Remember Nellie Olsen? If you’re older than 25 you probably do. Nellie was the antagonist of Little House on the Prairie. As the nastiest thing on the prairie since cholera, Nellie was a force to be reckoned with. Equally obsequious to adults as Eddie Haskell but much more dangerous to her peers, Nellie made it her mission to humiliate the nice kids on the prairie for her own gain.
I grew up watching Little House and tuned in every week to see what malicious tricks Nellie would play and cringe at just how spiteful she could be. It was fun because it was clear we were meant to hate Nellie. I didn’t know any little girls who wanted to be her.
If you’re younger, let’s say mid-twenties or so, you probably remember this girl as the quintessential mean girl of your day.
Regina George from the movie Mean Girls was the ring leader of the Plastics, the powerful girl clique at her high school, and she brought to the adolescent arena an entirely new arsenal of weapons to topple any threats to her popularity… or comfort, for that matter. Like Nellie Olsen, Regina is clearly manipulative and controlling, but her beauty, sex appeal, and maturity make her attractive to kids. It’s harder to hate Regina than Nellie, because deep down inside, we want to look like, if not be, Regina.
Girls today have a harder time than we did identifying the mean girl and rejecting her behavior. Today’s mean girl is almost more insidious than Regina or Nellie. She often masquerades as friend or funny sidekick, and the laugh track that backs her up encourages our happy response to her bullying behavior.
Sam Puckett from Nickelodeon’s iCarly TV show is a terrific example of how well the media camouflages mean girls today. I recently participated in a program called Girls Day Out in Greenville, SC during which I asked about 100 5th grade girls about the characters on iCarly: Carly, Freddie, and Sam.
Carly they described as “super nice”, “pretty”, “smart” and “kind”.
Freddie they told me is “nice”, “cute but geeky”, “smart with technology” and “a good friend”.
Sam is “funny”, “hilarious”, “tough”, and a “great friend”.
Having seen the show myself, I probed further. “Tell me what kinds of things Sam does that are funny, “ I asked.
The girls then offered up a laundry list of scenarios in which Sam punches kids, pours food on their head (in public), sticks food on their faces (in school), and trips people in the hall.
And so I asked them again, what kind of person is Sam? Their response this time, ‘Well, she’s supposed to be funny.” And how do they know that? Because of the laugh track and because no one says otherwise. The show iCarly is so popular because it is a child’s world in which there are virtually no adults. Carly is raised by her older brother, a nutty artist who, albeit very caring, is hardly a voice of reason. The principal is a classic dimwit, Freddie’s mom, the only other adult on the show is a helplessly neurotic idiot. Kids viewing the show get a whole lot of sass, zaniness, and impulsivity, but virtually no consequence.
What does this evolution of the mean girl say to us?
It says the evidence is in and middle school is clearly a different game now than it was 20 years ago. As parents, we’ve got to accept that the social context of middle school is different than what we experienced. We need to be willing to say goodbye to Nellie Olsen and come to terms with what’s really happening in middle school so we can be better equipped to help our kids face the social challenges they face.
One great way to help your children as they begin to navigate the new social world of middle school: http://www.michelleinthemiddle.com/work-with-michelle/social-education-programs