I remembered RenÃ©e Tarwater, the most popular girl in my high school class of 600, as tiny and delicate. Guys were always lifting her up in the halls. She had a perfect hair bow and knew things I never had a clue about, like that you needed spray-on deodorant for after gym class. Even the accent in her name was cool.
In middle school, she'd invited me to spend the night at her house. I thought we'd had fun – we sat cross-legged on the floor of her room and flipped through a book of modeling pictures she'd had taken – but I must have failed whatever friendship test took place because she never talked to me at school after that, and neither did anyone else. Once when I was standing on the edge of a circle of girls, one said, “Kayleen, could you go somewhere else? I need to talk to my friends.”
And yet, a lifetime after that humiliating moment and 15 years after our high school graduation, here I was, nervously emailing RenÃ©e to talk.
I found some friends in high school, a group everyone not in it would have called "goody goodies." We were sweet, got good grades, and never talked about anything we couldn't discuss in front of our moms, which meant I had a lot of conversations about lipstick. But even as we were acting angelic, I saw myself as a mean girl. I flirted with boys I knew a friend liked or didn't tell a friend if I had been invited to a party she wasn't welcome at. When another girl beat the Queen Bee of my friend group for prom queen, we made paper crowns with vicious messages on them – trashing the prom queen’s looks, her intelligence, the legitimacy of her election – and scattered them on her front lawn. I thought I was acting the way I was supposed to, as if there was some dictate that said girls had to be horrible to each other while they came of age.
For something so widely believed, the idea that teen girls are mean is relatively new. The writer Rachel Simmons was one of the first people to make the claim, in her book Odd Girl Out, which was published in 2002. Simmons used studies from a team of Finnish researchers on “relational aggression” that came out in the early 90s to make her point that girls were bullies. This research showed that girls used indirect aggression to torment each other, like a shutting a friend out of her social circle rather than, say, slamming her head against a locker. Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, which used anecdotal examples of girls fighting for position in their friend groups, also came out in 2002. In 2004, it was adapted into the movie “Mean Girls” and depictions of girls spending their school days coming up with creative ways to humiliate each other became normal.
I emailed RenÃ©e because I wanted to talk with her about what her high school friendships had been like, to be let in on what it had been like to be so popular. But I secretly wondered if I had done something to put her off back then. Maybe I had been the mean girl. I was afraid she would ignore my email now, as if nothing had changed at all in 15 years. Instead she wrote me back, “I will help you in any way possible.”
When we met in Los Angeles, she was as charismatic as I remembered and looked just as perfect in a short skirt, high heels, and covetable eyelashes. Quickly, we figured out we had a lot in common: We were both single, professional women–and we wanted to share the same flatbread pizzas and bottle of wine.
Anyone who saw us together would think we were good friends, unlike, I pointed out, if we'd been at a high school reunion. Our former classmates would wonder, Why are they talking?
"You had all of these friends, and I didn't," I said. "Everyone liked you."
"It's funny that's your perception," she said. "I think I'm a people pleaser and wanted people to like me so I worked really hard at it, but I had my own people who weren't including me."
It turns out her high school friends backstabbed each other, too. One year when she didn't make the cheerleading squad, some of her friends stopped talking to her. Other friends excluded her from parties when they were mad at her, and her best friend went to prom with her first love. "I didn't talk to her for like a year," she said.
I told RenÃ©e about my friends and I putting the paper crowns on the prom queen's lawn and how awful I still felt about it, and she empathized with how easy it was to get caught up in what other girls wanted you to do. She and her friends, she told me, would sometimes call other girls and tell them lies about their boyfriends. "I mean, we'd say bad stuff and none of it was true," she says, "just because another girl liked him and didn't want his girlfriend to like him anymore."
"My high school friendships were fleeting," RenÃ©e said. "They were so come and go."
We bonded over the fact that, now, we're constantly telling our friends they’re the most perfect people, and how essential they are to our well-being. And by the end of our conversation, I realized I was never a mean girl and neither were my friends or RenÃ©e. At times, we were awful to each other, but to dismiss our behavior as mean – as if it was predestined I would make those paper crowns – is classic stereotyping.
Girls are no meaner or nicer than anyone else. The studies done by the Finnish researchers don’t say that girls are more aggressive than boys, just that they show their aggression in different ways. In 2015, the government website StopBullying.gov published an article called “The Myth of ‘Mean Girls” saying, “In the past two decades, relational aggression has received an abundance of media attention. Books, movies and websites have portrayed girls as being cruel to each other, thus creating and reinforcing the stereotype of ‘mean girls.’ However, this popular perception of girls being meaner than boys is not always supported by research...Several large cross-cultural studies and meta-analyses have found no gender difference in relational aggression.”
Nonetheless, the stereotype has seeped into the way girls see themselves, making us think that, on some level, social strife should be our main educational experience. And what’s even more dismaying is that the label has given adults who might want ignore girls and their troubles a ready-made reason to do so.
“I think it’s a way to minimize and make cute something people don’t really want to look at, which is girls do have feelings of aggression and desire at that age, and they’re not always behaving as they should be,” the novelist Megan Abbott told me about the term “mean girls.” “They’re filled with yearning and anger and all of those things. It seems diminishing to me.”
The night I spent talking to RenÃ©e in Los Angeles was a revelation. It made me understand how much I hadn’t seen about her – and about myself – and how much I wanted to keep looking.
I am embarrassed that it took me until now to realize that back then we were all experiencing the same inability to say to our friends that they’d hurt our feelings or understand that we’d hurt theirs. We couldn’t confide our fears that all of our friends could turn against us in an instant. We couldn’t see past high school or open our eyes to each other as any more than the stereotypes we’d been told we were.
Today RenÃ©e values her girlfriends as much as any other relationships in her life, just like I do. "I don't know that I would get up and go without their encouragement," she says. "Life is hard. No one ever tells you that.”
We hugged goodbye, promised to stay in touch, and meant it. Now we try to meet whenever I'm in our hometown or she is in New York, and sometimes when we’re hanging out, I think about how crazy it is that I’m sitting there with RenÃ©e Tarwater. But most of the time, I just feel happy to be with my new friend.