First of all, what is a Mean Girl? It’s hard to pinpoint an exact definition, but I think most of us can agree on the idea of “Women who use passive-agressive or outright aggressive tactics to shame, humiliate, ostracize, or hurt other women, often with the intention of making herself look better by comparison.” Mean girls are, in short, bullies who target other women. While it can be difficult to come up with a definition that is both concise and apt for a variety of attitudes and actions, most of us know Mean Girl behavior when we see it — and it would be disingenuous to pretend that we don’t. (Hell, we even have an entire film of the same name for reference, should we need a refresher.)
And though this kind of behavior would often be expected to taper off after the constant, forced proximity of high school is over, there is no secret about its continuation well into adulthood. Hell, there are entire careers forged in being snarky and judgmental about other women — usually celebrity women, who some will argue have agreed to such treatment by choosing to be in the public eye. We are entertained in a visceral, almost WWE-like way by the spectacle of women going after one another, especially in a public forum. To put another woman down, aside from providing the high of righteous indignation and moral superiority, is often very lucrative. Just as in high school, being derisive or outright aggressive towards your fellow woman can bring the kind of social currency that places you atop a hierarchy. When other women fear you because they know that you are to be treaded lightly around, you are deferred to.
There is also, lest we forget, a great social pressure to make ourselves look better in comparison with one another. We are in competition for so many opportunities that are still somewhat limited to us by our gender — whether professional, personal, or social — and it brings out in even the most reasonable person a sense of cutthroat urgency. To put another woman down, to push her farther down one of any number of ladders in life, only makes your climb just that much easier. In the eyes of those in power, in the eyes of other women watching the spectacle, to deride and shame another woman is a palpable positive.
While this occurs every day on a more individual level, it’s hard not to notice the great social waves it can come in on a more broad scale. Look, for example, at the internet (most notably parts of the internet which proudly self-identify as “feminist”) and its recent decision to hate — and I wish there were a word stronger than hate to use here, because it would apply — Taylor Swift. There is no secret about the disdain people feel towards her and her inoffensive brand of wide-eyed girl pop. She doesn’t identify as a feminist, she has played into Madonna/Whore dichotomies in her songs, she is family-friendly, she centers the vast majority of her persona around men and the approval they do or do not give her — she is everything that many women believe you should not be. And while, yes, some of her comments or lyrics have been egregious (such as the ode to slut shaming that is “You Belong With Me”), most of her offenses ostensibly involve living a life that other women do not approve of.
Yet the conversation cannot consist of “Here is what she said that is wrong or uncool, here is why it is wrong or uncool, here is why we should not say those things.” It never can. It has to extend to every minute aspect of her personal life, manner of dress, personal labels, and dating habits. The dogpiling on her has to be extensive, and it has to be petty. We have to show — in articles, in comments, in funny GIFs — just how much we hate her and everything she stands for and exactly why we are not like her and never will be. We must accuse her of setting women back, of making laughable decisions, of being everything she is not supposed to be.
Honestly? I don’t really care for Taylor Swift. I’ve never really enjoyed her music, and I don’t think her obsession with talking about relationships is very interesting after a certain point. Yes, I am open to a discussion about the unethical nature of some of her lyrics, but I don’t think that justifies engaging in what is undeniably Mean Girl behavior towards her on the internet. I don’t think that any woman deserves to be put in the “bad” column and have open season declared on her. I don’t feel that, simply because she has transgressed any number of rules I may have drawn in the sand about the way another person (or, let’s be honest, another woman) should behave, I have the right to bash her ad nauseam to prove my point and remind everyone just how much moral ground I have on her. Most importantly, I don’t see the petty, cruel bashing of aspects of her life unrelated to her tangible misdeeds as somehow totally justifiable or not-Mean Girl simply because they are being performed against Taylor Swift.
To be fair, though, I — like almost every woman, if we’re being honest — have engaged in Mean Girl behavior in my own life. I have been more hard on another woman than I would have been on a man in the same scenario, or have gone too far with my criticisms to drive home a point about how unacceptable I believe her behavior to be. Because within all of us exists a voice (entirely planted by society, but watered nonetheless by us on a regular basis) which tells us that we must be tit-for-tat, that we must prove our superiority, that we must retaliate against perceived offenses by any means necessary. It is the voice which deems it okay to attack another woman repeatedly if we believe she has checked off enough points on a list of behaviors to become “deserving.” It is the voice that says that such a list exists in the first place, or that anyone besides each individual woman gets to decide it for herself.
When I look at the way people talk about Taylor Swift, I see clear Mean Girl actions put under a thin, politicized veil of “doing it for the good of women as a whole.” Hell, I even see men who identify as feminists using some of her commentary to launch dig after dig about every aspect of her life. I can identify it and do my best to distance myself from the kind of behaviors or rhetoric I see used to put her down for any number of reasons. But when it comes to my own life, I often have trouble seeing that I am engaging in these kinds of childish games until it is over, until I have time to look back at the severity I used with a woman that I may not have with a man. Perhaps it would be best, then, before we go after another woman or make a derisive comment about her because we believe — at least on some level — that she is responsible for or indicative of her gender as a whole, to ask ourselves: Are we being Mean Girls?