Mean girls make everything better, at least when it comes to storytelling. Without them, there’d be no conflict, no plot, no grit. And only in the last two decades or so have female characters been increasingly free to be awful, which is its own kind of liberation.
With the release of the new Mean Girls musical movie, the original Mean Girls celebrating its twentieth anniversary in April, and my new book about Mean Girls’ history and legacy, So Fetch, out now, it’s the perfect time to consider why we love spiky heroines like Cady Heron and genuinely terrifying villains like Regina George.
The following books about “mean girls,” from the Cadys who can’t help being attracted to the apex predator lifestyle, to the Reginas who rule by manipulation and fear, show us the inescapable power dynamics of living in any social system. Everyone can relate: reality stars, powerful professionals, publishing assistants, nineteenth-century socialites, MFA candidates, moms, and anyone trying to survive in Hollywood.
Here are some of the best books about “mean girls,” from classics to modern tales, fiction and non.
Mona Awad, Bunny
Samantha Heather Mackey is a loner attending an elite MFA program on scholarship, but finds herself surrounded by wealthy girls with a cult-like devotion to calling each other “Bunny.” But everything changes when she finds herself mysteriously invited to the Bunnies’ infamous “Smut Salon,” and soon she’s leaving behind her friend Ava to join what turns out to be a social circle with a dark vortex.
Mean Girls meets Heathers meets cutthroat academia: What’s not to love?
Andrea Bartz, The Herd
There’s no better setting in which to examine mean-girl dynamics than a chic all-female coworking space (a la the once-powerful Wing). In The Herd, workspace CEO Eleanor Walsh, the quintessential girlboss, vanishes on the night she’s scheduled to give a high-profile press conference. The subsequent investigation exposes secrets and lies among the friends who have helped her to get where she is—and ridden her coattails.
The twists to come reveal the ways young professional women are taught to see each other as rivals, and the ways they struggle desperately to keep up perfect appearances, even, especially, among “friends.”
Anna Bogutskaya, Unlikeable Female Characters
Regina George herself is cited as her own genre of “unlikeable” female character in this nonfiction exploration of, as the subtitle says, “the women pop culture wants you to hate.” Bogutskaya traces the evolution of major characters from good girls to true anti-heroines, and ultimately celebrates the liberating effects of such characters, which give women permission to be their bitchiest, messiest selves.
Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl
This gripping supernatural thriller, since adapted into a Hulu series, tells the story of young publishing assistant Nella, who’s thrilled when the company she works for, Wagner Books, finally hires another young Black woman, Hazel. But their quick friendship begins to falter as Hazel becomes the new office star at the expense of Nella—maybe intentionally, maybe not.
And then some really strange stuff starts going on, indicating that whatever is happening goes far beyond their Nella and Hazel’s Cady/Regina dynamic.
Caroline Kepnes, Providence
Kepnes is known for the engrossing You series (and its maniacally compelling murderer-narrator Joe Goldberg), but here she weaves sci-fi elements into her tale of Jon and Chloe, will-they-won’t-they best friends who seem destined for a rom com ending…until he’s kidnapped by their H.P.-Lovecraft-obsessed substitute teacher. While mourning Jon’s disappearance, Chloe enters classic mean girls territory, hoping to crack the cool-kid crowd now that she’s set adrift.
Things take many weird turns from there, but at its core, Providence s about the eternal human longing for friendship and fitting in, especially during the young-adult years.
Leah Konen, Keep Your Friends Close
Mom friends aren’t immune from mean girls tendencies. In Konen’s forthcoming thriller (out February 20), newly divorced Mary is desperate for connection as she mourns her marriage and fights a custody battle, so she’s thrilled to meet Willa, a charismatic fellow mom at a Brooklyn park. After Mary reveals a secret about her ex to her new friend, Willa disappears from her life…only to reappear months later when Mary relocates to upstate New York.
Stranger still, Willa is now calling herself Annie and has an entirely new family. And then Mary’s ex suddenly turns up dead. Via this twisty murder mystery, Keep Your Friends Close tackles everything from mom cliques to mom-friend ghosting, and one scene even directly evokes the Mean Girls cafeteria.
Jessica Knoll, The Favorite Sister and The Luckiest Girl Alive
Knoll is a surefire bestseller for a reason. Her women are remarkably, unapologetically complicated, and her success only proves how eager female readers are to see themselves, at their barbed best and worst, reflected in their books. In The Favorite Sister, Knoll tackles reality TV tropes and sisterhood at their gnarliest, and in her debut, The Luckiest Girl Alive, she combines mean-girl high school politics with school shootings and the pressure to make good as a wife and mother for an incendiary commentary on modern womanhood.
Knoll knows how to make a mean girl human, and how to make a mean-girl experience meaningful.
Kirthana Ramisetti, Advika and the Hollywood Wives
Ramisetti’s novel is an Alice in Wonderland-like journey into the vertigo-inducing world of high-rolling Hollywood. Aspiring screenwriter Advika Srinivasan is working as a bartender at the Oscars afterparty when she’s suddenly whisked to the upper echelons of showbiz power via a flirtation with legendary director Julian Zelding, which quickly progresses to courtship and marriage.
Just one month after their wedding, though, Julian’s first wife, famous actress Evie Lockhart, dies and stipulates in her will that her ex’s “latest child bride” is to receive $1 million of her fortune and a mysterious film reel, but only if Advika divorces him. What appears at first to be a case of a Regina wreaking havoc from beyond the grave becomes an empowering tale of female solidarity as Advika begins to investigate her new husband’s past through his three ex-wives.
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Want to go more classic to get your mean girls fix? Wharton’s 1905 novel follows Lily Bart, a beautiful socialite struggling to maintain her place in wealthy New York circles of the Gilded Age. She lives with her aunt and longs for lawyer Lawrence Selden, but feels she must pursue someone wealthier to improve her situation; she lost her parents at age twenty, and has gambling debts but no inheritance.
Things heat up when she discovers that Lawrence used to be romantically involved with mean girl Bertha Dorset, and many North Shore High-like machinations follow from there.
So Fetch: The Making of Mean Girls (and Why We’re Still So Obsessed with It) by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is available via Dey Street Books.