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?
The stereotype doesn’t bother me at all. Sometimes people are just mean for the sake of being mean. Sometimes stereotypes are needed in a story, especially in a first person narrative. If a girl is being bullied and she’s the one telling the story, she’s going to see her bullies as a stereotype because why should she care of getting to know WHY they’re like the way they are?
However, if the heroine is thrust into a situation where she’s forced to work with her bully (school project, saving the world, whatever), then it might be nice to see a little insight on the bully and why they are the way they are. Or maybe discovering they have something in common, whatever.
But if they’re just wallpaper for the story, then yea. Stereotype is totally fine.
Exactly! Which is why I stand by my Barbie Squad exactly as written.
I still think that, given how small a part of the Red story the Barbie Squad was, some of the critical focus they got was just…odd.
That said, I’ll speak to the question of why do people want to see the larger story behind the creep, something that gives reason for their behavior.
For me, besides just being more interesting, it’s about what I want to believe about people, and about the Universe. I actually don’t want to believe that some people are just evil.
I want to believe it’s a choice,
I want to believe there are things behind the choosing of it.
I want to believe those people can change and choose something else.
If there is no choice, it makes judgment more confusing. Can you judge someone who had no choice? I like to be judgey.
If there is nothing behind evil, that makes it seem both senseless and absolute.
If there no chance that people can change, that represents a loss of hope.
It may be that I don’t see things as good guys vs. bad guys, but as everyone dealing with the balance of good and evil within themselves, and within others.
When you show a character acting evil in a way that’s familiar to someone, are they rejecting the idea that it’s evil because they can’t be evil, or are they rejecting that part of themselves they don’t want to see? If you presented that familiar character in a way that expresses no sympathy or openness to understanding on your part for that dark and damaged part of them, doesn’t it make sense that they reject your presentation?
Not saying one should always give a sob story behind every written jackhole. Not saying people or characters are entitled to have you or anyone else making constant excuses for their bad behavior. Just trying to throw some ideas at some of the questions you raised, which were interesting to me in my ridiculously philosophical mood this morning.
Going deeper might be ANOTHER story, but if it doesn’t fit (or matter) to the story you’re telling, then NO. Don’t examine these characters just to fluff up your word count or satisfy people who are just trying to find something critical to say. Critics will find something to say. And they, too, exist in the real world. 🙂
No matter how you portrayed those mean girls or how deep you got into their reasons for behaving as they did, SOMEONE would criticize it. Some people just enjoy criticizing a book (or anything). Going deeper into the motives of those girls wouldn’t further your plot in any way that I can see. The story was about Elodie. So her reaction to the girls was what mattered, not what those girls were thinking or feeling.
“True Evil” is actually exceedingly rare in the grand scheme of things. It’s the little, daily micro-evils that accumulate to break even the thickest skin sometimes. Personally, I had no issue with the Barbie Squad; did Joss Whedon get flack for Cordelia and the Cordettes when Buffy first hit TV? It took YEARS for Cordie and Melody to make redemption. Red happens in what, a few weeks or a couple of months? Far as I see it, the Barbie Squad were a colorful, useful sidenote that served its purpose.
Consider yourself vindicated. 😉
I really want a Like button for Cate’s comment.
Agreed, lf lt doesn’t flt the story, no. But lnterestlng toplc. l was bullled because l wasn’t from a prlveledged famlly. l never told my parents about lt untll years later, when l dlscovered several workplace bullles. l hate bullles because of thls. l thlnk the stereotype ls flne and as for bullles ln flctlon and whether l want the author to go farther, lt depends on the story. And now l want to read Red.
I thought this was an excellent post Kait. I had a tough time at school and there were plenty of mean girls trying to make my life a misery. And I do think you’re right that people often live up to the stereotype. I’m so glad I don’t (usually) have to come into contact with people like that anymore.
Sorry for chiming in so late (lots of interesting comments above!). On the weekend I was watching the original “Carrie” with “Chris” who is just a mean girl. We are given no explanation of why she acts this way out of potential jealousy and the desire for revenge. It made me think about this post. I didn’t want to know more about the mean girl, I didn’t want her sob story. Yes, it’s sad that there are people like that in our world, but there are – I think all of us have encountered a few in our lives. People who are mean because they can be, whatever their motives.
Perhaps what becomes more significant than the character are their actions. Like when teens bully others to the point where the victim commits suicide. This doesn’t mean the bullies were necessarily evil, but the action may have been. And as writers, perhaps that’s what we need to examine. Art as a reflection of society.
Anyway, interesting post. 🙂