IT'S A TRAP: Mean Sluts Girls

| Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Today's Tune: Heart

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP!: Slutty Mean Girls

Mean girls are a topic I've written about before, here and here. Before I go further, let it be known that I don't think we should abandon the Mean Girl trope. I actually kind of love the Mean Girl trope. I use it. I think it can create great tension and character growth.


As with any character, the Mean Girl can be poorly done, and she often is. She functions as a foil to the protagonist, but often only in the most superficial possible ways. The protagonist is sweet and virginal, so the Mean Girl is a nasty-mean slut. This is a poor execution of a foil. A character foil is not the exact opposite of your protagonist, though they can (and should) have some opposing qualities.The point of a foil is to accentuate qualities in another character, not just be the "bad" to the main character's "good." Like John Watson to Sherlock Holmes. The best antagonistic foils are often characters who were presented with similar options to the protagonist, but made different choices and became the person the protagonist decided not to be. Think Harry Potter and Tom Riddle.

Anyway, the particular subject I wanted to address with this IT'S A TRAP! is the tendency to 1) make the Mean Girl a cardboard cutout of vapidity and cruelty, and 2) accentuate her "badness" by making her slutty, tarty, flirty, scantily clad, etc. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, bullies are boring when they're jerks for no reason. Yes, some people act nasty for no discernible reason, but it's so much more powerful when you understand the reasons behind the behavior. There's a certain attractiveness behind giving your bully-ish characters a human side. Cordelia and Spike from Buffy. Draco and Snape from Harry Potter. These are characters who are bullies on the surface, but house much deeper waters that makes them oft-beloved among their respective fandoms.

Because, let's face it, people love redemption. It's confusing and thrilling to be able to cheer for the "bad" guy as well as the "good" guy. Or girl, as the case may be.

Now, about that whole bad girl = slut thing. I'm sure you've read all the arguments about why this is awful and harmful before, so I'll be fairly brief. Frankly, it's not okay to use sexuality to define a girl's "goodness." When we do this, we are giving credence to the idea that a girl who expresses herself sexually is somehow wrong. Dirty. Bitchy. Slutty. Mean Girls are often portrayed as flirting with anything male, wearing "slutty" or ill-fitting clothing, and using sexuality as a weapon. When the "good" protagonist is portrayed as virginal and unwilling to "give it up" quickly or without proper commitment, it sets up the stigma that having sex makes you a bad person. That you can't be both sexually active and responsible, or kind. That you can't maintain a monogamous relationship, or that your character is in question if you decide to take more than one partner.

This is harmful to the overreaching psyche of the collective teenage girl. What are these young women supposed to think when the pages of books are filled with virginal "good" main characters and skanky, manipulative Mean Girls? What does that mean for a 16-year-old who just started having sex with her long-term boyfriend? What does that mean for the girl who's had sex with several partners and still dares to consider herself a good person? What does that mean for the girl who wants to have sex but is terrified that doing so will make her a slutty, nasty, mean, bad girl?

How To Avoid This Trap

Fairly easily: humanize your Mean Girl. Make her a real person, not a source of overzealous snark and jealousy intended to make everybody just LOVE the protagonist by comparison. Push harder.

Also keep in mind that sexually active teenagers exist, and they are overwhelmingly regular kids who are just trying to figure life out. We should be mindful of the message we're portraying with our character choices. Abstinence or sexual activity is a personal choice that depends entirely on the individual, and characters should reflect that. Are these characters who would choose to abstain, or who would choose to have sex? Neither choice automatically makes them a good or a bad person. It just makes them a person.


{ Magan } at: April 4, 2012 at 6:36 AM said...

For some reason I find the need to go against stereotypes for mean girls. In How to Date an Alien she was an hipster enviornmentalist and in How to break up with an Alien she is a big rugby playing girl. Neither are slutty, but both a little mean and funny.

{ Keri } at: April 4, 2012 at 8:22 AM said...

I don't find that mean girls in fiction are always sluts but I do find that it's annoying how often they seem to hate the protagonist for no particular reason. What's up with that? It seems so often these characters are written to get under the reader's skin but they can become a major reason why someone doesn't like the book, instead of being an affective means for conflict.

Ursula Kerr at: April 4, 2012 at 9:10 AM said...

Yes to all of this. Mean girl cutouts are frustrating enough without the "slut" label attached to them. It's even worse when she's meant to be there as yet another prop to a protagonist's super speshul snowflake.

I think one of the better examples of Mean Girls I've found is in Every Other Day. She was a popular cheerleader, but she wasn't antagonistic just for the sake of it. It was really refreshing.

{ prerna pickett } at: April 4, 2012 at 10:21 AM said...

very well said. What about a 'slutty' MC and a 'good girl' antagonist? That would be a nice change of pace.

{ Old Kitty } at: April 4, 2012 at 12:49 PM said...

"Humanize your mean girl" - I think you've nailed it there!! Take care

{ Rachel } at: April 4, 2012 at 1:36 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
{ We Heart YA } at: April 4, 2012 at 5:52 PM said...


We could not agree more. And we think it's really important that writers avoid this particular trap (more so than other traps) because of the incredible repercussions for young girls everywhere.

Well said! Thank you for writing this.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: April 4, 2012 at 6:18 PM said...

Thank you for all the insight and shares, you guys! Much appreciated!

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: April 4, 2012 at 6:59 PM said...

*fist pumps*
right on maybe!
lots to think about here!

{ linda } at: April 4, 2012 at 9:16 PM said...

Great post! Totally agree with you that the mean girl shoudn't be a cardboard cut-out.

Prerna's comment reminds me of Janette Rallison's All's Fair in Love, War, and High School. The protag isn't really slutty but she IS a snarky blonde cheerleader who isn't afraid to go after guys she likes, and her rival is a girl who's as sweet and wholesome as apple pie. I thought the book was brilliant!

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