The campy, ultra-feminine bitches of Y2K-adjacent high school movies live large in my head to this day. Growing up in the early 2000s, I quickly learned that a slow-motion walk in high heels and a tight shirt usually meant we were about to meet a girl that we were not supposed to like. She is attractive, she knows it and she’s probably going to be very mean. The Regina Georges, the Tom-Toms and the Heather Chandlers all exist in direct opposition to the “down-to-earth” girls who act as their foils, spewing out scathing one-liners while we root for their downfalls. Lately, I’ve been revisiting those mean girls whose evil cuts one level deeper: The ones who diss your outfit and then literally stab you in the chest, or try to eat your heart out. Through these monster mean girls, I found a way to confront my own.
I want to make a clear distinction right off the bat: I’m not talking about the women in horror who get to throw a couple of insults in before getting the “all sluts must die” trope treatment. These are the women holding the knives. They’re not outcasts a la Michael Myers or, to keep it in the realm of high school horror, Carrie. They’re lip-curling, sneering popular girls whose high school powers are akin to a lesser god. In fact, Jawbreaker sees its monstrous mean girl state flat-out that she is a god with the power to create and destroy.
The 1999 film’s Courtney (Rose McGowan) is about as unforgivably evil as it gets. Now, Jawbreaker wasn’t well-received when it debuted, and the time since certainly hasn’t done the script any favors. But slurs and plot points that have aged like milk aside, the movie is clearly leeching off the sort of salaciously evil mean girls that came before—Courtney sociopathically ruling the school with an iron fist, never once showing remorse for her high school crimes as she works to cover up the fact that she accidentally murdered her best friend. It’s a moment of uncomplicated victory when Courtney’s former best friend, Rebecca Gayheart’s Julie, receives a de-bimbofication and ultimately engineers Courtney’s downfall.
If you’ve been primed to hate the girl who rules the school, it doesn’t come as a shock when the general public isn’t so smitten as she kills the teen dream. Part of this is by design, of course: Courtney and her cohorts exist for the very purpose of society’s raised eyebrows and upturned noses. Their skimpy and ultra-girly personas range from the dumb blonde to a cold and calculating supervillian. They embody everything I was against when I was determined to align myself with the low-maintenance “cool girls” that stand to oppose and defeat their enemy stereotype.
It’s worth noting that a cult following, particularly in the LGBT community, exists for this movie and many others that share its kitschy, bitchy attitude: Jawbreaker was even treated to a screening at RuPaul’s DragCon. While the movie was generally a flop, it’s not entirely surprising to find it reclaimed by a community that celebrates the draggish ultra-feminine; the cringey camp and shocking dialogue can be either the crowning moment or nail in the coffin depending on the cultural lens one brings to these characters.
Cult followings aside, plenty of popular renditions of this type of girl have popped up in the mainstream since. Mean Girls, though not horrific, helped consciously put the trope into the public eye when Regina George (Rachel McAdams) defined it. Without Courtney and Regina—or even films with similar vibes, like Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II or Heathers—I highly doubt about half the characters in the Ryan Murphy cinematic universe would exist.
Murphy has almost single-handedly kept this archetype in the public eye in recent years, particularly in Scream Queens and American Horror Story: Coven. Even from his early work on Glee, Murphy has shown an extraordinary fascination with cocky and power-hungry women, especially in the context of the Game of Thrones that is high school popularity. From characters like Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) to Emma Roberts’ portrayals of Madison Montgomery and Chanel Oberlin in his later works, he loves those lean mean blonde machines that challenge the dynamics of the found families they belong to. While their body counts and supernatural killing abilities differ, Murphy’s muses play out the tropes of the mean girl with a broad spectrum of self-awareness that’s hilarious, delightful and horrifying all at once. I, like many others, love watching this trope play out in the Murphyverse and beyond. The man has a talent for casting actors so charismatic in their delivery of satirical bitchcraft that laughing either at them or with them throughout each series feels equally satisfying, even if I hadn’t totally made up my mind on what these characters meant to me. It wasn’t until the particular wit of Coven left me with a craving to revisit Jennifer’s Body that I fully began to dissect my own fascination with the archetype.
When it comes to (literally) man-eating popular girls with devil-level evil inside of them, no other character holds a lighter to Megan Fox’s Jennifer Check. After mismarketing of both the film and Fox contributed to Jennifer’s Body flopping, it’s been rightfully reclaimed as another cult classic. Yet the reductive “Megan Fox = hot” lens that contributed to the movie’s initial negative views is also what makes it work as well as it does—she arrives on the screen and we’re instantly informed of who this character is supposed to be, and it’s made all the better by the complex dynamic between Jennifer and Needy (Amanda Seyfried).
Aside from the instant signifier delivered by Fox’s typecasting, Jennifer’s Body is by far the least campy and glamorous of our examples. Perhaps this is because Jennifer arrives from a fairly different source: While some of these monster mean girls have come from gay male directors, writers and showrunners, Jennifer’s Body was helmed by women. Directed by Karyn Kusama and penned by Diablo Cody, Jennifer’s Body’s different creative perspective makes for some stark changes in style and content. Other hero and villain girls are either outright enemies or begrudging friends who spit fire at each other at every given opportunity; Jennifer’s Body is an exploration of the eerily deep, intimate and unhealthy friendship between Jennifer and Needy, who in any other movie would likely be presented as natural enemies. We learn about Jennifer through Needy’s eyes, and that coloration does something different than a perspective fueled by hatred or jealousy. While themes of complicated sisterhood or bicuriosity are common in all of these movies, they’re most effective in Jennifer’s Body because they add a human element to Jennifer even while she behaves more and more like a monster.
While Ryan Murphy sometimes tries to justify why his women act the way that they do, Jawbreaker makes no such attempt. But with Jennifer, we know exactly why she’s left the realm of toxic friendship and “high school evil,” and gone into “real evil.” An Adam Brody-led band has violated and sacrificed her body to the devil in exchange for fame and money, but something went wrong and left a demon inside her. Suddenly, the movie becomes less about how cruel girls can be and turns into a rape-revenge fantasy. Here is where Jennifer’s Body differs from so many other examples of the trope: It doesn’t feel good when Jennifer dies. Sure, the snippy banter between Jennifer and Needy as they have their final showdown is good for some laughs amid the horror, but there’s no feeling of victory like when other mean girl villains get their just deserts. Even through the gore and heartlessness as Jennifer kills likable characters like Colin or Chip, it’s harder to blame her than her compatriots of the genre. Instead, the comeuppance comes during the final credits when we see Needy avenge her friend—and the rest of the school—by murdering Adam Brody’s band.
My own experience with the mean girl trope went through a drastic change when I revisited Jennifer’s Body. I was a preteen at the height of Glee’s popularity—the perfect age to soak up that show without any cynicism or criticism—and I absolutely detested those shallow, power-hungry hot girls that made up half the cast. But the slight diversion of form that comes with Jennifer’s Body made me check some of my internalized misogyny at the door. I don’t mean to sit here and girlbossify Jennifer Check, but watching Needy try to help her—even as she does horrible things—helps humanize the demon within. In a story that’s ultimately about a complicated friendship, I wondered why a five-second slow-mo shot of Megan Fox as a cheerleader was such an effective tool in setting the audience up to both lust after and hate her. These mean girls are meant to be the culmination, looks-wise, of the perfect woman, and we are full of resentment over the fact that she knows and weaponizes it.
These monster mean girls are easily hated (in their fictional worlds and our own) not only because of their horrific actions, but because we dislike their ambitious, cold and calculating behaviors that, in a male-centered narrative, might be admired and celebrated. The hyperbole of the prom-queen-turned-killer helped me examine the ridiculousness of my resentment towards hot pink and vocal fry. Like the rest of my cultish cohorts following these films, I’ve found a lot of joy in reclaiming a love for girliness through these femme fatales’ bitchy attitudes and glammed-up personas. Simultaneously easy to love and easy to hate, the monster mean girls now hold a supernatural claim over my heart.
Carli Scolforo is a New England journalist and intern for Paste Magazine. She loves late-night TV and reading celebrity memoirs, and never truly left her emo phase. You can follow her on Twitter @carli_sco.