not because I’ve had any kind of run-in with trolls or anything. Actually because I’ve been deciding what to do about a woman in my novella. I originally cast her as a mean girl (TOTALLY had a particular real one from my past in mind when I did it), and then I got reminded about the flack I caught for using that stereotype in Red. So I’ve been rethinking this character and who I might want her to be as the series progresses.
One of the most often leveled criticisms of my YA novel Red is about the Barbie Squad and how they are too much stereotypical mean girls (and as I recall, I think I actually have my first person heroine spell it out and CALL them a stereotype). I am always baffled by this. They don’t play a big role in the plot at all, there’s no thread of redemption. They exist as the popular girls who give my outsider heroine grief–which is a real enough tactic of popular teens (male AND female) everywhere–just look at the latest reports of bullying, say…anywhere in our country. I did not feel the need to plumb their depths as characters (see previous statement about them having little role in the actual PLOT) to find out WHY they were being mean. It was a first person narrative. They weren’t about to be busting up in there and telling her whatever sob story they use to justify verbal abuse and teen torture. And certainly Elodie didn’t give a damn about the why when she was on the receiving end of their vitriol.
I know I didn’t when I was victim of mean girls (and boys, but usually girls) growing up. Their personal justifications didn’t matter to me. I firmly believe that nothing ever justifies cruelty to other people. And, frankly, not everybody HAS some kind of sob story driving their behavior. Some people are simply a-holes. It may be a matter of socialization–at home or among their social set.
God knows, I grew up in a privileged, upper-middle class setting. I was, technically, a part of the country club set. Except I was probably one of the only teens in that set who, as a member’s kid, had my first summer job there in the Teen Grill (around the pool). Some of the behavior I saw from other members’ kids was enough to curl your hair. Because as soon as I got put in that roll of server, I became LESS THAN to them. Something to be scraped off their shoe. Were these kids all bad apples? Probably not. More than likely they were emulating (in many cases, but definitely not all) the behavior of their parents. There’s no trauma here, no chips on their shoulders, none of the stuff that tends to add up to “well it sucks but this is why they are a jerk.” Just entitlement. Some people simply ARE asshats. With any luck and lessons from better people, hopefully they grew out of it.
Plenty of people don’t. Just get on the internet. You see evidence of pseudo-anonymous asshats EVERYWHERE. So when I see these criticisms lobbed at the book (or, in fact, almost any book that uses this kind of character), I get kind of ticked off, because they’re acting like these people don’t actually exist. Like we’re lazy writers for not exploring the depths of why these jackwipes are the way they are and giving them a chance to reform or something.
Sometimes they don’t reform. Sometimes they really are jerks, and that’s just the way it is. Denying them as a valid character type places an unrealistic limit on writers. As if we can only present the TRULY EVIL. Because people can look at the truly evil and say “oh no, that’s not me because that’s EVIL.” And maybe that’s it. Maybe the people who are squawking the loudest in protest see themselves in these mean girls, and they don’t like the reflection. Because I have a hard time imagining that anyone who’s ever been victim to a mean girl acting like the stereotype doesn’t exist.
So I’m truly curious and opening the floor. What are your thoughts on mean girls (and boys) in fiction? Does the stereotype annoy you? Do you want the author to go deeper, to explain things? Or do you find it completely believable that the person being bullied doesn’t give a rat’s pattootie why they’re being mean and doesn’t look below the surface of the harmful behavior?