This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Girls—usually teenage girls—spend most of the story fighting, hating on each other, and calling each other names. In spite of both participants being female, gendered insults like “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore” tend to crop up. Brace yourself for boyfriend stealing, backstabbing, and gossip. The most basic set-up is the geeky outsider/new girl versus the mean popular girls, though there are plenty of variations on this.
A few things that are worth noting here is female rivalries are not the problem. It is possible to have a rivalry between two well developed female characters that drives the story forwards, creates tension, and serves the development of both characters. To differentiate productive rivalries from Girl Hate, let’s lay out a couple of the distinguishing characteristics of the latter:
- Girl Hate usually involves a sympathetic female character squaring off against a “mean girl” with few redeeming characteristics. Rather than a well-developed antagonist, the nice girl is battling a stock character.
- The nice girl’s grievance with the mean girl are strongly gendered. The reasons why we hate the mean girl usually boil down to her being “slutty,” gossipy, or catty.
- We are also expected to take issue with the mean girl’s appearance. She is prettier than the nice girl, wears make-up, and has expensive clothing.
- Boys are the crux of the problem. The nice girl’s victory is generally sealed by her securing the boy’s affection.
- Girl Hate often chokes out strong, positive female friendships. The nice girl often bonds with her friends over their mutual hatred of another girl. Alternatively, the nice girl doesn’t bond with anyone and spends the whole story with a clique of backstabbing popular girls.
- So basically, the main warning sign of Girl Hate is that the story looks kind of like an unfunny version of Mean Girls.
Is Girl Hate bad? Is my story bad if it includes Girl Hate?
Nothing is inherently bad. However, Girl Hate does present a few problems, both in terms of writing and in terms of how women are portrayed. Let’s walk through some of the pitfalls.
Everyone has seen the mean cheerleader archetype. She’s prettier than the protagonist, gets away with everything, and has no real friends. If she gets any real depth, we’re usually treated to the shocking revelation that she’s acting out because she’s lonely and insecure. She’s familiar, but she isn’t a terribly interesting person.
Stock characters can be a useful tool, but they tend to make for boring main characters and to limit the narrative possibilities. Stock characters fit neatly into stock narratives. Developing the mean girl into a real person with complicated needs and wants not only makes her believable as a human being, but opens up new directions for you to take your story.
Likewise, this kind of story is a shortcut to cardboard boyfriend syndrome. It’s rare for him to be developed past “cute, funny, and smart.” (Think about it—in Mean Girls, what do we know about Aaron Samuels besides that he’s bad at math?) Not only does this make the love interest hard to care about, but it also limits the possibilities for the story, since he often lacks the motivation or agency to make any consequential decisions.
Unlikeable, Snooty Protagonists
The mean girl is unpleasant, but usually pretty benign. So when the protagonist starts going off about what a horrible backstabbing bitch she is, unless we’ve seen her do something particularly vile, the supposed nice-girl starts to look judgey and unlikeable. This tends to seep over into straight-up hypocrisy. The nice girl attacks the mean girl for being sexually active, usually as she (the nice girl) attempts to win over the mean girl’s hot boyfriend. The nice girl attacks the mean girl for being shallow, usually coming to this conclusion based on the mean girl’s outward beauty. The nice girl attacks the mean girl for being, well, mean, but isn’t actually any less catty, judgmental, or gossipy.
This is made worse if the nice girl continues to be treated like she’s a genuinely good person by everyone else in the story, causing the reader to lose sympathy for her.
Angry Feminist Problems
The two main criticisms of the mean girl often hinge on her sexuality and her personal appearance.
As mentioned, among the other gendered insults, she’ll usually be called a “slut” or a “whore,” even if we never see her having sex. So first, this gives the idea that based on someone’s appearance or social standing, it’s alright to make any kind of assumptions about their sex life. This also plays into the all too common perception that attractive women haven’t really earned anything, but must have slept their way to the top. Because she’s attractive and women *only* ever look good so that they can appeal to men, it’s safe to assume that the only reason she’s popular is because she sleeps around—does any part of this sentence not sound regressive?
Second, if she really is having lots sex, so what? Unless you’re writing a story about the evils of non-procreative sex, it doesn’t make any sense to demonize women who enjoy sex. This is especially damaging in YA novels. Rather than opening up difficult questions about emotional readiness or what it means to be sexually active, Girl Hate primes young women to have an unhealthy relationship with sex.
The mean girl is unlikeable and shallow, and we know this because she wears make-up. Make-up has picked up a bizzare stigma over the years, and has inexplicably become shorthand for fakeness, shallowness, and so forth. In real life, there are a number of reasons why people of all genders wear make-up. For some people its part of their personal style. For some people its part of their gender expression. For some it’s a nice confidence boost.
When we stigmatize make-up—and in particular, in this case, women who wear make-up—we move back to the regressive idea that women are only dressing up to be the object of male gaze. More than that, though, is the underlying notion that it is somehow okay to police what women wear. Make-up shaming is a way of telling women what they can and cannot put on their faces, and of taking away their agency by attempting to control their appearance.
A while ago, I wrote an article about female protagonists who are Not Like Other Girls. Girl Hate functions similarly. The nice girl protagonist is raised up, but only by putting down other women and suggesting that certain forms of femininity should be looked down upon. It’s a lesson in how to hate other women. Rather than embracing all forms of femininity, we learn that there is a good way to be feminine (which coincidentally, tends to co-opt more traditionally masculine behaviors) and a bad way (which is closer to traditional femininity). This type of narrative also feeds negative female stereotypes (girls are catty, girls do nothing but gossip, girls are melodramatic), which perpetuates the drive for authors to keep trying to distance their female characters from traditional femininity by making them Not Like Other Girls.
Moreover, what about the readers who are peppy blond cheerleaders who happen to like eyeliner and designer jeans? What do they read?