When I set out to write Queen Bees & Wannabes six years ago, my goal was simply to give parents a guide to better understand the world of their teenage daughter. I wanted to validate girls and women's emotional experiences by challenging the belief that "girls will be girls" and being teased and humiliated is a rite of passage. I could never have imagined the reaction and attention the book would receive or that Tina Fey would turn it into the movie Mean Girls. But by far the most surprising outcome of Queen Bees and Wannabes' success has been the lexicon it popularized in our culture.
There is rarely a week that goes by that I don't hear the words "queen bee", "mean girl", "messenger", or "floater" used in commercial and academic venues. In some ways, I am proud that this nomenclature has increased the awareness that kids have the inherent right to walk down their hallways at school feeling safe. I've seen the terminology invoked to analyze relationships in political commentary, novels, and sitcoms, giving a lens with which to look at each other's behavior and ask why we allow abuse of power and privilege to become normalized.
Unfortunately, I've also seen the popularity of the Queen Bee phenomenon used to glorify or mock the underlying causes of the aggressive "mean girl" behavior. I've rolled my eyes in dismay when I've heard that girls dress up like "The Plastics" for Halloween or create their own Burn Books. In response, I've used these moments as teaching opportunities for the students I work with. Obviously there are always going to be people that miss the underlying message to take responsibility for your actions, be authentic, and channel your anger in a way that treats yourself and others with dignity.
But Halloween costumes and burn books are relatively harmless when compared with the show Queen Bees that will begin airing next week on The N Network. On the show, seven girls are brought to Los Angeles for what they think is a competition for who can be the biggest diva. In "reality," their families and friends are fed up with their snotty behavior and so $25,000 will be awarded to the girl who becomes the nicest by the end of the show. On the face of it, this doesn't sound too bad, right? Wrong. Queen Bees is a way for viewers to laugh at and ridicule the girls on the show who essentially become stand-ins for people in their own lives who've been mean to them. Girls can watch as the Queen Bees fight with each other, get put in their place, and demean themselves all in the name of entertainment.
And it doesn't stop there. The N's website is full of interactive content that confirms the show's purpose is degradation, not rehabilitation. Viewers can take quizzes like "How Fake Are You?" My personal (non) favorite is a question on the "Are You a Queen Bee?" quiz that asks, "If you had a secret device that allowed you to give anyone an electric shock (and they'd never know where it came from) how often would you use it?"
The irony is that the premise doesn't even make sense. Offering someone money to be nice is antithetical to what it means to be a decent human being in the first place. The girl who wins will have succeeded in manipulating not only the other contestants but also the producers into thinking she's changed.
So why say anything? Isn't Queen Bees just one of many television programs that offers no plausible benefit to society? I am sure most of us could name at least five shows off the top of our heads that fall into this category. But the reason why Queen Bees is worse is how it so flagrantly deceives the viewer by purporting to have a high-minded mission. It's humiliation masquerading as entertainment that only lends itself to young women not being taken seriously by themselves or others. And this is not an issue of transforming girls from divas into nice girls. Girls who are aggressive and domineering in the way these "Queen Bees" are don't know how to channel their anger and frustration in ways that people can take seriously, and are constantly relying on their looks and social power to maintain the image they're embodying. It can be a very fake and lonely place, no matter how difficult it is to see past their obnoxious behavior.
I think what angers me most is what an obvious opportunity The N network has missed to change the conversation we have with girls about the way they should be in this world, and has opted to do the easy thing: give us more of the same baseless degradation we're constantly watching as they compete for ratings. The adults that create these programs abdicate their responsibility to show girls a culture where they don't have to humiliate themselves or others for fifteen minutes of attention.
It would be foolish to simply say, "Don't watch this show," because I still believe kids are smarter than we give them credit for. But what I hope is that when girls sit down to watch Queen Bees, that they will think about how this show is trying to manipulate them, and whether they feel like it's fair that it's being portrayed as "normal" girl behavior. And I hope when parents find their kids watching Queen Bees that they'll sit down with them and challenge them to critique what they are watching, rather than blindly consuming what is on the screen. It's not enough to tell our kids that "this has a bad message, don't watch it," -- we have to get them to a place where they'll be just as angry as I am at the way they're being played.
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