She’s cute! She’s popular! She’s a back-biting villain!
In all seriousness, bullying is real and it is common. If you haven’t experienced it firsthand, you’ve probably witnessed it. The broad spectrum of bullying experiences explains why the “poor downtrodden bullying victim” trope gets so much traction: it creates insta-sympathy between the heroine and the reader.
That being said, can we give cheerleaders a break?
(Haha, no. Of course not.)
The Mean Popular Girl works as a villain only if her victim cares what she thinks. It’s a matter of social hierarchy, where both players (bully and victim) must have self-esteem issues. Otherwise the trope breaks down. People with high self-esteem don’t need to bully others to feel good about themselves. People with high self-esteem can also slough off insults given by others. Low self-esteem, now, that’s fodder for drama.
I will admit that I was a nerd in high school. (I know. Surprise, surprise.) More accurately, I was a loner nerd. I had this sense that I floated through social scenes observing others from behind a fourth wall. I was basically invisible except on the odd occasion where the fourth wall broke. Or, at least, that was my perception. (It still is. I call it my Fourth Wall Syndrome.)
Cheerleader uniforms were definitely a status symbol at my high school. The cheerleaders wore them to class every game day, which set them apart from the rest of the student body, but I couldn’t tell you the names of those cheerleaders now. I’m not sure I could have named them all back then. They don’t stick out in my memory as being particularly snotty or rude. I don’t recall getting bullied by them. Maybe I was so insignificant that I was beneath their notice. Lucky me.
In short, the Mean Cheerleader stereotype, as ubiquitous as it is, falls flat for me. My one run-in with a would-be bully (that I can recall) happened in Jr. High, before cheerleading even came into play for my age group, and it was monstrously underwhelming.
Like, I’d give that girl a 2/10 on the Successful Bullying Scale.
I sometimes wonder if I was the bully. I had a sharp tongue and a general disdain for the world. I wasn’t higher up in a social pecking order than anyone else, though. I’m not even sure I was in a social pecking order at all. (Fourth Wall Syndrome strikes again.)
And I wasn’t nearly as cute as Prissy Rival.