21 July 2020

The Problem with Writing about Mean Girls

Funny how you can write a story, revise it, edit it down to a certain length, read it again before submitting it, proofread it before it's published, and even read it once more after it comes out, but when you read it yet again five years later, you're surprised by what you see.

That's the position I found myself in last month when I prepared to read my story "The Wrong Girl" at an online DC Noir at the Bar. The story was published in October 2015 in the anthology Flash and Bang: A Short Mystery Fiction Society Anthology (Untreed Reads Publishing). It was a finalist for the Derringer Award in the flash category in 2016. I had been proud of the story. I still am, but there was a bit of language in it that caught me off guard when I read it fresh last month.

The story is about a fifth-grade girl in a private school who's humiliated by her teacher, so she and two friends decide to make her pay. Little do they know when they're planning their revenge that they're not the only ones in the girls' bathroom. A custodian is in there too. Here are her relevant thoughts:
It wasn't the first time I'd heard kids plot against their teachers. Usually they were simply blowing off steam. But sometimes, like now, I could tell the kids meant it. In the past, I'd reported them to the principal. The result every time: parents were summoned, the children pleaded they'd been joking, and the incidents were swept under the rug. No punishments. No consequences. 
Not this time. Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything. I couldn't let that happen again. This time, I'd let the plan move forward far enough that the authorities would have to act.

Finally, justice would be served.

Did you catch the wording that bothered me when I read it fresh last month? Maybe not. Maybe you were swept away by my story and the words blew right past you. But I caught them: "Mean girls who faced no consequences grew up to become mean women who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The italics are added here for emphasis.

When I read this sentence last month I was struck by how sexist it sounds. Are there no mean boys? No mean men? Why hadn't I written the following instead? "Mean children who faced no consequences grew up to become mean adults who thought they could bully everyone and get away with everything." The story certainly would have worked just as well with those substituted words, and that's how I read it at the Noir at the Bar last month.

But the original version, with the "mean girls" and "mean women" language, is still out there. I've tried to think through why I used wording that makes it sound like girls and women are the only ones who can be mean. Did I use those words because this is a story about girls who are mean, as well as a female teacher who is mean, and I was just being very focused? I hope so. But maybe I had gotten lazy and relied upon a stereotype.

We hear all the time about mean girls. They're in the news. On social media. Heck, there's a movie called Mean Girls and a Broadway show based on that movie. I did a Google search for the term, and got 14 million results. But a search for "mean boys" only yielded 171,000 results. I did a more specific search for news articles about mean girls and got 141,000 hits versus one about mean boys, which got 1,100 hits.

What does this all mean? Are girls meaner than boys? I doubt it. I would think all children and adults have the same capacity for cruelty, regardless of their sex. So why is there so much focus on mean girls throughout our society? I'm sure sociologists have probably studied the phenomenon and could give an answer. I don't have one.

I also don't know for certain why I used those words: Mean girls. Mean women. I would hope, as I said above, that I chose those words because my story was about a mean woman and mean girls. But that raises the question: Why did I write a story about mean girls instead of mean boys? And not just this story. I've written several stories involving mean girls or women.

Another one of my
stories about mean girls,
"Evil Little Girl," can
be found in my collection
These stories often sprang from incidents in my life, and since the incidents involved women and/or girls, I was probably more inclined to create related stories about females. I likely also made these choices because I once was a girl and now am a woman, so I probably have a better grasp on how women think than how men do. My decisions to write stories about mean girls and women also probably stemmed from the fact that we hear so much about them, as I also said above. Maybe the more I hear about mean girls, the more I'm inclined to write about them. All of these reasons probably played a part in my choices.

All of the "mean girl" stories I've written are good (I hope). They're entertaining while also making good points about societal issues. But I fear that by making these storytelling choices (choices of character, plot, and language) I may have helped perpetuate the sexist idea that it's girls and women who are mean far more often than boys and men.

I'm not going to stop writing about mean girls and mean women. It's a topic I'm too interested in (apparently), and I do enjoy writing from the female perspective. Besides, there are mean girls and mean women, so stories about them are realistic. But women don't have a corner on the meanness market. So I'm going to try to take a better look at my choices when I'm writing to see if a mean woman could instead be a mean man, and if it might be appropriate to refer to "mean kids" instead of "mean girls" and make other similar choices. If a story is written well enough, the reader may not notice one way or another. But words can have power, seeping into our psyches, even when we don't notice them. So I'm going to try to do better.

If you're interested in reading "The Wrong Girl," you're in luck. The ebook version of the anthology it's in, Flash and Bang, is half off this month at Smashwords as part of their Christmas in July ebook sale. Go to https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/583654, where you'll be able to pick up the ebook for $2.50.

And before we get to the comments, a little blatant self-promotion: My story "Alex's Choice" from the time-travel/crime anthology Crime Travel was nominated last week for the Macavity Award for best short story published last year. And Crime Travel (which I also edited) was recently nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology/collection published last year. If you'd like to read "Alex's Choice," it's on my website. If you'd like to read the whole of Crime Travel (which I recommend), you can find the book in trade paperback, hardback, and ebook from lots of bookstores. Stories in Crime Travel have been nominated for the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and Shamus awards, so clearly there's a lot in there for you to like.


  1. "Mean girls" is like "gossiping old women" - stereotypes that have been handed down through the years to keep women in their place, and provide a reason to discount what they say. Men are assertive, women are aggressive; men are ambitions, women are bitches; that kind of thing.
    Congratulations on your nominations!

  2. I just read Alex's Choice _ what a good story! Best of luck with the voters!

  3. I wonder how many results would have shown up if you had googled "bullies" instead of "mean girls"?

  4. Eve, yes, I think you're right. I'm reminded of the wonderful movie Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant. When she gets good intel from other contestants it's discounted by her boss as gossip from a "pajama party." That scene always bothered me because this was the exact type of information she was sent in to get from the very people she got it from, people who were in the know behind the scenes. It felt very clear that because they were women, the boss thought the information was useless. I know that him saying that was a necessary means to an end. They needed an obstacle so Bullock's character, offended, would essentially quit so she could stay on at the pageant alone to try to protect the contestants. But I wish they hadn't chosen a sexist way to do it. (Though maybe it was good. Maybe it opened some people's eyes.) Anyway, thank you about the nominations. It's much appreciated!

    Janice, I'm delighted you liked "Alex's Choice." Thank you so much for saying so. And my fingers are crossed about the nominations.

    Jerry, I just ran a Google search. Bullies yielded 282 million results. But that doesn't give any indication about whether the hits are predominantly about girls/women or boys/men or if they are about even.

  5. Barb, thank you for this very thoughtful review of one of your earlier stories. I've never gone back to read one of mine but now I think I will. This might be a good exercise for those of us who've been in the business for a number of years, to gauge how our awareness and writing have changed over time.

  6. When we examine our work from the objectivity that time provides, we often realize we can improve, change and do a better edit. But we're all just human. So don't beat yourself up. I'm certain when the story was published, it fit the times. But the times they are always changing.

  7. Valid point. The perspective you get from seeing something through a different lens is insightful. I hope none of your characters were also named Karen. ;)

    And as they say, hindsight is 20-20. My word, I'll never be able to sit through an 80s teen rom-com movie again and they were old favorites back in the day.

    Congrats on the Macavity Award nomination!

  8. Barb, to me, "mean girls grow up to be mean women" (and "mean boys grow up to be mean men") is a stronger phrase and stands out better than "mean children grow up to be mean adults." For the purpose of the story you were writing, I think you were correct to use the phrase you did.

    Unfortunately, you are also correct that perception of the sexes has been biased (for centuries). As the literature changes, perhaps the perception will slowly change.

    Best wishes on your nominations.

  9. I read your post with great interest because I'm revising my own WIP. This is SO relevant! Also trying to keep an eye out for my unconscious racism – ugh – and other bias. It's hard, but it is work we (well, I) need to do. Thankyou!

  10. I think the idea of "mean girls" and "mean women" is sexist, but almost in a reverse way--women traditionally have been held up as kinder, gentler and more virtuous than men, so it gets more attention if we see them bullying or undercutting one another. I think men probably assume women stick together and get along well, except when they're rivals for the same guy ("catfight!"). Would we even talk about aggressive boys or men as mean? It's taken for granted that males give each other a hard time, from childhood on. That's supposed to toughen them up (like that's a great thing). Most of the tricks young women pull on each other don't compare to the ritual hazing, ugly name-calling, and "sissy"-bashing that goes on among guys.

  11. Susan, you're welcome. I hope your trip down story memory lane is a good one.

    Thanks, Jacqueline. I'm not beating myself up. Just doing some analysis, looking for ways to improve. Thanks for stopping by!

    Kris, thank you! The main character in my unpublished novel is named Caren, but it starts with a C so that makes all the difference. ;) I can sit through some of the 80s teen movies and romantic comedies, but it's with an awareness that sometimes makes them less enjoyable than they once were. Some of them hold up better than others. And sometimes I can shrug off the parts that bother me and accept the movie for what it was: of its time.

    Thanks, R.T. for your kind words and helpful comments. Others have said today on Facebook that they thought the more specific words had more force to them than the more generic ones and they fit the story better, so they thought my original choice of language was the right one. It very well could be that I chose them for that very reason when I wrote the story six-ish years ago, but I don't know as my memory is not what it used to be. It is unfortunate that sometimes an author can be forced to make choices between what's best for the story and not perpetuating a stereotype. As with you, I hope society can change enough that these concerns won't be a concern anymore.

    Clea, I'm happy to be helpful, so you're most welcome. Good luck with your revision. These are challenging times we're living in, but I think putting in the work will be worthwhile for all of us.

    Epona, thanks for your comment. Food for thought indeed. I wish we could reach a point where we didn't think it was so common for boys to treat each other so poorly. One day, I hope.

  12. Well, this is an interesting post, Barb! My first thoughts are: when you say Mean Girls, we women who went through girlhood know exactly what you mean. There is a certain type of meanness, often to do with exclusion, that may be quite different from the way boys react with each other. If you say mean children, it doesn't give the same instant recognition. You'll have to explain it more.
    I recognize that these are stereotypes. I also worry about thought police. No conclusions here. I just continue to worry...

  13. That is a very interesting point, Mel. You're absolutely right. I hadn't thought of it that way. And I went through exclusion, exactly what you're talking about, when I was in junior high. Interesting ...

  14. Isn't this parallel phraseology? "Mean girls = mean women". "Mean boys, mean men". If it had been "Mean kids, then maybe mean people"?


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