The Science Of Mean Girling

I was watching Call the Midwife the other day (as you do) and one of the episode’s threads was about this pregnant woman who was perceived by the other local women to be conceited. When the “conceited” woman’s baby was born with spina bifida, one of the local women said, “Not so high and mighty now, eh?”

And I thought… that’s it. That’s the root of Mean Girling.

The list of Hollywood’s 20 Most Hated Celebrities came out and the top 3 – Gwyneth Paltrow, Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lopez – were a) women and b) women whose main “defect” is being perceived as someone who believes themselves to be high and mighty. Above everyone else – because of an insane set of health standards and penchant for $4000 cashmere hankies or a ridiculous concert rider or a slumping, teenagery angst that just annoys everyone. I get it.

But, just for comparison? Chris Brown came in 20th.

Here’s my concern, people hate Gwyneth Paltrow more than Chris Brown – a man who beat his girlfriend.


The first round of understanding Mean Girling starts with figuring out what it is about these people that sets us off. Sure, people rub us the wrong way and to each his own, but… come on. All of these flaws we’re heaping onto these women – would they bother you if a man did it? Are you saying Anne Hathaway’s (#9 on the list, btdubs) nerdy, forced ease with awards season is worthy of a legion of Hathahaters, but Adrien Brody (not on the list at all) can steal an epic kiss from Halle Berry without her permission and still be adorable?

As far as Gwyneth goes, there’s a part of me that feels like we, as an audience, just don’t want to know how sausage is made, if you know what I mean. We don’t really want to know what goes into actresses having to look the way they do. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that up until very recently we all bought the party line that actresses lost their baby weight by “chasing the baby” and that up until then they “ate cheeseburgers all the time!” So, is Gwyneth Paltrow going on and on about clean eating and juice cleanses and GOOP this and the Tracey Anderson Method that bug us simply because we liked thinking that there was an effortlessness to having those bodies? An effortlessness which made us think they were attainable? Is the reality of looking like Gwyneth Paltrow bumming us out and do we blame her for making us see how hard it is to attain that level of perfection?

I got another piece of this puzzle today when I read the Publisher’s Weekly interview with Claire Messud:


I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”


Why does Nora need to be worthy of your friendship? And there’s no way this interviewer (a woman) would have asked that question of a male writer or even expected that relationship with one of his characters. So, is part of this the expectation that these “hated” women should be relatable and owe us some kind of friendship – beyond their talent and work ethic and charitable donations and and and and and… Or is it simply that we think people with money don’t have the right to complain about anything.

I mean, the next time you’re standing in line at the grocery store just scan the magazines – it’s all Mean Girl Bait – who is gaining weight, who has been caught without their make-up, who has cellulite, whose man is cheating, who is lonely and binging, whose marriage is on the rocks and on and on…

I’ve never forgotten this talk I went to with this fantastic psychologist who specialized in teenaged girls (god bless her). And she said that the first way women bond is by having things in common. But, if that doesn’t work, the second thing women will do to bond is gossip about another woman. That way, the thing they have in common is this target and there’s really no heavy lifting involved. It’s not like you have to go out on a limb or be vulnerable with someone if all you’re going to do is insult someone else and laugh about it.

All of this stuff isn’t about Gwyneth Paltrow or that woman in the office you gossip about. Mean Girling is about us and why we feel insignificant. It’s about our fear that we’re less than or that someone else is getting something that we feel they don’t deserve (and usually we feel under-appreciated). It’s our own fear of being left behind or that we are somehow flawed.

If we’re happy and healthy in our own lives we don’t have to make other people feel bad about themselves.

I love this quote by the fantastic Brene Brown:

We have to be the women we want our daughters to be.

You can read more from Liza Palmer on her blog and website.

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