“Why are you such a megabitch?” “Because I can be.” The dialogue is from the 1988 film Heathers, but the answer could have been spoken by any mean girl from Medea on. These evil queens, super-rich bitches, social-climbing she-wolves and blond-haired bullies mesmerize as they seize the reins and crack the master’s whip. Their dominion, however, is usually temporary; in the stories told about mean girls, they almost always get their comeuppance.
Nice girls are sooo boooring. Fortunately for her fans, Eartha Kitt realized that and took another direction. In Kitt’s 1953 song “I Want to Be Evil,” a “prim and proper” young lady deliciously asserts her intention “to go to the devil.” Of African American, German and Cherokee heritage, Kitt would never have been cast as the ingenue, given her exotic looks and the undiluted racism of American society in the 1950s. Instead she took the lemons she was handed and brewed up a tart lemonade, cultivating an image of a sex kitten who could hiss and growl. She brought those talents to her 1967–1968 appearances as Catwoman in the Batman TV series. Pitting her thrilling vice against Batgirl’s tedious virtue, Catwoman quips, “In any comparison between Batgirl and myself, she runs a poor third.”
Like the young Kitt declaring her independence from propriety, Becky Sharp, the “young misanthropist” at the heart of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, appalls her dreary nice-girl schoolmate Amelia Sedley by flinging Johnson’s Dictionary—a parting gift from Miss Pinkerton’s Academy—out of the carriage as they leave the school. Becky’s self-assured act of defiance sets the stage for much impudence to follow.
Everyone hates a social climber, right? Maybe not. Society doyennes sitting securely atop the highest rung may look disdainfully upon somebody trying to claw her way up, but the lower-born might admire the climber’s fortitude and pluck. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is subtitled A Novel Without a Hero. Yet the story has something more interesting: an antihero, Becky Sharp, who uses what resources she has—charm, sex appeal and a talent for deception—to better her position. Thackeray may have expected readers to despise Becky, whose treatment of others is generally reprehensible, but instead they find her enthralling.
The same can be said of the character of Eva Perón, as presented in the Andrew Lloyd Webber–Tim Rice musical Evita (1978). Born poor and out of wedlock, Eva Duarte fornicates her way up the ladder, heartlessly dropping men who no longer serve her ambitions and ultimately snaring Colonel Juan Perón, a military leader on his way to becoming Argentina’s president. Buenos Aires society is aghast, and the character Che, who serves as Evita’s one-man chorus, disparages Eva’s every move as motivated only by ambition and self-regard. But we don’t care; just like the Argentine masses, we eat her up.
Mean girls may try to disguise their selfishness with charitable enterprises. Or do they really care about the downtrodden? After her husband’s election to the Argentine presidency, Eva Perón—spurned by the society matrons who ran the country’s main charity—established her own foundation to aid Argentina’s poor. Critics called it a ruse to funnel cash into Swiss bank accounts or a public relations scam aimed at sanctifying her image, but the foundation appears to have done some actual good. One may likewise be cynical about public-service initiatives backed by Imelda Marcos—but can a woman who helped found several of the Philippines’ top medical clinics be entirely selfish? Possibly. Look at the example—albeit fictional—provided by Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, who, once she’s secured her fortune, “busies herself in works of piety.”
Although Lindsay Lohan starred in the 2004 movie Mean Girls and has palled around with the disagreeable heiress Paris Hilton, she seems less mean than pathetically expert at garnering bad publicity. Lohan’s attempts to counter her rotten press by engaging in good works have included fund-raising for the Red Cross following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Her efforts—sincere or not—haven’t quite paid off.
One of the lessons of Mean Girls (written by Tina Fey, who costars) is that mean-girl behavior can be contagious. Lindsay Lohan plays Cady Heron, the new student at a clique-stratified high school who gets adopted by the school’s reigning triumvirate of alpha girls—the Plastics—led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams). At first, Cady hangs out with the Plastics in order to spy on them, but association breeds conformity, and she’s soon vying to be queen of their stinging little hive. That narrative arc—nice girl goes rotten but hearkens, eventually, to her better angels—is distinctly similar to that of the much darker high school comedy Heathers, in which Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a basically good-hearted teenager who has fallen under the spell of a trio of perfectly coiffed and outfitted (in high 1980s style) bullies, all named Heather.
Although lauded for their acting, offscreen both Lohan and Ryder have exhibited wayward tendencies that have made them tabloid fodder. Lohan has been the worse offender by far, with multiple driving-under-the-influence convictions, parole violations, and stints in rehab. Her 2011 arrest for jewelry theft recalled Ryder’s prosecution, 10 years earlier, for shoplifting from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.
Why do the pelts of deceased animals so enhance a mean girl’s allure? As a character muses in Venus in Furs—Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 encomium to female sexual domination—nothing attracts a man more than a “cruel and despotic woman who wantonly changes her favorites without scruple.…And in addition wears furs.” The 101 Dalmations (1961) villain Cruella De Vil isn’t beautiful—and the only men she attracts are gay-male fans—but she invokes a core mean-girl credo when she exclaims, “I live for furs! I worship furs!”
No true bitch goddess would be caught dead in homely cloth outerwear. New York hotelier Leona Helmsley (1920–2007)—beloved by tabloids as the Queen of Mean—owned more than a dozen fur coats. The number confiscated by the Philippine government from Imelda Marcos following her husband Ferdinand’s ouster from the presidency has been variously reported as five (which seems low), 35 (appropriately excessive) and thousands (preposterous). Eva Perón was likewise very fond of fur—wearing a mink coat even on sweltering summer days during her 1947 Rainbow Tour of Europe. Animal-rights advocates protested the use of fur in the 1996 movie Evita and dubbed its star, Madonna, a “fur hag.”
Veronica (Winona Ryder), the protagonist of the dark comedy Heathers, participates in the murders of several classmates, egged on by her lover and partner in crime, a mean boy named J.D. (Christian Slater). “My teen angst bullshit has a body count,” Veronica writes in her diary, and the film leaves one with the queasy sense that even basically good people can be easily swayed to commit evil—especially when there’s a sexy devil around to make them do it. That’s a theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, except the gender roles are reversed: Macbeth is ambitious, but not devoid of honor or scruples. It’s Lady Macbeth who pushes him over the moral brink, leading him to carry out a series of murders that both establish his rule and precipitate his downfall. A devoted wife, Lady M. is willing to be “unsexed”—trading womanly delicacy for masculine bloodthirsty ruthlessness—to get what she wants for herself and her hubby. In archetypal mean-girl fashion, she’s brought low by her offense: Pangs of conscience drive her to suicide in the play’s final act. Ryder’s Veronica, conversely, forswears her mean-girl ways in time to prevent the mass murder of her schoolmates at a pep rally.
A woman perceived as the power behind the throne often gets a bum rap. But sometimes she merits the negative reviews. Lady Macbeth is a fictional case in point, but real-life examples, such as Madame Nhu (1924–2011), the sister-in-law of South Vietnam’s bachelor president Ngo Dinh Diem, are hardly rare. Playing first lady during Diem’s administration (1955–1963), Nhu wore skin-tight silk dresses, cultivating a femme fatale image, and earned the epithet “Dragon Lady” for always speaking her merciless mind. About Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the government’s corruption, she said, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.”
Another glamorous Southeast Asian, Imelda Marcos, widow of Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos (1917–1989), earned even greater infamy for her extravagant purchases—of choice Manhattan real estate, high-end artworks and thousands of pairs of shoes—and for her alleged involvement in the Marcos regime’s human-rights abuses and the 1983 assassination of her husband’s political rival, Benigno Aquino Jr. Nicknamed the Steel Butterfly, Imelda inspires both repulsion and fascination. A new musical, Here Lies Love, adapted from the David Byrne–Fatboy Slim album of that name, provides a surprisingly sympathetic take on her checkered biography.
Lady Macbeth’s detestation of spots—“Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” is her best-known line—is definitely not shared by Disney villain Cruella De Vil. Lady Macbeth has a guilty conscience: The spots she wants to wipe away are the bloodstains from her husband’s several murders that she imagines appearing on her own equally culpable hands. Cruella De Vil has no conscience whatsoever: The spots she wants to possess decorate the hides of a passel of adorable Dalmatian puppies, which she intends to turn into a magnificent dog-skin coat. One of the most compelling characters ever created by Walt Disney’s studio, Cruella displays a breathtaking, full-throttle selfishness to go with her outrageous half-black, half-white hairdo, ashen complexion, hatchet-sharp cheekbones, and ever-present cigarette dispensing its cloud of acid-yellow smoke. She is a superb creation, and the original 101 Dalmatians, though gorgeously animated throughout, grows dull whenever Cruella is not onscreen. Unfortunately, the story didn’t translate well to live action in the 1996 remake or its 2000 sequel, 102 Dalmations, both starring Glenn Close. Ultra-mean-girl performances in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988) proved Close’s she-devil capabilities, but her Cruella De Vil is less scarily believable than her cartoon counterpart.