There’s a special place in hell for women who refuse to support other women, right? Or, if not hell, at least a central role in a classic novel.
Yes, literature (particularly “classic” literature for and about women) loves a mean girl, an archenemy, or an undermining frenemy. This archetype is often realized as a charming blonde who’s either a snob guarding her place against interlopers, or a determined social climber herself. For every spunky heroine, she’s the foil. She’s the prissy antagonist who scorns our protagonist’s rough ways, while her nimble feet fight for their place on the rungs of a novel’s social ladder. She represents the apex of the idea that men can fight each other out in the open, but women are forced to be underhanded in their jockeying for alpha status. Her machinations make plots get thicker and tension ratchet up.
Here’s a selection of literature’s most delightfully nasty mean girls. We love to hate them.
Nellie Oleson, Little House on the Prairie Books
“Laura, your poke bonnet is just utterly too-too!” says spoiled girl Nellie Oleson, which is totally a backhanded compliment for prairie girls, didn’t you know? Nellie guards her complexion while the other girls toil in the sun, and complains about how much more civilized life is “back east.” A foil for Laura Ingalls and a composite of several people from her real life, Nellie shows up over and over again, even intruding on Laura’s courtship with Almanzo Wilder before being kicked to the curb.
Josie Pye, Anne of Green Gables series
Josie and all the Pyes are among of the few people in Avonlea who even Anne Shirley can’t bring herself to really sympathize with. But Josie’s role as Anne’s rival is cemented when she dares brash young Anne to walk across the gutter of the roof, leading Anne to fall and break her ankle.
Susan, The Chronicles of Narnia
The voice of doubt, and lipstick, to Lucy’s sweet voice of faith. Susan can be a real pain in the first few books. Yet this is a tricky one, since Susan is also an object of pity, and one worth rallying around, after C.S. Lewis casts her out of Heaven for being a hussy.
Kate Croy, The Wings of the Dove
Oh, Kate. We liked you so much, until you had to come up with the plan to pair off your love interest — whom you can’t marry because he has no dough — with your dying best friend who happens to be an heiress. We see what you did there. We all see what you did.
Amy, Little Women
Some people are on Team Amy and some are on Team Jo. I’m on team “whoever burns the other one’s manuscript in a fit of pique and then marries the person her sister is clearly meant to be with is suspect, forever.”
Blanche Ingram, Jane Eyre
Brought over to Thornfield just to make Jane Eyre jealous, Miss Ingram rises to the occasion, sneering at the governess and flirting mightily with the master of the house. She’s exquisitely snotty, and we have to wonder what Mr. Rochester said to her when he was disguised as a Gypsy telling her fortune, because when she emerged from that room she was not pleased.
Pansy Parkinson, The Harry Potter books
Anyone who voluntarily joins Hogwarts’ Inquisitorial squad and serves as Draco Malfoy’s lady-sidekick gets a place in the mean girl hall of fame.
Gwendolyn Harleth, Daniel Deronda
One of literature’s most enduring portraits of shallowness and self-centeredness, Gwendolyn cares absolutely nothing for anyone around her. Unfortunately, the man she marries treats her as an object and she finds herself trapped in a miserable prison of a marriage.
Caroline Bingley, Pride and Prejudice
You didn’t think we’d forget Caroline, did you? She does everything in her power to turn Mr. Darcy’s attention away from Elizabeth Bennet’s fine eyes and towards her muddy petticoat. She fails; we exult.
Veruca Salt, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
No one writes spoiled brats better than the British. Veruca Salt wants an Oompa Loompa, Daddy, and she wants it NOW.
Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind
Scarlett will do anything to save her own skin, including screwing over every other woman in her path, sisters included, and seducing men for their money and positions. Also, there’s the not-so-small matter of… she owned a slave plantation.
Isabella Thorpe, Northanger Abbey
Isabella introduces young, naive Catherine Morland to the ways of the world a little too thoroughly, with perhaps an overemphasis on money and not nearly enough on truth. Isabella’s one of my favorite hilarious, maddening portraits of the woman friend you wish you’d never made.
Undine Spragg, The Custom of the Country
Like an American Becky Sharp, Undine Spragg manipulates and marries her way from the Midwest to the European aristocracy, leaving destruction in her wake. If only it weren’t so much fun to watch her be awful.
Dana, Silver Sparrow
In Tayari Jones’ novel of two secret sisters, Dana, the more assured and lovely, also knows that her father is a bigamist. She befriends Chaurisse, his acknowledged daughter, who has no clue that the “silver girl” who has entered her life is actually her half-sibling, and wreaks a bit of havoc.
Bertha Dorset, The House of Mirth
The reigning bitch of Wharton’s oeuvre, Bertha does everything possible to ensure Lily Bart’s downfall, and gets away with it. The scene in which she kicks Lily off her yacht, to cover up her own love affairs, makes me want to punch her fictional face every time, and makes for one of the most brutal mean-girl moments in all of literature.
Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair
Becky Sharp, that notorious social climber and adventuress, would be just that more forgivable if she were only manipulating men. Unfortunately, her failure to befriend women makes her something of a classic mean girl. But she does give the hapless Amelia Sedley some good romance advice in the end, showing that the best mean girls have soft spots.
Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park
Mary Crawford is the clever, witty girl next door who comes in, sweeps plain Fanny’s love-object cousin Edmund off his feet, and quarrels with him about his choice to join the clergy. Why are we supposed to hate her again? Oh yeah, because she’s hopelessly amoral and plays with other people to assuage her boredom.
Veronica Lodge, The Archie Comics Universe
Spoiled, sultry Veronica Lodge is the ultimate mean girl. She spends her time shopping, sabotaging Betty, and ensnaring Archie and Reggie in her brunette net. Oh how we love her.
Cordelia, Cat’s Eye
Atwood knows how to write a toxic female friendship, and this early attempt is the most memorable. Cordelia’s dangerous childhood bullying leaves scars far into the future, and our narrator longs for answers far into our future: “Perhaps she’s forgotten the bad things, what she said to me, what she did. Or she does remember them, but in a minor way, as if remembering a game, or a single prank, a single trivial secret, of the kind girls tell and then forget.”
The villain of Rebecca (or is she? Everything is so unreliable) never appears on the page but haunts the mousy, scared narrator with her sultry, perfect specter. Her lingering presence at Manderley, thanks to her ambassador of meanness, Mrs. Danvers, is far too intense to not be sinister.
Estella, Great Expectations
Trained by Miss Havisham for one purpose — to attract men and smash their hearts — Estella is the epitome of an ice queen. And she’s not about to sign up for the knitting circle, either. Yet after she marries a brute, Pip looks at her and wonders if suffering has made her more human.
Mrs. Elton, Emma
Emma herself is something of a mean girl, if a charming and well-intentioned one, but she meets her mach with the arriviste clergyman’s wife who enjoys manipulating people as much as she does. Mrs. E drops crude Italian and references to her brother’s mansion and carriages constantly, and doesn’t know that her attempts at sophistication are in poor taste, so she does the worst thing imaginable — keeps using them.
Jessica Wakefield, Sweet Valley High
The “mean, slutty” twin compared to wholesome sister Elizabeth. Let’s face it: none of the Sweet Valley plots would be half as interesting if it weren’t for the bad girl.
The ringleader of the band of sadistic meanies who make Carrie’s life a living hell. There’s a little bit of Chris in every teenage girl, waiting to be unleashed.
Abigail, The Crucible
If sly Abigail says she saw you consorting with the devil in Salem, MA, you’re pretty much toast.
Lucy Steele, Sense and Sensibility
Lucy is one of many people standing in the way of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood’s happiness, but her befriending of Elinor is an Ultimate Mean Girl move. She walks around the room with her, whispering about her own secret engagement to the man Elinor loves. Does she know that Elinor loves him and that he’s attached to her too? We can infer the answer is yes, and she’s befriending her and confiding in her to break Elinor’s spirit.
Amy, Gone Girl
Amy is a twisted update of the Becky Sharp archetype. Manipulative, charming, a person who resembles society’s ideal woman on the surface and another, much darker character beneath.
Rosalie, The Twilight Saga
She’s the only Cullen family vampire who viciously hates on human interloper Bella Swan. This makes her the resident mean girl, but also sort of a heroine.
Cokie Mason, The Babysitters club
The older babysitter whose baby-sitting business threatens our heroines. Despite her age advantage, Cokie tries to sabotage them because they are actually better babysitters, of course, with so much heart. Nary an episode goes by without at least one member of the BSC casting a dark aspersion Cokie’s way.
Cousin Annabelle, Caddie Woodlawn
Cousin Annabelle arrives with all her finery from Boston and, much like Nellie Oleson, proceeds to mock and look down on her tomboyish cousin’s “quaint” country ways. What an affliction!