Mean girls

Grace’s life is undone, dismantled, broken apart when her husband Robert declares his undying love for his law partner, Sol. With the loss of their life partners, their social position, and their homes, Frankie, Sol’s soon-to-be ex-wife, and Grace create their own unique bond of female friendship. In the Netflix series Grace and Frankie starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin all the players in the two disrupted marriages, and the new same-sex marriage between Sol and Robert, experience huge changes in their lives. Jane Fonda’s character, Grace, a classic uptight, career-centered WASP, undergoes the most revolution. As Grace learns to be more open and friendly, more “real”, she begins to reject her former persona. After a year of social isolation she reconnects with her old “country club” friends and realizes that they are mean-spirited, cruel, and shallow. So it’s time for a reverse makeover — get rid of her old wardrobe full of narrow creased pants and tailored little jackets. It’s time to stop dressing like a female bully — as Grace has learned, her deep unhappiness with her gay husband also meant she was cruel, harsh, and unnecessarily biting to others.  (For more about Tomlin’s Frankie, see You can’t unsee me: Lagenlook as resistance and on the wonderful Tomlin herself, see Violet Newstead.)Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 2.40.22 PM

So we see Grace standing tall at the end of the line of exoskeletal jackets, each representing a domineering self Grace wants no more part of. While she still wears her dress pants and blazer, no more harsh unnatural colors for her: from here on out, she wears bold florals, tans and blues, creams and soft whites.

In films female bullies have sharp, detailed, ultra-feminine style. (For my take on real-life female bullying fashion, see Bell Curves ). In real life, of course, bullies may or may not signal their intentions through style, but in film and television we see, over and over, the rubric of bullying style.

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2004’s Mean Girls is set in a high school but the basic female-bully uniform still is used by costumers. Regina George wears tones of pink and red, a pink white-girl makeup scheme, perfectly straightened hair, carefully groomed, narrow, and arched eyebrows, and a killer instinct for manipulation. Keeping solidly in the parameters of the early 2000s teen fashion, Regina wears scoop or low-cut necklines, tight-fitting sleeves of knit or woven fabrics, and her initial necklace. As she dominates her group of friends, The Plastics, fends off attempts to depose her, and as she does not learn her lessons of friendship and loyalty, she looks awfully good, if tightly wound and controlling (and, controlled).

The consistency of how female bullies are dressed is remarkable from film to film. In 2007’s Hairspray, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Velma Von Tussle is female-bully beyond nasty: racist, fat-phobic, taunting, and even attempting to ruin the Turnblad’s marriage. And she wears shades of red, pink, acid green, and purple; low-cut necklines, pencil skirts, and stiletto heels. Her hair is as carefully curled and positioned on her head as Regina’s straight hair is smoothed with anti-frizz cream and heat irons. The will of self-discipline is conveyed in controlled hair, a thin body, and the careful poise of a model.

1958’s Disney 101 Dalmations stars the uber-bully Cruella De Ville, draped with furs, red lipstick and cruelty. As her wikipedia entry says, she’s a woman “who is very, very mean.” And we know she’s mean to the rotten-apple core: those touches of blood-red, the exaggerated arched eyebrows, the low-cut neckline. We are familiar with this visual vocabulary of the mean, very mean lady.

What constitutes the female bully in films? She’s overly sexed but worse, she is not interested in sex as much as in using her sexuality as a tool. Regina uses her sexual attractiveness in three ways: as an deceptively accommodating sexual mate to attractive boys her age; as a sexy ingenue to manipulate adult men without having to resort to actual sexual interaction; and as a sexually-attractive powerful woman idolized by her oppressed friends. Von Tussle and De Ville carry with them the whiff of Euro-trash decadence, all cocooned with sheath dresses and furs, with swirls of hair. These grown-woman-bullies bat their eyelashes in a parody of feminine beauty — they don’t want sex as much as power, but if men have power, than sex will be one way to grasp it.

1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest featured the cruel, bullying, sadistic Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Ratched claims power over others veiled as authority derived from her professional role — not surprising from a Ken Kesey novel (1962) there is deep unease over women in general, and specifically The Nurse. Cloaked as a helping, caring woman, The Nurse is a taunting, rigid, uncaring person — not even a “true woman”. Her uniform of white (down to the white hose), her devil’s horns of 1940s starlet hair, and her passively beautiful face demonstrate only the ways power and authority in a woman’s hands is corrupting.

The most successful “mean girl” bully of our parade is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young ingenue whose will to power is hidden by her demure, bland wardrobe. Eve shows up in 1950’s All About Eve, a star-struck fan of the mega-star Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Margo is edging into later middle-age, played with stunning equilibrium between naiveté and hard-bitten wisecracking by Davis.  We should sense, as Margo’s manager does, that Eve doesn’t add up, really: Look at that hat, the sad-sack raincoat, the curled bangs. But Margo doesn’t think anything of it, even as Eve begins to play out her plan, attempting to steal Margo’s fiancé (no dice) and her part (uh, that happens!).

As Eve gradually assumes Margo’s life, filling in for her in her own play, winning the award, we can see the slight visual clues. Eve’s dark dress top right, with its practical tucked scarf; her black off-shoulder dress with its neckline demurely filled in with openwork lace, and finally, at the apex of her domination over Margo, the full blossoming of her lace, white, off-the-shoulder dress, her upturned face, her demurely curled hair. Eve represents the fraught power of women in the 1950s — she gains strength through subterfuge, demure glances, and self-effacing ways. Margo, the product of the 1940s, is brash, brave, open-hearted and open-driving; there’s no mistaking Margo’s love of audiences, adoration, her friends, and her man. There is no hidden agenda with Margo, no false demureness that assumes men really hold the power.

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Margo pleases herself with her own disrupting power, wielded openly: Fasten your seatbelts, she warns. She’s no bully, and her Edith Head wardrobe reflect it. Head’s skillful work, like Bette Davis’ career and the fictional Margo’s stardom, was the product of the 1939s and 1940s, eras when female “bullies” — mean girls — tended to win, openly and bravely. No puny lace neckline for Margo; no fake-frumpy raincoat and hat for her. But mid-twentieth century, it is Eve —  grasping, quiet, cruel Eve — who wins the night.

 

 

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