Mean Girls: Regina and Gretchen as a Perfect Example of Narcissistic/Codependent Relationship
DISCLAIMER: I am not a psychologist or expert on personality disorders. My degree is in Media, Culture, and the Arts with a concentration in Theatre. Also, the characters of Regina George and Gretchen Weiners are children and therefore too young to be diagnosed with a personality disorder anyway. They are probably just normal fictional teenagers who will develop into healthy fictional adults. I just find psychology interesting on a basic level, and love everything in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls universe. Yes, I wrote this for fun.
INTRO TO THE MATERIAL: If you have not seen the 2004 movie Mean Girls, written by Tina Fey and directed by Mark Waters, you are missing out on one of the funniest and true-to-life movies of the last 20 years. Mean Girls is also a Broadway musical (one of the authors’ favorites, but sadly a COVID casualty) with a book by Fey, music by her husband Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. A musical film is forthcoming. The movie and musical were both inspired by the work of Rosalind Wiseman.
THESIS: If you have not already seen the movie or musical, you will not enjoy reading this sassy essay in which the author compares Regina George’s behavior to the DSM-V’s descriptions of histrionic narcissism, and explores how her relationship with Gretchen is a perfect example of the “narcissist/codependent dance”. So, watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack if you have not already, before you read any further!
REGINA AS A HISTRIONIC NARCISSIST:
First, we will examine the “histrionic” part of this personality disorder. Interestingly, another famous character who exhibits histrionic behavior is Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara.
People with histrionic personality disorder are “highly dramatic” — even if Regina will only admit to being “a little bit dramatic” — and this can negatively affect all of their relationships. Everyone in Regina’s life, including her mother, feels “personally victimized” by this Queen Bee, whose dethroning we love to watch.
The criteria of the DSM-V states that a person must exhibit five or more of the following symptoms to get a diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder:
1. SYMPTOM: “Self-centeredness, feeling uncomfortable when not the center of attention”
Regina George is a massive deal, after all. Regina doesn’t buy anyone candy cane grams as a holiday gift. She just gets them! When her sense of self-importance is shaken by Cady Heron, Regina gets very uncomfortable, and does what is necessary to retain her sense of power.
2. SYMPTOM: “Inappropriately seductive appearance or behavior”
As a generally fourth-wave feminist, the author wants to clarify that she is not slut-shaming Regina George. The author also believes that people deserve respect regardless of the amount of clothing they choose to wear (or not wear). But when Regina tricks Cady at the Halloween Party and seduces Aaron right in front of her (to prove to everyone — including herself — that she is the Alpha Female) that’s really shitty and inappropriate. And it’s shitty and inappropriate that she cheats on Aaron every Thursday in the projection room above the auditorium!
3. SYMPTOM: “Overly concerned with physical appearance, and using physical appearance to draw attention to self”
Regina introduces Cady to the ritual of self-criticism in the mirror. For such a confident person, she spends a lot of time presenting a refined “ice queen” persona to her peers. In “Someone Gets Hurt”, she admits to Aaron that her makeup and sexy clothes are the equivalent of war paint and armor: “This is performance/ This is all self-defense.”
The author herself, while never a Queen Bee, fell prey to the ritual of self-criticism in the mirror beginning in middle school, and catches herself doing it even today. Additionally, a layer of red lipstick can go a long way in making this author feel safe in the world. Wild, isn’t it? Mean Girls tells the truth, y’all.
4. SYMPTOM: “Tendency to believe that relationships are more intimate than they actually are”
Regina believes that Cady, Gretchen, and Karen are her true loyal friends. Truthfully, they all frequently talk about her behind her back. She believes her schoolmates are more frightened and astounded by her brilliance than they are in reality. This tendency is a weak spot that actually puts Regina, the Apex Predator, in a vulnerable position to be hurt and betrayed by others. While she does have a lot of power over everyone else at Northshore High, she is not omnipotent, and this revelation comes as a cruel surprise to her. When she claims to be “just a victim” in the gym, amidst the catastrophic aftermath of releasing the Burn Book, she really does feel that way.
5. SYMPTOM: “Is highly suggestible (easily influenced by others)”
Regina ate Kalteen bars for an embarrassingly long time :/
Now, let’s look at the “narcissism” part of Histrionic Narcissism, and how it fits our iconic Queen Bee. According to Psychology Today,“Someone with NPD [Narcissistic Personality Disorder] can cause significant distress for anyone who associates with them.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina George!
The DSM-V criteria for a narcissism diagnosis is five out of nine of these symptoms.
1. SYMPTOM: “A grandiose sense of self-importance”
As we have established, Regina George is a massive deal. But truly, not as massive as she thinks.
2. SYMPTOM: “A sense of entitlement”
Regina feels entitled to make decisions for other people. She restricts her friends’ outfits, appearances, and boyfriends. She feels empowered to “fix” Karen’s eyebrows without her permission, and calls Karen’s vest disgusting. She does not approve of Cady and Aaron’s relationship, nor does she approve of Gretchen’s relationship with Jason. (He is a skeeze, though.)
3. SYMPTOM: “Interpersonally exploitative behavior”
This is literally the plot of Mean Girls. Janis exploits Cady, Cady exploits Regina, Regina exploits everyone else, etc. until someone gets hurt. Really, really hurt. By a bus.
4. SYMPTOM: “A lack of empathy”
One of the first declarations we hear Regina sing in the musical is, “I don’t care who you are/ I don’t care how you feel.” Regina distributes the objectively harmful pages of the Burn Book so that she can achieve her all-consuming objective of revenge, everyone else’s feelings be damned. As Rosalind Wiseman points out in The Queen Bee and Her Court, “Most Queen Bees aren’t willing to recognize the cruelty of their actions. They believe their behavior is justified because of something done to them first.”
5. SYMPTOM: “A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes”
Regina made her parents switch bedrooms with her.
Alright. That’s five out of nine symptoms for both histrionic and narcissistic personality disorder, claimed by our fabulous problematic fave, Regina. Now let’s take a look at Gretchen Weiners’ exhibitions of codependent behavior.
Gretchen is a natural follower. Of the hierarchical roles named by Wiseman in The Queen Bee and Her Court, Gretchen Weiners is a combination of the Sidekick, the Banker (her currency is gossip — her hair is full of secrets!), and the Pleaser. Her tendency to center her life and behavior around more “dominant” personalities (first Regina, then Cady) works perfectly for Regina, who needs somebody loyal to manipulate, adore her, and be her emotional punching bag from time to time.
According to this medically reviewed article, codependency can include the following behaviors:
BEHAVIOR: “Happiness that is contingent on caring for another person”
When Gretchen thinks Regina no longer considers her the number one sidekick, she becomes very upset and cries in the bathroom to Cady, spilling all of Regina’s secrets. Wiseman’s description of the “Pleaser” type describes Gretchen perfectly. “Her security in the clique is precarious and depends on her doing the queen’s ‘dirty work’, such as spreading gossip.” Happiness can come from a sense of security, a sense of belonging to a community. If Gretchen must walk on eggshells to maintain her sense of belonging in the clique, will she ever be truly happy in this relationship with Regina?
BEHAVIOR: “Remaining in a relationship despite hurtful behavior from the other person”
Regina is unkind to Gretchen on many occasions, calling her “exotic cute” at the Halloween party and screaming at her when she is frustrated about not fitting into her Santa costume.
BEHAVIOR: “Placing the needs of the other person above everything else”
Her life revolves around Regina. In “Meet the Plastics”, Gretchen tells us herself:
“Every waking hour/ I spend making sure Regina George/ can stay in power.” Gretchen sees Regina as a dictator, famously comparing her to Julius Caesar, and yet, remains her servant.
BEHAVIOR: “Experiencing anxiety within a relationship, yet finding it difficult to leave”
The musical gives the audience an opportunity to hear Gretchen grapple aloud with this conundrum. She sings of hating herself and remembering a time she felt beautiful, before her friendship with Regina. She tells the audience how she depends on Regina to tell her what to think, and yet, resents her for it. “What’s wrong with me…could it be you?”
SO! We have established that Gretchen exhibits codependent behaviors, and that Regina has some histrionic-narcissistic behaviors. Licensed clinical professional Ross Rosenberg coined the phrase “Narcissist/Codependent Dance”, and it perfectly describes the toxic tango of the Weiners-George friendship.
As Rosenberg explains, “The giving, sacrificial and passive nature of the person who is codependent matches up perfectly with the entitled, demanding and self-centered traits of the individual who is narcissistic…the leader always navigates the dance with precision, and the follower acquiesces seamlessly.”
Why would Gretchen stay in this near-fatal foxtrot? Because Regina, the histrionic drama queen, shines. And Gretchen would like to be close to her warmth, even if she gets a sunburn. As Wiseman observes, by being Regina’s well-dressed minion, Gretchen has “power over other girls she wouldn’t have without the Queen Bee”.
Why does Regina manipulate Gretchen (and lots of other people) in this way? She needs the approval and admiration of Gretchen, actually. She has an overinflated sense of self and desperately requires her peers’ affirmation. She will do what she needs to do to get that affirmation. Regina can scream at Gretchen in the moments when she needs a soft place to land because her Sidekick is so loyal.
Although Regina is a powerful Big Cat — and knows it — she is a human being who could be taken down at any moment, either by gossip or a school bus. A small, but real part of her feels powerless in the face of her parents’ unraveling marriage, and in the face of a world that is cruel and scary for any teenage girl. If she lost submissive Gretchen’s loyalty, she would lose the power to control one of the main relationships in her life.
Lack of control can be terrifying. Regina believes she is the smartest person in every room, and therefore feels entitled to control inferior, weaker people. She does a careful bellydance in all her relationships, balancing the act of making her friends and classmates fall in love with her beauty and strength while also striking fear into their hearts with her walk, her roar, and her bite. This is how the Apex Predator survives “Girl World”.