In the early 2000s, teen girls were constantly at war with one another.
Stories of girl-on-girl bullying filled the self-help section of every Barnes & Noble. In 2003's Please Stop Laughing At Me, writer Jodee Blanco recounted how as she was cast out from social cliques as a teenager and once found her shoes thrown into a urine-filled toilet bowl by mean girls. Odd Girl Out identified a inner aggression in girls, one that had them constantly competing with each other in “a perverse game of Twister.” While Phyllis Chesler’s Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman noted that women “judge harshly, hold grudges, gossip, exclude, and disconnect from other women.” In 2002, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story with the title “Girls Just Want to Be Mean,” quoting researchers who found that girls treat “their own lives like the soaps, hoarding drama, constantly rehashing trivia” and adore traveling in predatory packs for “entertainment value.”
But one book emerged particularly triumphant in a sea of writers dissecting teen girls’ wrath for each other: Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. Published in 2002 by teacher-turned-writer Rosalind Wiseman, Tina Fey used the book for the basis of her 2004 film Mean Girls, cementing high school bitchery in the teen comedy canon. “This was something I feel that I could write about,” Fey told the website Blackfilm in 2004, about adapting the book to film. “And because it was about girls. And it was nasty and violent. And that appealed to me,” she added.
The book was more than just a chronicle of adolescent nastiness; it further solidified an image of the all-American girl as a frivolous cipher in a miniskirt. “In this book I will teach you to develop or restart your girl brain,” Wiseman writes early on in Queen Bees and Wannabes. “If you can learn how to be her safe harbor when she’s in the midst of Girl World conflicts, your voice will be in her head along with your values and ethics.” Wiseman’s book was transparently written for parents, specifically those exasperated by their daughters. The teen girl, in Wiseman’s world, was constantly walling herself off from her parents, turning away from the authority of her home and towards the authority of girls she identified as Queen Bees, the very girls who ran the cliques at school.
This is Queen Bees and Wannabes claim to fame: a dissection of how cliques work so extensive it rivals the Tony Soprano dynasty. There’s the Queen Bee (the leader, of course), the Sidekick, the Banker (the gossip keeper), the Wannabe, the Torn Bystander, and so on, all of whom move in a predatory pack that can kick out and isolate a girl the moment she refuses to obey its arbitrary rules.
It’s easy to see why Fey was drawn to Queen Bees and Wannabes, though the film was a dramatized version of the book (for example, the assembly where girls are asked if they’ve been personally victimized by a Queen Bee is a real thing, though Wiseman has the girls write down their thoughts anonymously) the straw teen girl Wiseman draws is like a vortex in which every stereotype of her generation swirls.
In “Girl World,” girls are constantly comparing themselves to one another, pining for what each of them has whether they be body parts or material goods. They want to be popular. They constantly call each other sluts and bitches. They take sexy selfies with duckfaces. But while at points Wiseman acknowledges that these girls don’t necessarily create these values out of nowhere, she doesn’t let girls off entirely. “Who is the prime enforcer of these rules,” she writes of the “girl world police.” “The movies? Magazines? Websites? Yes and no. What is often overlooked is that it is the girls themselves who are the enforces of these cultural rules in their day-to-day lives.”
It’s not that Wiseman doesn’t make strong, respectful efforts to bring in actual teen voices. She does, with a group of “girl editors” who offer anonymous commentary, as well as the quotes of many teenagers whose real-life dramas bolster Wiseman’s points (“I have never met a person who thinks she’s pretty,” Joni, 15, says). The book has also been updated several times; its most recent iteration tackles privacy on social media (including Snapchat, which is basically dead to teenagers) and includes a more intersectional focus on how experiences differ in terms of race and class.
But even in its updated version, and with the voices of her girl subjects, Queen Bees and Wannabes is still an inadvertently hilarious relic of the girl hate panic of the 2000s, a potential camp classic the likes of Go Ask Alice. Tips on how to find your daughter’s music by typing in “name of the song followed by ‘official video’” into Youtube or an incorrect assertion that creepypasta is a “game” can be endearing. Wiseman’s overly clinical approach to her subjects gives way to a self-help book that seems forever fixed in the early aughts, one which paints “Girl World” as a perpetually frustrating, mysterious place, where simultaneously oversexed and self-hating youngsters run rampant.
Wanton Queen Bees come to Wiseman for advice with “stick straight hair” and Ugg boots. Imaginary straw girls pine for high heels and new jeans in order to be socially accepted, and there are detailed instructions for parents on how to handle eye-rolling and lying. “Imagine you now have an eighth-grade daughter and you’re sitting in the living room on a Friday night,” Wiseman writes. “You can see that she’s wearing a really short skirt, knee-high boots, and a shirt held up by two strings. You want to go ballistic.”
But why go ballistic? There are serious issues to crack in Wiseman’s “Girl World,” including dark passages on how to get your daughter to leave an abusive relationship or figuring out if she has an eating disorder. But the stakes are always presented with a tone of deep seriousness, no matter the situation. Everything is a crisis, including a tank top. In one section, Wiseman outlines how parents can handle their kids using technology, whether it’s a cellphone or the family computer. She suggests a “technology contract” might be the best way to keep a teenager from wilding out online and even includes a drafted version of one in the text. “If you’re a religious family, make this an opportunity to show the relationship between family and religious values and sign it in front of your religious leader,” she writes. “If you aren’t religious, consider signing it in front of a notary,” she adds. In another section, Wiseman advises parents not to cry in front of their daughters when they’re angry. “Girls tell me they don’t usually feel sorry for you,” she writes. Way harsh, Tai!
The camp of Queen Bees and Wannabes also comes from the fact that, in a small way, it arguably did the opposite of what it intended, as the book, along with others like it, fueled a larger pop culture obsession with bitchy mean girls. “Girls’ anger should not be other people’s entertainment,” Wiseman writes. Yet after the genre soared to popularity, series like The Clique and Gossip Girl glamorized the systems Wiseman her fellow writers were trying to critique. As the golden age of reality television began to boom, the shouting, tear-stained faces of fucked up BFFs like Lauren Conrad, Paris Hilton, Tiffany Pollard, and a legion of Real Housewives were filling the screen, dragging the most outrageous examples of “Girl World” well into adulthood. In pop culture, famous “sluts” seemed to get sluttier, and their God-loving counterparts only got saintlier.
Even today the term “mean girl” has become a sexist insult in itself, hurled at any woman who criticizes another woman. If you’re a critic who thinks Taylor Swift’s new song is bad or doesn’t think highly of Melania Trump, you’re suddenly labeled a petty mean girl, no matter if you’re an adult. The definition of who exactly a “mean girl” has extended so far beyond the high school that it’s essentially meaningless, a catch-all for any woman who has an opinion about another that isn’t fuzzy adoration. Grown women using grade-school terminology like “mean girls” and “cliques” to define criticism fuels the idea that women speak from juvenile emotions and not intellect; when they speak to criticize they’re just jealous, they’re ranting, they’re just mean.
“Girl World” today looks much different than it did when Wiseman wrote her book, even with updates. Towards the end of the 2000s, the stony pillars between good teen girls and bad teen girls that dominated the breathless writing on them seemed to crumble. Rather, a sense that girls (and women) aren’t the enemy, but rather a broader culture that pits them against one another, began to brew. “Girl hate is not hating someone who happens to be a girl,” Tavi Gevinson wrote on her website Rookie (which, full disclosure, I also wrote for) in 2011. “It’s hating someone because we’re told that, as girls, we should hate other girls who are as awesome as or more awesome than ourselves.” In 2013 writers Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow coined “Shine Theory,” writing “it is a conscious decision to bring your full self to your friendships, and to not let insecurity or envy ravage them.” Slut-walks across the country revitalized the idea of slut-shaming, and now, stories about the gooey power of female friendship dominate pop culture more than Queen Bees and their trailing Wannabes.
The insecurities and bullying teen girls face has not gone away, but the media’s pained fixation with how teen girls prey upon each other, like wild animals, has subsided for now. Queen Bees will likely always linger in the hallways of high schools no matter the era, but it’s safe to say they’ll never incite as much fear as they did when parents got their hands on Wiseman’s book.