Even if Hollywood always took to heart the young audiences since the birth of the teenager in the 1950s, it was just around the 1980s when teen films commenced using educational environments (SHARY, Generation multiplex: the image of youth in American cinema since 1980, 2014: p. 1-28). Indeed, as the director of Bridesmaids Paul Feig once confessed, he has always referred to life as “perpetual high school.”
Features for American adolescents are halfway through being too exaggerated and unrealistic (from a plot and a character development point of view) and being able to show some accurate sides of the high school experience and, more in-depth, the different meaningful metaphors of contemporary society and its members.
“The world is a very dangerous place for young girls, especially for those ones with stars in their eyes. Stars are nice to look at, but sometimes they can blind you to what’s right in front of your nose”
(LA NOIRE, 2011, Rockstar Games)
This article is going to focus on the topic of “popular clique” by exposing and questioning the whole façade behind the cliché of the secondary schools’ queen bees. They are an unavoidable type of character in teen films since they originate specific dynamics in a storyline, but viewers tend to forget how they can be considered oppressed by the system and not just the oppressor of the victims they meet in their school’s hallways.
The term queen bee, referred to the actual animal, started being used from a cinematic point of view since a queen bee is the main female bee that lives in a honey bee colony and is usually the mother of most of the creatures in the beehive (Amos Ives Root, The ABC, and XYZ of bee culture: an encyclopedia pertaining to the scientific and practical culture of bees, 1980: p. 357 to 370).
In the cinematic education system portrayed in high school teen films “queen bees are often stereotyped as being beautiful, charismatic, manipulative, and wealthy, holding positions of high social status, such as being ahead cheerleader (or being the captain of some other, usually an all-girl, sports team), the Homecoming or Prom Queen” (Kathleen Tracy, The girl’s got a bite: the original unauthorized guide to Buffy’s world, 2003: p. 37). The queen bee is the prettiest but (most of the time) also the meanest female student of the high school, adored and feared by all her peers like an actual goddess.
The main examples of this kind of character are Heather Chandler from Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988), Cherilyn Horowitz from Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995), and, obviously, Regina George from the world-acclaimed feature Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2003).
For understanding further the parallelism between Heather, Cherilyn, Regina, and the idea of high school as a beehive, it is necessary to understand that there have been different sociological studies about what is called the “queen bee syndrome” in the last thirty years.
Sussana Stern, in her 2001’s book Sexual selves on the World Wide Web: adolescent girls’ home pages as sites for sexual self-expression, identifies the following qualities as characteristic of queen bees in American teen films:
- Having an overly-heightened self-esteem, which may lead to arrogance
- Being overly-aggressive, selfish, manipulative and strong-willed
- Behaving as a bully or sociopath
- Being wealthy and/or “spoiled”
- Being pretty, popular, talented, rich, or privileged
- Being envied/hated/admired by peers (mainly female peers)” (p. 266 – 285).
Regina George is one of the most obvious examples of this syndrome. Even if a huge amount of teen films used the psychological background of the popular mean girl for creating easier dynamics with other characters, Mean girls own an antagonist who respects all the rules stated by Sussana Stern.
Regina George constantly bullies and controls other people (including the protagonist Cady Heron) and falls in questionable behaviours for almost all of her screen-time, but because of her high position in the school’s social ladder, she is exempted from any punishment. This is an obvious reference to contemporary society, seen as a corrupted cage where appearance and power are outshining respect and justice.
Though, it is questionable whether or not their definition in the system is as simple as saying that they are just lucky and wealthy girls with a deteriorated ethical and moral code.
It is mandatory to understand how the cinematic queen bees, despite having an easier social life when it comes to have fun and live unforgettable adolescence, are also objectified because of their appearance and attitude towards other students: their popularity is continuously feeding the stereotype up and, more in-depth, showing to the viewers a bunch of young students who are trapped in skinny clothes and strict diets just to be noticed, respected, feared and loved.
This dynamic is not only cinematic:
science studies demonstrated that “the prominence of perceived popular youths enables peers to notice their behaviors and form strong opinions of them. Therefore, perceived popular youths are likely to score high on social impact” (Leanna Closson, Aggressive and Prosocial Behaviours within Early Adolescent Friendship Cliques: What’s Status Got to Do with It?, 2009: p. 408 – 409). The “social impact” that the author is talking about could particularly relate to Clueless, the iconic American teen film that took inspiration from Emma by Jane Austen, “which places a smart but superficial 1990s Valley girl at the center of Austen’s story about a young woman who has an overly high opinion of herself” (Richard Alan Schwartz, The 1990s, 2006: p. 236).
Cherilyn Horowitz, by being a gorgeous, rich, popular and fashion-obsessed female student, is theoretically considerable a queen bee. The difference between her and other queen bees from other American teen films is that she does not assume any particularly mean manners during the entire duration of the plot and demonstrates various times to be a smart girl who has problems to define herself and find the right motivation to pursue her dreams in a consumerist society. Despite this difference, which makes Cherilyn lose different points in Sussana Steirn’s list of queen bee’s qualities, Clueless and the whole environment portrayed in the film are considered a mainstay of the “queen bee syndrome”.
The reason why this happens could be summed up by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, who wrote an introduction piece for the photobook Girl Culture by Lauren Greenfield. While talking about her photos, he says how “everywhere, we see women and girls looking in mirrors, nervously checking who they are. Some grimace; others stare intently and some pose; (…) in spite of how much American women and girls look at themselves, we are not a self-reflective society” (p.8).
Cherilyn is obsessed with herself and her fashion sense at the point that she lacks in understanding what is going on around her and what are the true problems of life. For example, just in the first minutes of the features, the viewers get an insight into her everyday life, made of expensive clothes, and an overall superficial attitude towards responsibilities.
Because of this narcissism and the whole interest in frivolous trends, Clueless has a plot that explains a negative social impact and that objectifies its main characters and the environment around them enough to consider Cherilyn a true queen bee.
Another theme of Clueless and other American teen films treating the queen bee’s phenomenon is the suburbia.
The consumerist mentality of the suburbs aims to impersonality and ordinariness. A picturesque, alienating neighborhood made of houses that look alike could give a sense of claustrophobia to these young female students who, by living there during their teenage, may perceive the need to feel special and important as a way to escape the fear of being invisible and unnecessary. As the iconic queen bee, Angela Hayes says to her friend Jane Burham in a scene of the Oscar-winning American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), “I don’t think there is anything worse in life than being ordinary”.
The queen bee is never alone: she is always surrounded by friends who usually can’t wait to take her spotlight. It may be surprising to know that this popular film dynamic is actually natural even in a literal beehive: “a single nest may have multiple queens or even dwarf queens, ready to replace a dominant queen in a case of sudden death” (Márcia Ribeiro and Denise Alves, Size Variation in Schwarziana quadripunctata Queens (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Meliponini, 2001: p. 59–65). It is necessary to remember that the queen bee is usually one of the meanest people of the high school of American cinema and has lots of fake friends and quiet enemies: in films like Heathers, the “best friend” kills the main power of the beehive and takes her place in the social ladder.
Furthermore, in Mean Girls, Cady becomes the new Regina George after making her gain weight and confessing to her popular boyfriend she cheated on him.
With these two examples, it could be theorized that the willing to destroy a bad person’s reputation without feeling guilty about the possible consequences paradoxically results in becoming a new threat for the calm and inclusive environment that a school should assure to its students.
The idea of female power in a scholastic environment results particularly appetizing because, somehow, being considered popular in high school is not that different from being successful and famous outside of those four walls.
The only time in film history that allowed a female character to have any sort of power and independence before the advent of the teen queen bees happened around the beginning of the 1940s with the birth and growing popularity of the noir genre. The parallelism between cinematic queen bees in teen films and femme fatales in noir features is way deeper than what it could be expected. “Feminist film critics have long recognized the ideological power of the “femme fatale”: first in terms of her role as a projection of male fear and desire; later, as a politically forceful symbol of unencumbered power” (Julie Grossman, Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir. 2009: p. 21).
The archetype of femme fatale usually enters the definition of a female character, usually an antagonist, whose narrative essence is to murder and obtain something from one or more men. The modern femme fatale is instead “shown to be limited by, even trapped in, social worlds presented as psychotically gendered” (p.22). American queen bees could be considered a post-modern version of the femme fatales of the noir genre because of their strong and powerful characteristics. They may be independent and manipulative, but they are also controlled by a major system they can’t fight.
From the Sam Levinson’s feature Assassination Nation, which shows four high school girls holding weapons with confidence, it is possible to define the high school’s queens as femme fatales adapted to fit in the teen cinema’s package, which includes its style and audience.
Gabriele D’Annunzio is considered one of the most important writers of Italian literature and an icon of the dandy lifestyle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He has written numerous articles about his point of view on power and society. In particular, he once took inspiration from the Übermensch of Friedrich Nietzsche, which literally means Superman and is considered the perfect man’s behavior in a community and an ultimate goal for human beings (Thus spoke Zarathustra, 1883).
If for the German philosopher the concept of emerging from the society is possible only by denying its values and by isolating from all the other citizens, the Italian writer considers the same concept of emerging as a way to demonstrate a kind of superiority and leadership, as a queen bee. D’Annunzio’s Übermensch is a role-model, a champion, usually an artist and a person to admire and trust. As his creator said in the article The elective beast, “men will be divided into two races. To the superior race, which shall have risen by the pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to the lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility makes them worthy of all privileges” (1892). This concept is scarily connected to American teen films: the queen bee is a teen-structured version of the Übermensch.
She is privileged while the rest of the school is inferior and needs to step back.
It happens literally if we consider that it is a matter of facts that both Mean Girls and Clueless (but also many other teen films as 2009’s Jennifer’s body or 2013’s All cheerleaders die) have a “runway scene”, where the female beehives exhibit their power by walking through the main hall of their schools to determine their position in the students’ hierarchy.
Another main point to take into consideration when it comes to the analysis of the “runway scenes” is how the queen bees’ statement could be considered incoherent by the viewers.
While walking like supermodels ready to amaze everyone and act as untouchable, they fall in a proper sexualization and objectification: “the mass media – television, movies, magazines, music, the Internet – are not at all reticent, frequently portraying sexual behavior as riveting, central in everyday life, and emotionally and physically risk-free” (Jane Brown, Jeanne Steele and Kim Walsh-Childers, Sexual Teens, Sexual Media: Investigating Media’s Influence on Adolescent Sexuality, 2001: p. 11). They try to exhibit their fashion armour to their peers just to get judged and put in a box.
This whole point is analyzed in films as Will Gluck’s Easy A (2010), which narrates the story of an outcast female student whose reputation gets ruined by a false rumor about her sexual life. Olive Penderghast, the main character, turns around her unfortunate series of events by becoming the stereotype of the “easy girl”, ending up empowered and known by her entire school. When she walks down the hallway, she owns the place and the attention of those around her. Here enters the problematic of the male gaze theory, deeply analyzed in Laura Mulvey’s book Visual and other pleasures: the scopophilia is still a strong part of the narration and the plot development, particularly during the “runway scenes” sequences. Men looking at women as a sexual object in a high school environment is what many American teen films include in their cinematic code, but it does not stop there.
According to different American teen features, it can happen that a naïve young woman can become a queen bee if, like a puppet, she changes her appearance to enter in the clique of the popular people. It happens in Easy A and Mean Girls, but also in not-queen-bee-centered films that use this easy “character development trick” as the main plot: various female characters have been sacrificing their own individuality to become proper plastic dolls since decades. It happens in She’s all that (1999), which tells the chronicles of a jock who tries to make the nerdy girl into a good-looking prom queen, but also in Reality high (2017), a feature about an outcast who gets a make-over to impress the popular clique of her high school. Even if they all eventually come back to their original status and discover how being themselves is more important than receiving attention from the boys, it is undeniable how the temptation of being looked at is a mainstay point of teen films treating themes as popularity and exclusive cliques.
In conclusion, queen bees can be considered as an example of empowering women in the media but at the same time a symbol of female objectification. While watching an ordinary American teen film it is easy to forget or ignore that even those characters who are completely embodying the cliché of a superficial and mean girl are still people with feelings and personalities.
The fact that a cinematic queen bee does not always have the chance to show to the young audience a deeper side of herself does not necessarily mean that she should be evaluated only as a bad influence or as the opposite of a role model.
At the same time, it seems that the film industry prefers to stick with the image of the “evil cheerleader” by delivering the same predictable dynamics when it comes to creating a teen film’s plot. It is something that has been ascertained by Catherine Driscoll in her book Teen Film: a critical introduction: “The presumption that teen film excludes artfulness or stylistic originality defines the genre not by its content but by what is presumed to be its mode of address; by a particular relation to the audience” (p. 99). It is time for Hollywood to try to connect further with teen film’s audience (which surely changed in different ways from thirty years ago) and start to be innovative when it comes to portraying young and wealthy female high school students.
By Mauro Colarieti