When Mean Girls… Grow Up?

Last week I read a fascinating article in the Washington Post about mean girls — you know, those schoolyard queen bees who delight in belittling, ostracizing and otherwise tormenting their fellow classmates. You can read the full article and discussion here, but the gist of the story is this:  Real Housewives and Hollywood drama notwithstanding, most “mean girls” eventually grow up to be… well, actual (non-mean) grown-ups. Call it a case of developing empathy. Call it a case of being left in the dust when others do, recent studies suggest the end result is the same — bullies eventually outgrow bullying.

I found this research particularly interesting because as middle-grade writers (and fellow middle school survivors), we all know the playground can be one of the most treacherous places on the planet, heck, maybe even the universe. In fact, if Earth is ever invaded by alien forces, forget the army — just send a cadre of lip-gloss wearing, cellphone-wielding 12-year-olds to point out that a green glow, single giant eyeball and shiny space suits are soooo last year. Embarrass those little green men right back to their home planet.

All kidding aside, there’s good reason the “mean girl” (or boy) remains a popular character in middle-grade fiction. They’re real. Kids have to deal with them. Think nasty Wendy in Judy Blume’s classic, Blubber. Or Nan Marino’s hurting Tamara in Neil Armstrong is My Uncle. Almost every kid has encountered (or maybe even been) one of these characters at some point. And what better way to open an honest discussion about bullying — and remind kids that yes, this too shall pass — than with a book.

This got me to thinking… just what would become of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) literary mean girls if they were to leap off the page and actually “grow up”? Would Tammy become a space shuttle pilot? Would Wendy someday gain thirty pounds and apologize to Linda at their 10-year high school reunion? Do mean girls really change?

Looking back at my own childhood, I have to say, for the most part — yes. I still vividly remember the girl who tormented another middle school classmate for — no joke — wearing a plaid jacket to school. Then, there were the queen bees that got my sixth-grade class (and best friend) to shun me for an entire week (aka, eternity), simply because I failed to send them postcards on a daily basis from my spring vacation in Myrtle Beach. And of course, there was the poor soul whose underpants were flown up the flagpole (really) at summer camp.

Still, by the time high school rolled around, the plaid-jacket tormentor had faded into obscurity, the sixth-grade queen bees had gone their separate ways and no longer ruled the cafeteria. We outgrew summer camp. In fact, by the time we all graduated and headed into the real world, I don’t really remember any one group going after another anymore. And once our 20-year reunion came around, everyone was pretty much on even footing — jobs, kids, marriages, divorces, deaths and births, sorrows and joys. There was no one in the corner being ridiculed for wearing a plaid dress to the Knight’s of Columbus grand lodge that night. We all danced liked idiots, swapped stories, had a little too much wine and wondered where the time had gone. There wasn’t a bully in sight.

So, what do you think? What happens when “mean girls” grow up? Do they? If you could predict a future for your favorite literary meanie, what would it be? Go ahead, be creative. And while you’re at it — if you could go back in time and tell your middle-grade self how different things will be just a few years down the road, what would you say? Please, share with me in the comments below!

And, because we’re really all about the love here on the Mixed-Up Files, don’t forget to hop over to our Love Our Readers Giveaway. Today’s the last day to enter, so don’t wait!

Jan Gangsei
  1. Interesting post!

    The mean girls I see now have moms who are VERY afraid of their kids being bullied. These girls are encouraged to “move up” in the social pack. And sometimes that means giving up on old friendships.

    The film, IT’S A GIRL’S WORLD, is available to rent. It is the story of a tragic bullying case. Also: the filmmaker interviews a group of nine year olds. You will be shocked. After I witnessed a few kids picking on a student, I showed this film at my religious school. There were some parents that were VERY upset (the parents of the bullies)–but it really woke a lot of kids up.

    • @sarah aronson, Interesting perspective, Sarah — makes me wonder, what were the mothers of these mean girls like when they were kids? Were they bullies themselves? Or do they just somehow think (in a messed up sort of way) that by encouraging “meanness” in their own children they will protect them from being bullied? Sad, really. Good for you for showing that film — sounds like just the wake-up call that was needed. Hopefully other educators/parents/etc. are as proactive when they witness bullying behavior.

  2. I remember the mean girl of my youth all too well. It was 8th grade, and I’d transferred to a new school, and she picked on me for absolutely no reason. One day she stole my lunch, and the next day threw it back on my desk with a dead lizard inside. I left the school at the end of the year, glad to be free of her, and started at a new private school. In 10th grade, guess who decided to transfer there? I made the classic teenage mistake of talking about her behind her back to friends and sharing my experience, and such is Murphy’s Law, she found out and cornered me in a bathroom there and threatened me and pinned me to the wall and wrote “Loser” on my forehead, which I spent the next period in the bathroom cryoing and scrubbing off. Mean girls, in short, suck. However, this mean girl grew up, had a kid, got married, and from what I can discern, is now divorced and a single mom. I wish her well, but there is indeed always a lingering wonder what went on in this person’s life that she had to that me so much when I’d done nothing but simply exist. Of course, in the teenage realm, sometimes that alone is simply enough. I can’t imagine her being warm and fuzzy or us bonding today at a reunion and laughing off our past. I have to imagine if the seeds of jealousy or hatred or self loathing were that deep then, they still must exist in some form today. I can only look at who I was then, and despite that I’m not that insecure teenage girl now, it helped shape me into who I am in this moment. I think anyone dealing with a mean girl has to remember that there are things far below the surface in play that you can’t see, and that makes writing those characters so much fun. So that said, anytime I write athat kind of character, I channel her. 🙂

    • @Robin Reul, What an incredibly eloquent — and gut-wrenching — comment. Thank you for sharing your story. It really is hard to imagine what makes someone behave that way. Clearly there’s a lot more at play than simply trying to be “cool,” and I agree that whatever jealousy/hatred/self-loathing caused that behavior probably didn’t just go away (without some sort of therapy or intervention). You have such an amazing perspective, though — being able to wish her well and using your experience to dig deep into your characters. I suspect your stories are anything but one-dimensional! Best wishes with your writing :-).

  3. There are mean adult women, too; they just are sneakier and more devious. The upside to mean girls is that 30 years after high school, when they want to “friend” you on Facebook, you can hit “ignore”!

  4. @Brenda, @Wendy, Interesting point about the grown-up queen bees. I guess cliquish behavior doesn’t necessarily go away… although I must say I’ve met people who’ve seemed queen bee-ish on the surface, but actually turned out to be quite lovely once I got to know them. Like you both said, though, the beauty of being an adult is we get to choose who we associate with! And I figure at this point in life, if someone’s capable of only superficial, exclusionary friendships… well, that’s actually kind of sad more than anything.

  5. Wow! Thanks so much for including my book in your conversation. You’ve raised some really interesting points about bullying. I love what you said about high school reunions. Time is a great equalizer. Unfortunately there probably are adult “mean girls” out there.
    But kids make bad choices, people grow and change, and not all mean girls turn into mean adults. If I were to predict a future for a “literary meanie”, here’s what I think happens to Tamara. She turns out okay. She’s able to channel that strong sense of justice into a journalism career. She confronts heads of states, crooked politicians and organized crime bosses and becomes famous for her no-holds-barred approach to interviewing. She gives money to charities and rescues stray kittens. Her personal life? Well, that’s another story… 🙂 Thanks again for the book mention. Your post gave me a lot to think about.

    • @nan marino, Loved Neil Armstrong… and love your vision for Tamara. I can definitely see her chasing down heads of state, crooked politicians and crime bosses. Absolutely perfect! Thanks for popping in to comment :-).

  6. I have to agree with Brenda – we have queen bee syndrome around here. We lucky grown-ups can choose who we associate with, though. Kids in school, not so much!

  7. Sadly, I have come across plenty of grown up mean girls. Where I live, they are the moms of the popular girls, and they have their own cliques and act in their own nasty ways. The good thing is that as an adult, I get to choose whom to involve in my life. So those mean grown ups are sort of distantly entertaining to me at this point!

  8. Middle school was the most awful three years of my life because of bullying. I guess I wish I could have told myself that bullies bully for a reason – and those reasons are rarely ever the other kids they bully. Those reasons are insecurity, anger, and emulating what they learn (receive) at home. What I dislike in some novels is the one-dimensional portrayal of “mean girls” or “mean boys.” I think an addition to saying “this too shall pass” would be to delve into the bully character a tiny bit more and show the human side – the hurt and reactive side. It would give the reader (who may even be a bully!) some insight and maybe even give cause for empathy.

    • @LG, I agree 100% about one-dimensional portrayals of “mean” girls and boys. That’s one reason I really liked Nan Marino’s book. Tammy is not always the most sympathetic of characters — but she’s real, and you can see the pain that causes her to lash out at Muscle Man. By the end of the story it’s heartening to see her begin to develop empathy and learn to look beyond her own suffering.

      • @Jan Gangsei, I’ll definitely check out Nan Marino’s book! Thanks for such a great post & topic!

  9. I agree with this! I think middle school is so much worse than high school. By the time high school rolls around most people have their spot and their friends, security. I do think mean girls are the worst in middle school–and I personally have never encountered an out right vicious grown up woman, but I have heard tales…

    • @Jana Warnell, I have to say… I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a downright vicious grown-up woman, either. At least, not one that’s managed to be successful and have friends. Eventually, I think nasty behavior just alienates people. Most people I’ve known in my adult life have been helpful, kind and generous.