My daughter just finished first grade—a year of filled with holiday parties, cutesy art projects, and learning to read. It would’ve been altogether wonderful if it wasn’t for the mean girl. Yes, the 6-year-old mean girl. It wasn’t anything major, just your typical using-guilt-to-manipulate, ruling-the-first-grade-roost-with-a-pink-clad-fist kind of thing. It ended up being a great learning experience for my daughter, as we were able to teach her some valuable life lessons and give her the tools necessary for dealing with not-nice people. But honestly, in the beginning, I was totally at a loss.
Growing up, I didn’t understand girls; girl relationships were complicated with way too much subtext for me to figure out. So I hung out with boys. Boys were straightforward. I didn’t have to play games or curry favor in order to be friends with them. But my daughter’s a social BEAST. She wants to be friends with everyone and play with everyone and my advice to avoid the little Napoleon just didn’t fly with her. Then one of my friends told me about this book she had read. So I checked out Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. And oh boy did I get an education.
This book, to put it simply, is AWESOME. Written by a former educator who has spent most of her life studying teens and their group dynamics, it pulls back the curtain to reveal the intricacies of the typical girl clique: the players and their roles, currency within the group, what motivates them, and a ton of other stuff. This book has been incredibly useful because it’s TRUE; as I’ve looked back over my experiences with other girls, I’ve seen it played out at all different ages and in different groups. When I shared what I’d learned with my neighbor, she said that she’s unfortunately seeing this among the women at the nursing home when she goes to visit her 80-year-old grandmother.
So as the mother of even a six-year-old girl, I’ve found this information to be really helpful. As someone who would like to relentlessly stamp out bullying, it’s invaluable. But I’m blogging about it today because of its practical use for writers—because if you’re writing about girls (or even women), the information can come in really handy.
As I say in most of my webinars and workshops, one of our most important jobs as authors is to make readers care about our characters. And one way to do that is to write characters who are believable. If your writing involves girls and the popular girl clique, it’s important to understand the way these groups typically operate, so you can write their dynamics in a way that rings true with readers.
Now, I’m just getting started and I know that some of you are already bristling, so please allow me to disclaim. The information from Wiseman’s book is applied mostly to the popular girl clique, not to every group of girls; girl groups do exist that are healthy and positive. Dynamics within these popular cliques are often (but not always) similar. While I’ll be sharing these commonalities, I understand that every human being is intrinsically different and not all girls fit this mold. But by understanding how the dynamics typically work, we will hopefully be able to 1) write girl groups realistically, according to the way they tend to exist, or 2) turn the cliché on its ear by using the information to write girls in a new and fresh way.
Enough posturing ;). Let’s get to it…
According to Wiseman, most girl cliques have an established social structure, with each person playing a clearly-defined position. Today I’d like to focus on those roles within the popular girl group, and what they typically look like.
The Queen Bee
- Reigns through a combination of charisma, force, money, looks, and social intelligence
- Strengthens her power and influence by weakening girls’ relationships with each other
- Is usually at the center of the group
- Transfers affections from one girl to another as she deems strategically appropriate
- Seeks revenge when someone has “wronged” her
- Uses subversive means to maintain control or subdue a perceived threat
- Is always in control
- Can manipulate girls, boys, and even adults to get them to do what she wants
- Gains power by being in close proximity to the Queen Bee
- Is closest to the Queen Bee
- Unquestioningly backs the Queen Bee
- Works with the Queen Bee to intimidate and bully other girls to get them back in line
- Becomes jealous if the Queen Bee warms to other girls
- Often loses her sense of identity as she adopts the Queen Bee’s attitudes, likes, and dislikes as her own
- Gains power by being the one who always knows what’s going on
- Is the confidant of the group; can easily get information out of other girls
- Uses learned information strategically against other girls
- Causes conflict through the sharing of information
- Gains power out of her ability to “save” relationships and resolve conflict
- Delivers information about others, but does so out of a desire to act as mediator
- Appears to be a peacemaker, as she’s always trying to fix people’s problems
- Loves to create drama
- Is always involving herself in other people’s conflicts
- Gains power by feeling that she belongs in the group
- Will do anything to keep her spot in the group
- Imitates the behavior of the others in the group
- Is always currying favor from those in a position of power
- Has no sense of personal identity as she takes on the likes, dislikes, and opinions of the powerful girls in the group
The Torn Bystander
- Gains power through her silence, which she utilizes so she can stay in the group
- Often disagrees with how the group treats people but is afraid to act on those beliefs
- Rationalizes her decisions to not oppose the group
- Often has to choose between friends in the group
- Tries to accommodate everyone
- Toes the line when she’s with the powerful girls but is often a truer version of herself when she’s not with them
- Has no power within the group
- Is at the bottom of the pecking order within the group
- Is often made fun of or humiliated by the other girls
- Doesn’t truly feel part of the group
- Will change herself in an effort to fit in
- Gains power by knowing she’s liked for who she is as a person rather than who she is within the group
- Belongs to different groups and can move freely between them
- Is able to take criticism
- Doesn’t view or treat people as commodities in the social game
- Stands up to the Queen Bee when she feels it’s necessary
- Treats people with dignity and respect
So there you have it. In most popular girl cliques, these are the players. Depending on the size of the group, some of these can be missing, or numerous roles may be combined and taken on by one member. What’s interesting is that while most parents would say that their daughter is The Champion of her group, most parents would be fooling themselves. But the fact is that every girl can have champion moments; it’s these moments of growth that give girls the strength and confidence to rise above their roles, move out of these relationships—which are sometimes abusive—and become better versions of themselves. In books, it’s these champion moments that provide important crossroads scenarios that can propel our heroes along their character arcs and help them become happier and healthier characters.
So when you’re writing a story where your main character is part of a group like this, consider this information and ask yourself the following questions:
- Which role does my hero play?
- Is she satisfied or conflicted about the role she plays?
- At the end of the story, will she be in the same position?
- At the end of the story, will she be in the same group?
- What will she gain by changing her role?
- What will she lose by staying the same?
- Who is speaking truth into her life? Who is challenging her?
- What circumstance would make her rise above her role?
Here are some questions to consider if you’re looking to switch things up:
- How can I make my girl group different?
- How does the dynamic change if I remove one or more of the players?
- What new roles can I add?
- Does any one character play more than one role?
- What other ways can a girl gain power within the group? What role might emerge out of a desire to gain power in that way?
- What character could I add that would throw the group into disarray?
- If the Queen Bee abruptly disappeared, what would happen to the group? Would it fall apart? Would someone new rise to take her place? Would that person come from within or outside of the group?
I hope I’ve given you some helpful information today, or at least some food for thought—either for a writing project or your own personal introspection. If you’re interested in learning more about girl dynamics, do check out Queen Bees and Wannabes. And because I’m just figuring all of this girl stuff out, I’d love to hear any comments, opinions, or girl-group stories that you’d be willing to share.
photo credit: Yoko @ Creative Commons
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This post was so helpful, I decided to say thanks. When I scrolled down and spotted your name Becca, I said, “Of course.” As ever, appreciate all you do to help me hone my craft.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I’m so glad the post was helpful, Linda. It was such an eye-opener, to see how common the roles are within these groups. I think that’s why the movie “Mean Girls” resonated with people. As funny as it was, it rang true. Happy writing!
This is great, thanks for this post. It’ll really help setting up the conflict between the main character with queen bee and her worker bees in my work in progress.
“its her belief that this comes from their girl relationships.”
More likely is when parents, teachers, and other influential adults in a girl’s life tell them from an early age…
He only picks on you because he likes you.
He only pushes you because he thinks you’re pretty.
He only kicks you because he wants to kiss you.
And other such nonsense.
Yes, yes, not all parents, teachers, etc make those statements, but enough do that leaves girls thinking boys show love through violence.
“its her belief that this comes from their girl relationships.”
It can also be that (some, many) parents suck at parenting. Don’t let their girls have a voice. Don’t allow them to assert themselves. And society reinforces those stereotypes. So when the girls are confronted with relationship violence, they are at a loss of what to do. And for obvious reasons don’t trust their parents. What girl is going to trust a parent who says negative things about their gender?
“its her belief that this comes from their girl relationships.”
It can also be that it’s hard to raise a boy well because parents don’t take the care to nurture their boys as they do girls. The “boys will be boys” attitude is so entrenched in our society that it’s a learned acceptance and girls give boys a lot leeway.
I realize some sensitivities will go up, but I’m offering alternatives from my experience in social work. I’m not attacking anyone’s parenting who posted here. I don’t know any of you personally.
BECCA PUGLISI says
It’s sad, how many factors there are that contribute to the harmful habits that repeatedly occur with both our girls and our boys. Thanks for sharing your experience from the front lines.
J Lenni Dorner says
Fantastic knowledge. This will be very helpful with the female characters I’ve been working on. Thanks!
Carol Baldwin says
Love this. Now gotta incorporate it. thanks.
Manju Howard (@ManjuBeth) says
Wow! Thanks for letting me know that I wasn’t the only one who preferred hanging out with the guys. Sandwiched between two brother, I attended lots of boy scout events. And now I have two teen boys. So, no wonder I feel more comfortable writing boy characters.
Best Essay Help says
This is a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! I hope to read more of your post which is very informative and useful to all the readers. I salute writers like you for doing a great job!
M Buttars says
I, unfortunately, experienced bullying by unhealthy girl groups many times growing up. The fact that I didn’t play the social games just infuriated them more. Something I found interesting was that sometimes even boys took on some of the roles listed here. (Boys aren’t always drama-free people.) Also, I experience some family relationships with men who totally fit the profile of a Queen Bee. That could be an interesting way to mess with these group stereotypes in a book. What if a boy is creating the drama? What if boys fill some of these roles in a girl group? Thanks for the post! It definitely put some events in my childhood in perspective, and gave me ideas for future writing projects.
Lyn C says
I didn’t get the whole girl group thing either. I always hung out with the boys – riding bikes, climbing trees, playing commandos, cowboys, etc,. Even today, I’d much rather rather work with males.
As a teenager, I had one good girl friend and even fifty years later, we still send each other Christmas cards even though we’re in different parts of the country. These days, I have two close friends I’d do anything for, and who’d do anything for me.
When it comes to social groups – such as craft, cooking, book reviews, and even church social groups, I just don’t fit in. Women intimidate me. I think it all stems from my father’s death when I was 14. My mother became possessive, manipulative, and nothing I did pleased her.
I have three adult children and nine grandchildren aged 1–19 (3 boys and 6 girls). Thankfully, my kids and kids-in-law are very savvy and have taught, and are teaching, their children that bullies are not to be tolerated and that mean girls (or boys) are not worth your time.
Phttt!! Girl groups…who needs them 🙂
Bish Denham says
I’m with you Becca. I hung out with boys. I just didn’t get/understand the whole girly girl thing. I had a blast playing pirates, climbing trees, and shooting marbles. I kind of hate to say it, but I’m glad I don’t have a daughter and have to deal with mean girls. I’d be tempted to knock heads together. Good to know there’s a book out there that helps parents deal with bullying.
Barb T. says
I discovered this book when I wanted to learn more about possible motivations for a mean girl character. Your article and analysis is spot on. Thank you so much.
And good luck to your little one as she proceeds through elementary school!
Becca, I too gravitated more toward boys and men, rather than women, because I had a crazy sense of humor and a low threshold for diva putdowns. Men are more direct, there isn’t as much subtext. Women insult and deride each other, from reality shows to playgrounds to PTA groups. I’ve witnessed women being catty at RWA meetings – yet – women will idealize themselves, their friends, excuse their behavior – and portray the female sex in a glossed-over fashion in their novels.
In our business, 60 per cent of women purchase books, and I daresay most of those commenting online about another author’s novels – are writers themselves. Perhaps the meanest reviews come from women. I’m amazed by the female vitriol on mommy blogger sites, etc. I see Queen Bee behavior among blogger review sites, a snarky diatribe about a novel and other women piping up, agreeing, their Mean Girl ways protected by their anonymity.
I’ve seen Queen Bee behavior at aerobic dance groups. (LOL)
The denials or minimizing of their cruel behavior – that’s what gets to me. The hypocrisy, too. Some of the meanest women I’ve met turn on the false charm and gooey denials and people buy it.
I studied mean girl behavior in corporations, too, and found all kinds of data… research and stats confirming how women do NOT support each other in the workplace, how some women purposely undermine other women and seek to derail their careers. Especially if the other woman is a threat.
Author Gillian Flynn: “Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory. Women entwine. Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters. Innuendo, backspin, false encouragement, punishing withdrawal, sexual jealousy, garden-variety jealousy — watching women go to work on each other is a horrific bit of pageantry that can stretch on for years. Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women. So I did. I wrote a dark, dark book.”
BECCA PUGLISI says
It’s really sad that this is so common among women. What’s interesting, is it seems to be primarily women/girls in a position of power—whether that be in the workplace, the PTA, high school, the soccer team, church youth group, etc. Wiseman talks a lot about women being motivated primarily by competition with other women, and I’ve seen this proven out.
Yet, when you look at girl groups that aren’t at the top of whichever ladder, they’re often very healthy. The few girl groups I was involved with in high school were extremely healthy, as is my group of friends now. To me, that bears out Wiseman’s assertion that not all girl groups follow this formula; unfortunately, we’ve seen it proven so often in powerful groups that it does ring true.
S. J. Dunn says
Seems that girl groups weren’t part of my growing-up experience at all…at least I don’t remember any. And they’re certainly not part of my experience as an adult, even though I spend a weekend out of town every year with a group of women friends, the members of which now live in different cities, but I’ve never noticed any of these dynamics with those friends.
I’m wondering how I escaped? What is it in my background or upbringing that kept me away from such negative dynamics? Is it simply the absence of the Internet? Or something else?
After reading this, I’m sure glad I’m not raising a daughter in today’s society.
BECCA PUGLISI says
The book was a little scary as it outlined what many tween and teen girls go through, so yes, it freaked me out a bit when I considered my daughter’s future. The author also talked about how more and more girls are getting into abusive or unhealthy romantic relationships at earlier ages, and its her belief that this comes from their girl relationships. Girls learn at an early age from their girl friends that they’d rather be with someone who treats them badly than be alone. So when a guy comes along who doesn’t treat them well, they just take it. It was a really eye-opening book.