Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Communication

Major Professor

Rachel E. Dubrofsky

Keywords

Aggression, Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, Phoebe Prince

Abstract

This dissertation examines narratives about female bullying and aggression through mediated images of "mean girls." Through textual analysis of popular media featuring mean girls (television shows such as Gossip Girl and films like Mean Girls), as well as national news coverage of the case of Phoebe Prince, who reportedly committed suicide after being bullied by girls from her school, this feminist examination questions how the image of the mean girl is raced and classed. This dissertation values an interdisciplinary approach to research that works to make sense of the forces that produce bodies as gendered, raced, and classed.

One of the central concerns of this project is explore images of mean girls in order to highlight the ideas that construct female aggression as deviant. In popular culture, the mean girl is constructed as a popular girl who protects and cultivates the power associated with her elite status in duplicitous and cruel ways. Specifically, mean girls are framed as using indirect aggression, which is defined as a form of social manipulation. This covert form of aggression, also referred to as "relational" or "social" aggression, includes a series of actions aimed at destroying other girls' relationships, causing their victims to feel marginalized. The bullying tactics associated with indirect aggression include gossiping, social exclusion, stealing friends, not talking to someone, and threatening to withdraw friendship. The leader of the clique is the Queen Bee who is able to use boundary maintenance to exclude other girls from her friendship groups.

In media texts, while the Queen Bee is always White, the Mean Girl discourse does not ignore girls of color. Instead, girls of color are acknowledged as having the potential to be mean, but, more often, they are shown to exemplify the characteristics of normative White femininity (they are nice and prioritize heterosexual relationships) and to escape the lure of popularity. Indeed, whereas media texts continually center Whiteness as a necessary component of the mean girl image, nice girls are constructed as White, Latina, and Black. The constructions of the girls of color often rely on stereotyped behaviors (i.e., Black girls' direct talk and Latina girls' commitment to nuclear family structures); at the same time, these essentialized characteristics are revered and incorporated into the nice girl tropes.

The Queen Bee is always upper-class, while the Wannabe (the girl who desires to be in the clique) is middle-class. When attempting to usurp the Queen Bee's power, the Wannabe breaks with normative cultural versions of White, middle-class passive femininity in ways that are framed as problematic. Although the Wannabe rises above her class, in so doing, she also transcends her "authentic" goodness. As a result, middle-classness is recentered and ascribed as part of the nice girl's authentic image. The Mean Girl discourse defines girls' success on a continuum. A popular girl stays at the top of the social hierarchy by being mean. The nice girl finds individual success by removing herself from elite social circles. As a result, privilege is not defined inherently as the problem, but girls' excessive abuse and access to privilege is.

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