So I’ve been thinking too hard about Chloe Bourgeois from ‘Miraculous Ladybug,’ and I had to write out why she and her fellow queen bees were so interesting to me. That train of thought led me to writing this meta post about teenage girl bullies in fiction.
I’m not a fan of the “Alpha Bitch” name for this trope on TvTropes, and queen bee is too cutesy, so I’m using girl-bully instead. It’s not a perfect replacement, but hopefully I’ll be able to make my argument all the same.
Characters mentioned include Chloe Bourgeois, Pacifica Northwest, Gretchen Wieners, Quinn Fabray, Cordelia Chase, Trixie Tang, and Rachel Green. The focus here is Western television.
The Purpose of the Girl-Bully
It’s important to realize that most stereotypical girl-bullies are plot devices, not full-fledged characters.
Fictional characters don’t just spring into existence and act of their own accord. They are created by real humans with complete control over their appearance, background, and decisions. More often than not, girl-bullies never grow beyond shallow caricatures because writers use them as convenient catalysts of conflict.
Many girl-bullies do rise above this purpose and get some self-actualization. It is thanks to these characters that we’re able to learn more about why writers use them and what they represent in media.
The Girl-Bully as the Pinnacle of Privilege
For a widespread fictional trope, the girl-bully has a very specific image. She is usually white, thin, feminine, beautiful, and above all, wealthy. You will be hard-pressed to find a girl-bully who doesn’t fulfill all of these criteria at once because these traits are what make her so desirable and sinister. She is literally the embodiment of privilege in every way (except gender but more on that later), and she isn’t afraid to use that privilege to her advantage.
The girl-bully is a challenging adversary because she abuses others with impunity. No matter how shallow, mean, and selfish she behaves towards others, the girl-bully will remain well-liked and secure thanks to her socioeconomic privilege. If she encounters a roadblock, she can retreat into her wealth and political standing to bail herself out and punish her enemies.
A few examples:
– Chloe Bourgeois in ‘Miraculous Ladybug’ uses her position as the mayor’s daughter to get a classmate suspended and a police officer fired. In both instances, it takes a minimal amount of whining to achieve her goal.
– Pacifica Northwest of ‘Gravity Falls’ tells Dipper “money makes problems go away” after he exposes her family as a fraud.
– In my favorite example ever, Gretchen Wieners from ‘Mean Girls’ uses her famous dad to lowkey pressure others into doing what she wants (“I don’t think my father, the inventor of toaster strudel, would be too pleased to hear about this.”).
The girl-bully is a useful plot device because she is an easy foil for the protagonist as well as an easy-to-hate villain. Haven’t you met someone who appears to get everything they want without lifting a finger? Haven’t you felt the injustice of being passed over for a job or prize because the competition was prettier, whiter, and richer than you?
While formidable, girl-bullies almost never turn out to be the Big Bad the protagonist must face. There’s a reason characters that ought to be untouchable are shunted to the side as one-off enemies or mere nuisances–because they don’t have any power at all.
The Girl-Bully as the Prisoner of Privilege
There’s a cage at the top of the social pyramid, and it’s reserved for the girl-bully. When I was researching this post, I constantly found examples of queen bee characters hiding their passions and pasts to keep their queendoms from crashing down.
A few examples:
– Trixie Tang from ‘The Fairly Odd Parents’ visits comic book stores in disguise because she knows being honest about her nerdy interests would jeopardize her popularity.
– Quinn Fabray from ‘Glee’ erases her middle-school history, including her legal first name, to conceal that she used to be fat because it would harm her high school image.
– Cordelia Chase from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ hides her relationship with Xander (ugh) even though she is in love with him because he is a loser and openly dating him would mark her as one too.
Notice how these examples are in some way or another wrapped up in sexism. Trixie can’t walk into a comic book store without crossdressing because comics are considered a boy’s hobby. Quinn can’t keep her first name because its a reminder that she wasn’t always attractive to the same men who later put her on a pedestal. Cordelia can’t openly date Xander because her worth is defined by the guy she is with, not by her own actions.
Withholding the things you love from yourself is an act of survival and desperation, not power. Girl-bullies only keep their privilege for as long as they support the status quo that gave it to them. Unfortunately, the system they benefit from was created by the wealthy fathers, brothers, boyfriends, etc in their lives, so they don’t really have control over their own privilege. They’re slaves to the status quo, forced to be a part of its preservation or else become its victim.
I’m not going to specifically explore how race and sexuality intersects with all this because I’m white and straight and I don’t want to step out of my lane. But considering the pattern of how girl-bullies must protect themselves by upholding the kyriarchy, I’m sure that stepping outside the white cishet mold would bring even swifter, more savage reprisals.
The Girl-Bully as a Commodity
So girl-bullies are powerful, but they are also insecure. Why do we have them then? What on earth are these paper tigers even for if they aren’t the irreproachable villainesses underdog protagonists (and lazy writers) make them out to be?
The answer is that the girl-bully doesn’t simply occupy a high status–she is a status symbol. She can’t truly be herself and keep her privilege at the same time because she is a thing, an object that other people consume. She exists to be used.
Sometimes the girl-bully becomes a walking, talking hood ornament for the wealthy dude she’s dating. Sometimes she’ll be used as a legitimate pawn for the real Big Bad’s schemes. And sometimes, she acts as an object for writers to push around and exploit for fanservice so even viewers can consume her, too.
As I dug into this topic, I found that many characters actually talked about themselves with objectifying and economic language, especially when discussing their popularity and wealth.
A few examples:
– Pacifica Northwest, who is trained like a pet by her parents, describes herself as a piece of a system she can’t control: “I’m just another link in the world’s worst chain.”
– Quinn Fabray views her fall from grace as similar to having her finances frozen: “Status is like currency. When your bank account is full, you can get away with doing just about anything, but right now, we’re like toxic assets.”
– Rachel Green from ‘Friends’ justifies her decision to leave her wealthy lifestyle by comparing herself to clothes: “It’s like all my life everybody keeps telling that I’m a shoe. You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe, you’re a shoe! But what if I don’t want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat… I don’t want you to buy me a hat, I’m saying I am a hat! It’s a metaphor, daddy!”
I could go on, but that would just serve to make me sad. Because these women know how little control and influence they have over their own lives. They know that their happiness and security is in the palm of someone else’s hands.
The Fate of the Girl-Bully
This pattern of girl-bullies being used and tossed to the side once they stop fulfilling their role isn’t exclusive to fiction. Girls get shunned for their choices literally every day, often with disastrous consequences. But their stories are rarely told unless it involves taking the girl who has it all and dragging her down to the mud. It’s her privilege, the very thing that kept her so safe and secure, that makes her downward spiral so interesting to watch.
That’s why this trope is everywhere, because the fun comes from knocking the girl-bully off her high horse, unmasking her for the powerless object she is, and delighting in her fall.
Humiliating teenage girls is pretty engaging content, I guess.
So now that we’ve gone over all this, where does this leave the girl-bullies themselves?
The character arc outcomes for the examples I’ve used are pretty diverse.
– Trixie Tang sort of becomes friends with Timmy Turner, but never acts like it in public because she wants to remain popular. This never changes, though it’s implied she married Timmy later in life.
– Gretchen Wieners never loses or compromises her popularity or status. She just moves to a new group–the Cool Asians clique.
– Rachel Green ditches her wealth and security in the very first episode of ‘Friends’ and spends the next ten seasons coming into her own socially and professionally. Her journey from ‘just a waitress’ to fashion executive is pretty awesome, Ross-related drama aside.
– Quinn Fabray is forcibly separated from her privilege when she gets pregnant, but after dating around and entertaining a punk phase she cleans up and goes to Yale. So I suppose she comes full-circle.
– Pacifica Northwest rejects her family and redeems herself by letting common people into her parents’ fancy party. She can’t pronounce the word ‘sharing,’ but she’s progressing.
– Cordelia Chase loses everything when her dad is busted by the IRS, so she starts over in LA to be an actress, only to become a secretary at a vampire’s detective agency, only to become a seer, only to be symbolically killed by an evil being (grumbleWHEDONgrumble), only to become an actual immortal fighting evil on a higher plane of existence.
And Chloe Bourgeois, the character who inspired this ramble post? Since ‘Miraculous Ladybug’ is so new, the jury is still out on her. I wrote in another post that I hoped she would grow like Cordelia, but Cordy goes through so much pain and suffering to achieve an end she doesn’t even want. She was stuck in the girl-bully narrative up until her character was written out of her show.
Now that I’ve unpacked all this, I hope Chloe follows a path similar to Rachel, which involved a lot of personal growth and independence without the constant humiliation that girl-bully story apparently demands.
“Why We Love to Hate Popular Chicks on TV,” ©lucyrne, originally posted November 2015