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Mean Girls are Real

My post today is part of a research paper I wrote for one of my doctoral classes. If you read one of my first posts called, To All My Shorties, you may have concluded that I’ve had my fair share of being called out for being a ‘little’ different. I do not claim that I experienced any kind of traumatic bullying. What I do remember from a very young age was the wrath of a Mean Girl. The full paper was around 20 pages, exploring Teenage Female Bullying.
The movie Mean Girls, released in 2004 has become a teenage classic. Highlighting the jungle that is teenage female relationships, as well as overall how to survive high school. Classic quotes have been memed, placed on t-shirts or even celebrated on certain days of the year. Maybe you’ll recognize one:

Karen: On Wednesdays we wear pink!
Damian: She doesn’t even go here!
Karen: If you’re from Africa, why are you white? Gretchen: Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.
Gretchen: That was so fetch!
Regina: You cannot do that. That is social suicide. *Damn*! You are so lucky you have us to guide you.

While these have become classics, the quote that is the perfect lead into my paper is from one of the main characters, Gretchen who exclaimed,

“I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me… but I can’t help it that I’m so popular.”

In the 1980’s, bullying research began to gain attention in the US, finding serious consequences for those being bullied, as well as, the bully themselves. The newest form of bullying called cyberbullying, is making the experience of bullying inescapable for victims. The findings of bullying behavior are startling. “Everyday 160,000 students stay home from school to avoid being bullied, and 30% of those bullied have brought weapons to school” (Lawrence & Adams, 2006, p. 67).
Bullying behavior of girls has gained attention since the 90’s. Catanzaro (2011) cited a study conducted by The American Association of University Women in 1993 that “80% of female students experience peer harassment at sometime during their school years” (p. 84). For girls, name-calling was seen in 5th grade, however other studies have found negative experiences as early as third grade (2011).
The most popular form of bullying among girls is defined as relational aggression, “where psychological and emotional attacks are prominent, where girls suddenly shun one of their friends for no apparent reason, thereby causing her distress” (Duncan & Owens, 2011, p. 306).
As the term implies, relational aggression is rooted in relationships. Unlike physical aggression, relational aggression behavior has various forms, including gossiping through spreading rumors, threatening a withdrawal of friendship, teasing, name calling, or intentionally leaving someone out. Exploring who these ‘mean girls’ are, aka bullies, shows they are indeed the same young women many victims want to be, the popular girls.
Popularity and Bullying
Bruyn, Cillessen, and Wissink (2010) explored the association of peer acceptance and perceived popularity in adolescence, reporting that being popular is a strong predictor for behavior that is aggressive and could result in a ‘popular bully.’ However, Duncan and Owens (2011) cited a study by Eders (1985) that showed being popular doesn’t mean you are liked. Bruyn et al. (2010) found this also to be true, but also those popular students may experience life both as a bully and victim. For a popular girl, they most likely have a buffer from being bullied in their ‘clique.’
There is a scene from Mean Girls that describes a popular girl:
Cliques are made up of a leader (in this movie, Regina), best friend, and those they cast as members in or out. Clique members or popular girls maintain power and status not only with rejected members, but also within members. A girl bully typically has a highly socially intellect, low level of empathy, but is also quite polite, and displays high self-esteem (Catanzar, 2011). This makes it hard for school administrators to pinpoint and intervene, as these girls bully use as author Catanzar (2011) described as ‘sugar-and-spice.’
Implications for School Leaders
School settings are the medium where the culture of popularity and ‘mean girls’ are kept alive. It is beyond just ‘girls being girls’ or ‘boys being boys,’ schools are legally obligated to act. Teachers are a crucial component to both the success rate of crippling bullying behavior and the actual continuation of it. When bullying is brought to a teachers attention, Thornberg et al. (2012) encourages them to genuinely listen to students and empower the ‘student voice.’ When this does not happen, teachers have been found to explain bullying behavior as ‘girls being girls’ or even worse, display bullying behavior themselves. Chapell et al. (2004) discovered university faculty down to middle school teachers bully students. This is simply unacceptable.
Yes, I would be included in the 80% of women who experienced a Mean Girl or two during my school years. Now as an educated and experienced school leader, I believe there were opportunities for teachers, administrators, and bystanders to intervene. I remember those specific moments when others, especially teachers, reinforced the bullying behavior to continue, and left me with the belief that it was just part of life.
So for all school leaders, take the words of author Catanzaro (2011) seriously, “Teachers are the books that students read most closely” (p. 97).


Adams, F. D. & Lawrence, G. J. (2011). Bullying victims: the effects last into college. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 4-13.

Bruyn, E. H., Cillessen, A. H. and Wissink, I. (2010). Associations of peer acceptance and perceived popularity with bullying and victimization in early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(4), 543-566.

Catanzaro, M. F. (2011). Indirect aggression, bullying and female teen victimization: a literature review. Pastoral Care in Education, 29(2), 83-101.
Chapell, M., Casey, D., De la Cruz, C., Ferrell, J., Forman, J., Lipkin, R., Newsham, M.,
Sterling, M., & Wittaker, S. (2004). Bullying in college by students and teachers. Adolescence, 39(153), 53-64.
Duncan, N. & Owens, L. (2011). Bullying, social power and heteronormativity: girls constructions of popularity. Children & Society, 25, 306-316.
Esbensen, F. & Carson, D. C. (2009). Consequences of being bullied. Results from a longitudinal assessment of bullying victimization in a multisite sample of American students. Youth & Society, 41(2), 209-233.
Juvonen, J. & Gross, E. F. (2008). Extending the school grounds? Bullying experiences in cyberspace. Journal of School Health, 78(9), 496-505.
Klomek, A. B., Sourander, A. & Gould, M. (2010). The association of suicide and bullying in childhood to young adulthood: a review of cross-sectional and longitudinal research findings. La Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 55(5), 282-288.
Lawrence, G. & Adams, F. D. (2006). For every bully there is a victim. American Secondary Education, 35(1), 66-71.
Radliff, K. M. & Joseph, L. M. (2011). Girls just being girls? Mediating relational aggression and victimization. Preventing School Failure, 55(3), 171-179.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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