Hayley Krischer is a journalist and author of YA fiction. Her debut novel, Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf, was a BookExpo Buzz Book pick for 2020, and selected for the 2021 Rise: A Feminist Book Project List by the American Library Association. Her new novel, The Falling Girls (Razorbill, Oct. 5), tells the story of a teen girl navigating toxic friendships. Here, Krischer discusses the appeal of the “mean girl” trope in literature and pop culture.

Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary was probably my first experience with a mean girl protagonist. She infuriated readers with her careless shopping, her repellent behavior, her cheating ways and her eventual abandonment of her daughter. But there was a refreshing element to this. I enjoyed Emma Bovary’s inability to censor herself. I liked her brutal reality. As the gurus tell us here in the 21st century, we have to be “selfish” to be “selfless.” Isn’t that what Emma Bovary was doing? Selfish? Sure. Callous? Okay. If she was mean—so be it.

There’s a plethora of literary mean girls who have stolen the spotlight and done what worked best for them: there’s Nellie Oleson in Little House on the Prairie, whose nasty remarks about Laura Ingalls’s bonnets and smocks made us all cringe. Some have made the case that Amy March in Little Women was a mean girl when she burned her sister’s manuscript. And then there’s Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whose demand “Where’s my Golden Ticket? I want my Golden Ticket!” propelled her into the mean girl cultural hall of fame.

All of these girls have one thing in common with their predecessor Emma Bovary: they take control of their own lives despite the judgment of others. “Mean girls” (sans a few exceptions) is really just code for rebellion, it’s code for girls who step outside the box. These are angry girls. Frustrated girls. They’re flawed girls. They’re misunderstood girls. They’re all girls who aren’t behaving in the way society expects them to.

In my new book The Falling Girls, I couldn’t resist creating a trio of mean girls. My main character, Shade Meyer, decides to join the cheerleading team, despite disgust from her best friend Jadis. Shade is drawn to the cheerleaders, and even more so to the group of mean girls known as the Three Chloes.

My initial intent in creating the Three Chloes was to do a take-off on the movie Heathers. But as I got more into the characters, as I wrote more about each of the individual Chloes, they became an outlet of emotions for me. I wanted them to be prickly, to stir up resentments. To give readers the kinds of feelings that you might have had in middle school. It turned out that Shade’s real struggle wasn’t with the Three Chloes; it was with her best friend—and herself. She felt like an outsider and wanted in. Shade was drawn to the Three Chloes because she wanted permission to do the same as them: to act differently than what was expected of her.

Much of my book collection looks like a homage to mean girls. There’s Bunny, Mona Awad’s MFA horror novel, whose protagonist, Samantha, is captivated by about a group of girls who all go by the name “Bunny.” Awad describes them with “nails the color of natural poisons digging into each other’s forearms with the force of what I keep telling myself is feigned, surely feigned, affection.”

That’s the key to the mean girl: she invites desire and disgust. She is either alone in her mean girl world wreaking havoc, or she holds the cypher, conjuring up trouble for outsiders.

Megan Abbott paints the portrait of mean teenage girls filled with anger and ready to destroy in Dare Me and The Fever. Beth, from Dare Me, is determined to keep a tight hold on her old cheer squad and her best friend, both of which have slipped away from her control. With Beth, the captain, the girl everyone “bows” to, Abbott creates a situation where her mean girl isn’t just mean to be mean. She’s more: she’s vengeful. Abbott gives Beth the kind of modern-day ammunition that Emma Bovary could never have in the 1800s. And that’s precisely what’s at stake here.

As Abbott told the Los Angeles Times in 2016, “[We’re] suddenly becoming more comfortable with the idea that girls can have aggressive and angry feelings.... And so we call them ‘mean girls’ just as a way to make it feel cute and safe and cozy.”

In Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, Nikki is the meanest of girls. She’s the destructive girl who humiliates people for fun. The kind of girl whose monster-like behavior covers up her insecurities and her secrets. In a small, but brilliant side chapter, Wasserman alludes to Nikki’s upbringing. Nikki’s mother is a classic narcissist, the kind of person who believes other mothers “were in a word, less, and it was no surprise that they raised lesser daughters. She pitied them all. Though some of the scenes in Girls on Fire go off the rails, the book is a perfect exploration of meanness in all of its glory.

Courtney Summers’s (author of The Project, Sadie, Cracked Up to Be and Some Girls Are) entire writing career is built around “mean” female characters—though she wouldn’t call them mean. Summers instead embraces her flawed characters, and isn’t afraid to shy away from their ugly emotional side. She dutifully gives her characters permission to be as messy and as mean as they need to be—no apologies.

The mean girl is usually a white girl, a girl who has been given all of the breaks in life and takes her anger out on others. But more recently, the bestselling author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé stepped into the mean girl arena with her character Chiamaka in Ace of Spades. Chiamaka is the Queen Bee of her very elite private school. Àbíké-Íyímídé told Marie Claire what went into her decision to create a marginalized girl of color into a mean girl. “I think people are going to already be critical of Black girls by nature, because we’re not seen as palatable enough for them anyway,” she said. “I think, especially with Black girls, we often need to shrink to smaller versions of ourselves and Chiamaka does do that, but at the same time, she kind of stands out so that she can win the same game that white girls are winning, but she knows she has to put in more work. So I think it’s kind of radical.”

I’ll take a radical girl any day.