Rosalind Wiseman regularly receives emails from women who think they are going to surprise her with the following divulgence: “You are never going to believe this: My work is like middle school.”
Ms. Wiseman, however, is unfazed. “Of course I can believe it,” she said. Her response is a pep talk that goes something like this: “I remind them that they aren’t weak because they are affected by these dynamics. And that even if we have left our teen years behind us, we are driven to feel valued by the groups we are connected to, and most of us will do anything to avoid embarrassment and shame. It’s not an opportunity to lash out at people in retribution, no matter how horrible the other person is.”
Women decades past high school seek out Ms. Wiseman because they know her as the author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence,” the inspiration for the 2004 cult classic “Mean Girls.” The film brought Ms. Wiseman’s taxonomy of girl clique roles — the queen bee, the banker (the supplier of gossip) and the sidekick — to the big screen, and it comically portrayed a set of behaviors that Ms. Wiseman argued were pervasive among girls and women yet lacked definition and social validation.
Though the mean girls in Tina Fey’s films haven’t grown up — the adaptation of the “Mean Girls” musical, out on Jan. 12, is set in high school, too — Ms. Wiseman’s have. These days, she spends the bulk of her time on the global speaking and consulting circuit, working with schools, government agencies and corporations. Her clients have included the State Department, UBS Financial Services and the M.I.T. Media Lab. Fifty percent of her work, Ms. Wiseman says, is with adults.
It may feel a bit dismal — or even retrograde — to be talking about mean girls in 2024. Female camaraderie seems to be the order of the day, fueling cultural phenomena like Taylor Swift’s billion-dollar Eras tour and the box-office bonanza of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” movie. The #girlboss movement and Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism tried to empower women in the workplace, and “shine theory” emphasized the importance of lifting up other women along the way to career success. But it turns out that there’s still a lifetime of deep-rooted social conditioning to undo, according to Ms. Wiseman.
“The root of many of the challenges women have at work and relationally with each other comes from women not having traditional paths to power,” she said. “When you are restricted from those powers, you assert power in more passive-aggressive ways.”
Or, as Lindsay Lohan put it in the original “Mean Girls”: “In girl world, all the fighting had to be sneaky.”
On a recent December afternoon, Ms. Wiseman, 54, got a call from a large company about a bullying problem it said it had with a group of women, which led some people to quit their jobs. She was at home in Boulder, Colo., where she lives with her husband and occasionally her two college-age sons.
While she is an internationally sought-after speaker, Ms. Wiseman isn’t fixated on self-branding, and she avoids catchy sound bites. She hasn’t reached 2,000 Instagram followers. (She has also accused Ms. Fey and Paramount Pictures of not giving her fair due for her contributions to the franchise. A spokeswoman for Paramount said Ms. Fey was not involved in the initial optioning of “Queen Bees” in 2002; Ms. Fey has said she has no comment.)
Many of her projects in the years since “Mean Girls” haven’t been particularly commercial, and she has branched out from the subject matter she is best known for. Her most recent book is “Courageous Discomfort: How to Have Important, Brave, Life-Changing Conversations about Race and Racism,” which she wrote with Shanterra McBride, a preacher and youth-development expert. She has the air of a sane, grounded confidante one might go to to for advice on thorny interpersonal problems, because she has seen it all. She was once asked to mediate for an adult friend group but declined. “I don’t do one-on-one counseling,” she said.
Grown-ups did not come particularly easily or even naturally to Ms. Wiseman. She expanded beyond teenagers, she said, after catching herself “having more compassion for young people than adults.”
“That’s not OK,” she said. “I needed to listen to adults about the situations they were in and then create strategies that work for them.”
This is not completely terra incognita for Ms. Wiseman. In 2006, she followed up “Queen Bees” with “Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads: Dealing with the Parents, Teachers, Coaches and Counselors Who Can Make — or Break — Your Child’s Future,” tackling P.T.A. meetings, clashing parenting styles and other everyday “land mines” adults navigate. The social turf of today offers even more forums for potential conflict. Online mom groups, for example, can be rife with “ passive-aggressiveness, meanness and conversations going off the rails,” Ms. Wiseman said, worsened by the fact that “maybe what you are seeing on the Facebook group is not the totality of the situation.”
The modern workplace can bring its own heady brew of social dynamics. When corporate chief executives and human-resources representatives call up Ms. Wiseman, it’s usually to ask her for help addressing issues like recruitment, high staff turnover and company culture, which can affect their bottom lines. Most of all, she said, they want her to deal with what many executives call the “scary” topics — namely our emotions and how to manage them.
She sees women shrink back when a colleague steals their ideas because they are too afraid to confront them. She sees women who avoid celebrating their accomplishments for fear of making other women jealous. In other words, she sees some of the same themes she documented in “Queen Bees.”
“‘People will be angry at me if I speak up for myself’” is a common refrain, Ms. Wiseman said. “‘If I say no, then I’m mean’” is another, she said.
There are no trust falls involved in Ms. Wiseman’s practice. Instead, in workshops and presentations, she comes equipped with an arsenal of questions with which to coach women on how to manage feelings of anger and jealousy.
“Part of Rosalind’s magic is that she makes people feel so seen and nod in agreement that, yes, this is my lived experience in the workplace’,” said Jenna Lange, the founder of Lange International, a global business communication firm.
Over the last year, Ms. Wiseman has collaborated with Ms. Lange on several presentations to women at large technology companies. “The flow of the experience is we ask questions like: Why are you holding back from expressing your anger? Where did you learn that?” Ms. Lange said. Then she and Ms. Wiseman tag-team, role-playing different scenarios with the attendees.
After a workplace disagreement, instead of silently fuming and then storming off and telling another co-worker or friend, “I can’t believe she did that,” Ms. Wiseman proposes saying: “The way you are talking to me doesn’t come across as if you really want to know my answer. Is that accurate?” If someone in a meeting fails to give you proper credit, Ms. Lange suggests saying, “I would really appreciate it if next time you didn’t take my idea and promote it as your own.”
The expectations for how women should act at work have subtly evolved. Fifteen years ago, Ms. Lange said, the corporate world was encouraging women to be more aggressive. Now, the focus is more on assertiveness — which is different from aggression — and giving women tools “to set boundaries and to clearly communicate when someone has wronged them,” Ms. Lange added.
Because Ms. Wiseman’s theory of the mean girl points to power imbalances between men and women as a root cause of disparities in the workplace, the duo’s teachings on assertiveness can also be geared toward helping women ask for raises and promotions. This month, she gave a presentation to Microsoft’s Women in Tech group focusing on how to return to the negotiating table after getting a better title or more money.
Ms. Wiseman is not alone in her belief that navigating these workplace challenges involves unlearning some of the lessons of girlhood. Rachel Simmons, a certified career coach who published a book on the “hidden culture of aggression” among girls the same year that Ms. Wiseman released “Queen Bees,” said she had seen women struggle with old, adolescent hangups about likability that could hamper their career advancement.
“I see how the way women are socialized in girlhood is in tension with the workplace, yet I think women are largely cut off from that understanding,” Ms. Simmons said.
The Mean Girl’s Legacy
The figure of the mean girl is both enduring and ever-changing, and some say Ms. Wiseman’s archetype has long been due to be taken off a pedestal.
Charlotte E. Jacobs, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who is familiar with Ms. Wiseman’s work, argues that having the social latitude to be catty and back-stabbing can be a reflection of privilege.
“The connection between girlhood and womanhood is a lot more intersectional today compared to when Rosalind was interviewing girls for her book — there is a lot more attention being paid to race, religion and sexual identity and how girls of color have to navigate their lives,” said Ms. Jacobs, who is also the co-founder of the EnGenderED Research Collaborative, an organization focused on the developmental and academic experiences of girls of color.
“The ‘mean girl’ archetype is a product of middle- to upper-class white girls,” she said.
Ms. Wiseman says she recognizes the way racism and other factors can contribute to fraught social dynamics, such as with “the horrible stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman.’” Yet even as she expands her understanding of mean girls and develops new methods for defeating them, the archetype remains a powerful and, yes, even charismatic cultural icon.
“Look, this is hard, and there are a lot of times when I put my head down and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Ms. Wiseman wrote in an email. But her aim is not perfect social harmony, and what keeps her going is not some grand ambition about inciting a new wave of feminism or even creating something on the scale of Ms. Sandberg’s “Lean In” framework.
Ms. Wiseman said she believed that small, everyday interactions could begin to crack the facade of mean-girl culture. That could be as simple as overhearing a parent start to gossip about a child or another parent and, instead of being sucked in, saying: “That must be terrible for that child/family/person. What can we do to support them?”
Still, the social incentives remain alluring. In her work in elementary schools and as an observer of the media that her 6- and 8-year-old nieces consume, Ms. Jacobs said that even 20 years after “Queen Bees” was published, the mean girl was still portrayed as “very smart and cunning.”
“People respect her,” she said.
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.