It’s been 30 years since I left school, and while the faces and names of many of my classmates are getting fuzzy, I still clearly remember the bullies.
Their names were Barbara and Leanne, and the mere sight of them in the corridor was enough to turn your blood cold. They’d saunter along, two abreast, shoving the younger kids into the lockers and taunting them to tears.
Back then, the official school policy for bullying was ‘just ignore it’, so your only defence was to quickly head the other way, or scurry past and pray they didn’t pick you out of the crowd. When they turned their vitriol on another hapless student instead, you’d literally sigh with relief it wasn’t you.
There was only one time I copped it – when I looked up at the wrong moment, and accidentally caught Barbara’s eye: ‘What are you looking at, you f***ing turd!’ she shouted. I knew better than to reply and kept walking, heart thumping out of my chest.
Mean Girls have always been a part of my life – firstly at school, and later in the workplace. They’ve almost been celebrated over time – immortalised in a thousand high school movies, coolness and meanness went hand-in-hand. It was almost an unwritten rule that you couldn’t be nice AND popular.
Just look at our pop culture references growing up: Regina George, Veruca Salt, Brenda Walsh, Miranda Priestly, Blair Waldorf and the ultimate bitchy witch – Nancy Downs from The Craft.
Which is such a strange quirk of humanity, don’t you think, that people feel they need to put others down to feel better about themselves?
I spoke to a psychologist a couple of years ago for my post on Sexism, Stereotypes and Sabotage and she explained it as a throwback to our prehistoric selves, when securing a mate (and therefore the best chance of survival) was literally a matter of life and death, so it was every woman for herself. She theorised that this ruthless ‘win-at-all-costs’ streak lingered in our genes to this day.
I used to think navigating the nasty girls was an inevitable part of life, but as I got older and wiser, it began to bug me that this behaviour went unchecked.
Why are girls so mean? And why are we accepting it, normalising it even? Worse than that… why is it being rewarded with the perks of popularity and success?
Already, I was seeing my young girls having to deal with these emotional bullies; passive-aggressive behaviour from their peers, resentment, rather than support and encouragement. It made me wonder – where are our young girls learning this behaviour? Was it something ingrained in their DNA, or something they were unconsciously picking up from the people and the world around them?
Which is why I’m thrilled to see a shift, moving in tandem with the important, vital and long overdue focus on both women’s rights, and the poisonous, systemic racial bias still woven deeply into our society.
The fact such awful things had to happen before change was forced (Harvey Weinsten, Jeffrey Epstein, the horrific mistreatment of black men and women both at the hands of the police and by society as a whole) is unforgivable, and something we will forever look back on with shame.
The only way we can mitigate these failings is to make sure things change and get better, that people change and get better. What went unchallenged yesterday is being called out today, and it’s exactly what society needs to ensure permanent, progressive changes are made, from the bedrock up.
People are scrambling to make moral amends, but, for many, the past is catching up with them; almost overnight, the ‘Mean Girls’ are being pushed from their pedestals.
One of the biggest was toppled even before this current social movement began: Clemmie Hooper was a power-blogger with hundreds of thousands of followers hanging on her every word.
A midwife, devoted wife and mum of four girls – including adorable twins – she was making a small fortune riding the social media wave, and could do no wrong. There were cushy paid posts, fancy press trips, lucrative book deals and high-powered podcasts – she was so successful her husband Simon jumped on the influencer bandwagon too.
But, in a blogging scandal that reverberated around the world, Hooper was exposed as the person behind poison pen-style attacks on a stream of fellow bloggers. The fall out was instant and brutal, and Hooper was overthrown as Queen of social media. Overnight, she was toxic to the brands previously scrambling to sign her for campaigns.
Seven months later, she’s still banished and only appears occasionally on husband Simon’s feed – an extra in the show where she’d once had the starring role.
In a not dissimilar situation in the US, Stassi Shroeder and Kristen Doute, from the scripted reality show Vanderpump Rules, have recently been sacked for a malicious prank played on Black former cast mate, Faith Stower.
It came to light that Shroeder had called the police to falsely accuse Stowers of being involved in a crime. Abhorrent enough on its own, but when other racially insensitive comments also came to light, it spelled the implosion of Shroeder’s tv career, and all the lucrative endorsement deals that came with it.
Both Stassi and Kristen have issued apologies, but the damage may well be too big to undo.
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Be nice to people on the way up, the saying goes, because you’ll met them again on the way down. Advice Lea Michele is no doubt wishing she heeded more closely, as she faces her own day of reckoning.
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It began with tweet from a former colleague calling her out on past behaviour, which prompted a raft of former colleagues to come forward with their own stories of bullying. She issued a quick apology, but it wasn’t enough to put out all the fires; even more people came forward to expose her as the Queen of Mean and several clients cut ties with her.
If she can pull it back still remains to be seen.
Even one of the nicest people on the planet (as were lead to believe) has fallen under the Mean Girl microscope:
Right now we all need a little kindness. You know, like Ellen Degeneres always talks about! 😊❤️
She’s also notoriously one of the meanest people alive
Respond to this with the most insane stories you’ve heard about Ellen being mean & I’ll match every one w/ $2 to @LAFoodBank
— Kevin T. Porter (@KevinTPorter) March 20, 2020
When a Twitter thread was started asking people to recount their tales of Ellen DeGeneres, thousands of less-than-flattering replies flooded in. Search yourself to see what you believe, but it’s a surprising spotlight on the comedian, who’s built her entire career around being the ‘goofy funny girl’ of the entertainment industry.
Most recently, Megan Markle’s (now former?) bestie, Jessica Mulroney, was publicly called out for allegedly threatening to have a Black blogger and influencer cut off from work opportunities.
Sasha Exeter had put out a call-to-action to support the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, which Jessica seemed to think was a targeted dig at her.
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According to Exeter, Mulroney then messaged the blogger appearing to say that, in response to the perceived shaming, she’d put in a bad word about her to companies and clients. Which might not sound dramatic, but when your income comes solely from online endorsements this could have destroyed Exeter’s livelihood
Instead, it’s Jessica’s career that has nosedived. As news of the attempted sabotage spread she was swiftly dropped from reality tv show she hosted, and several other clients cut ties too. She’s now stepped back from her social media to ‘reflect, learn and listen’.
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As distressing and shocking as recent world events have been, I have hope too – that genuine change is finally happening and, by the end of this, the world will be a kinder, fairer place.
I want my girls to grow up in a society where they can be ambitious and successful without treading on people to get there; where they are propelled forwards by encouragement and kindness, rather than held back by fear and intimidation.
A world where, finally, nice girls can finish first.
Have you read the ‘Five Life Lessons I’m Teaching my Girls‘?