Why mean girls always seem to meet especially cruel ends

“Good evening, idiot hookers,” snaps Chanel Oberlin, the perfectly blond and symmetrical queen bee of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority in this season’s hit TV comedy-horror series, Scream Queens. She addresses a mix of misfits that includes a deaf girl, a “predatory lesbian” and a pledge with a neck brace played by Lea Michele (Glee). The university’s Dean forces the sorority to admit these so-called undesirables in an effort to curb the sisterhood’s history of mean girling … and a few suspicious deaths.

"The Chanels" in hit series Scream Queens

"The Chanels" in hit series Scream Queens

Chanel (Emma Roberts) is pretty, rich, vain and hopelessly entitled. She rules the campus with a well-manicured fist and has Kazi — whom she refers to as “her Asian” — on retainer to take tests on her behalf. She names her best friends and minions after herself: Chanels No. Two, Three and Five (Chanel No. Four died).

The Chanels are the latest addition to Hollywood’s stylish she-devil hall of fame. Viewers love to hate cliques like The Heathers (Heathers), The Flawless Four (Jawbreaker) and The Plastics (Mean Girls). All the Chanels are impeccably dressed, decked out in various shades of pastel, layers of fur and feathers, tweed jackets and couture garments. The sorority’s house includes a two-level walk-in closet, which is restocked each season by Chanel’s godfather, Karl Lagerfeld.

The show’s costume designer Lou Eyrich has been interviewed by just about every publication with a passing interest in fashion – Vogue included. There are entire Instagram accounts dedicated to documenting Scream Queens’ fashion while showcasing cheaper alternatives and where to buy them.

Scream Queens, along with many of these female-centric films, are hailed as feminist, but why do these films and television series lean so heavily on the age-old idea that attractive, fashionable women are inherently vapid, vain and dumb.

It’s as if the petty traits are built right into the wardrobe, and like its predecessors in the genre, Scream Queens naturally features an ugly duckling makeover. Michele’s character trades in her neck brace for a full face of makeup and a wardrobe of pink miniskirts. And of course, she also gets the backstabbing, promiscuous attitude adjustment that comes with it.

The message in this clichéd costuming is clear, and oh-so-familiar: powerful women are not to be trusted. The mean girl genre takes the whole good/girl bad girl thing to an exaggerated level — which makes it easy to dismiss as silly entertainment. That there are self-referential, self-parodying themes built right into the genre makes it harder to land a criticism — it’s all in good fun! But it’s not doing anyone any favours.

I was once asked by a genuinely concerned friend why I don’t “try wearing pants sometime?” He suggested I take a hiatus from donning extravagant or revealing dresses to parties  if I want be taken seriously as a journalist. One Cinderella ball gown or flash of side boob too many and my reputation as a capable writer might go poof at the stroke of midnight.

Keenly aware of how fashion choices shape the perception of others, I tried rejecting conventional beauty. I chopped off inches of my hair, wore it in a messy style reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands, and dyed it extreme ends of the colour spectrum. I hid under layers of dark clothing. I’d much rather be perceived as Winona Ryder’s Veronica than one of the Heathers.

Not in the least because the Heathers and their tribe always get it in the end. Mean girls tend to meet especially cruel ends that often involve public shaming because the story wouldn’t be complete without a fashionable woman humbled — who doesn’t love to see a powerful women fail or be publicly embarrassed (why hello there, $3 billion a year celebrity gossip industry).

Mean Girls’ Regina George gets fat, mocked and hit by a bus, while Jawbreaker’s head diva Courtney has her sins publicly exposed, and is pelted with garbage while fellow students yell insults like “whore.” Heather Chandler dies by ingesting drain cleaner. We expect to see many of Scream Queens’ mean girls get brutally slaughtered throughout the series by serial killers (at least one has been already, but no spoilers here).

The contradiction is obvious: we demand women conform to unrealistic beauty ideals, but punish them if they come close to achieving those standards. This no-win game that pushes beauty and fashion down women’s throats, then equates them with evil is akin to Salem’s float test for accused witches — if you drown, you’re dead, and if you float you’re guilty and still dead.

Scream Queens’ 2-hour season finale airs Tuesday night and, while the teasers promise an orgy of horror and murder, part of me hopes Chanel and her minions make it out alive. Another pretty in pink, dead blonde girl is just too unoriginal for a show with so much potential. Instead, let’s see the sorority sisters outwit the killers, turning them over to police in Swarovski-studded handcuffs.

*** This article originally appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux