Monday, October 1, 2012

Mean Girls

by Kathleen Bradean

Mean girls are nothing new in fiction. Even Jane Austin had a few. As Jean Roberta pointed out in a comment on Lisabet's post, they used to be called The Rival. But in the past decade or so, the art of being cruel for cruelty's sake has been elevated and even applauded.

I could blame Dangerous Liaisons. It's a morality play where the bad woman gets her just desserts in the end, but until that moment, the Marquise de Merteuil makes it look glamorous and fun to be wicked. There are hundreds of imitations of this story in movies and TV and despite how it ends it doesn't seem to stop people from wanting to emulate her.  Power can be so seductive.

I could blame reality TV, which isn't reality but a fun house mirror put up to society. Only it isn't fun. It's people pushed by producers to act unnaturally dramatic for the cameras and viewers who can't seem to understand that. I was poolside at a resort several months ago when security escorted a young woman past us. She wasn't obviously drunk or high, so one can only assume that the dramatic fit she threw at my feet (literally. some of the stuff she threw landed on my feet) was for the benefit of an imaginary TV audience. Frankly, she didn't have the acting chops to pull it off.

I could blame my love of the femme fatale. But I'm going to point the finger of blame directly at a bad trend in society where we're encouraged to wallow in our worst natures. Hate speech is entertainment, every side of every issue is so polarized that middle ground is as barren as the demilitarized zone. Can't we all just get along? No. Not as long as it's so fun to let our nasty side run rampant like a spoiled brat in a restaurant.

All of that I could dismiss as simply a fad - albeit one that's long worn out its welcome - that will eventually pass. I foresee a time when exaggerated etiquette will sweep back into fashion again. Steampunk is the vanguard of this movement. So I sigh and try to ignore it. But it still irritates me when I read a story or watch a TV show where every woman except the main character is either a slut, a victim, or a psycho.

So writers, please, if the other female characters must be horrible in order to make your main character look good by comparison, consider that you're writing a bad person and then GO WITH IT. Don't make her the least terrible of two crappy options. Don't change her to sweetness and light. Keep her complicated. Give her depth and nuance and all those lovely things that make a character worth reading about.Everyone deserves love; show us why this character does.

And what about the Rival? Can't she be worthy as a human being, sane, fun, smart and all those wonderful things? Why does she have to be a cartoon villain gnashing her teeth and setting aside her entire life just to make someone else miserable? Let The Rival look fantastic in that dress without denigrating her for her sexual power. Come on. Wouldn't you rather find an intense sexual or emotional bond with a guy (or woman) because you're suited to each other rather than because you picked the pair of 'come fuck me heels' and lingerie that caught his attention? Do you want to be stuck with a guy who would run at the first sign of granny panties on laundry day? As a writer, if you're resorting to boiled bunnies to make the plot look reasonable and the other characters look normal or even laudable, then again, GO FOR IT but at least make it so over the top that it's intentional dark comedy. I'll love you for it. Honest.


  1. Hi Kathleen!

    Lisabet and I used to discuss this a lot back and forth, how to write about effective bad guys/gals. What you say about making them complicated is the key, and the key to making them complex is they can;t just be evil.

    Shakespeare in his early plays - like Titus Andronicus - didn;t know seem to know how to make good villians. He had lady villians too. But they tended to be thorughly evil with no redeeming qualities. Later on his best villians like Iago and Macbeth were wonderfully complicated with so many sides to them. Lady Macbeth with her guilty hand wringing is the ultimate bitch and yet you can feel sorry for her too.
    Those are good villians.


  2. "boiled bunnies"! That's great!

    I'd like to write a story where The Rival is not only a reasonable, three-dimensional person, but also has enough appeal that the heroine can really understand why her man might be tempted. The Rival would simultaneously elicit admiration and envy.

    Of course, in my story, the heroine would probably end up in bed with the Rival - with or without the hero. I like that conclusion considerably more than the alternatives!

  3. Garce - the villian is always the key. S/he has to be equal to the MC and in many ways a twin or mirror image. You're so right about nuance being important to fleshing them out.

  4. Lisabet - Yes! You could even call it The Rival. I've read probably a hundred romance novels in my life, which is barely a three month supply for most romance fans, but I've noticed how important triangles are in their plots. The heroine is either picking between two guys (Mr Wickham & Mr Darcy in Pride & Prejudice) until one is exposed as a jerk, or she's competing with her Rival (Maria and the Baroness in Sound of Music) until the due comes to his senses. In real life, I doubt many people have to pick between options for a relationship. There's only one in front of them and the choice is to pursue it or not. But the idea of having a choice is lovely fun. Running off with the worthy rival sounds like the best idea to me! (I always thought Baroness Schrader was elegant)

  5. Lisabet & Kathleen, I think one of the best portrayals of the Rival I've seen or heard is the song "Jolene" by Dolly Parton. On the surface, the female singer is begging the luscious Jolene not to "take [her] man," but the intensity in her voice is not all about the dude. This aspect of an apparently het triangle (2 f's and an m) could be a thread on its own.

  6. Jean - I don't know many Dolly Parton songs, but I know that one. I like that she never says a bad thing about Jolene.


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