“The one in green, that's Courtney. She was the leader. She was like Satan in heels.”
The opening narration of Jawbreaker describes Courtney Alice Shayne (Rose McGowan) in near-reverential terms. The leader of the “Flawless Four,” she’s a porcelain-skinned demon who rules the fictional Reagan High with soul-crushing terror. She’s a morally irredeemable murderer who (accidentally?) kills best friend Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayana) by choking her with a jawbreaker, and then sets up a crime scene to make it look like she was sexually assaulted by a vengeful partner. She bullies her minions, Foxy (Julie Benz) and Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), plays god by molding quiet Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) into vixen popular girl Vylette — and tears her down when she gets too threatening.
And yet, 20 years after the film’s release, Courtney Shayne continues to enjoy hero status among a generation for whom Jawbreaker was a preliminary introduction to the “Mean Girl” archetype.
She’s a villain seemingly designed for the social media age that she preceded. Buzzfeed has a long list devoted her to her catchphrases (“I killed the teen dream. Deal with it.”), and there are GIFs of her perfect sneer — complete with pencil thin eyebrows and signature red lipstick — for every situation. The announcement in 2017 that E! was developing a TV series based on the film co-written by its original writer and director, Darren Stein, has only fueled the hype of her legend.
As a whole, Jawbreaker is not a good movie. It bombed critically and commercially upon its theatrical release on February 19, 1999, right on the heels of mega-successful teen film She’s All That. (Jawbreaker grossed $3.1 million domestically, while She’s All That raked in over $63 million) But the stylized nature of Jawbreaker turned high school into a bright pink neon nightmare, where everyone is in their mid-20s masquerading as a teen, and ready to choke you to death. It deified the teen ruling elite all while exposing their vulnerabilities.
Still, the movie probably wouldn’t have survived as much more than a footnote to Heathers (which, for the record, only grossed $1.1 million — box office isn’t always a sign of artistic success) were it not for our continued fascination with McGowan’s magnetic performance, which has only grown more interesting with time.
McGowan plays Courtney as Bette Davis in a cropped bustier. She’s openly heartless, but delivers her lines with a combination of humor and panache that’s charismatic even as they reek of nihilism. (“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”)
Of course, Courtney is by no means the first Mean Girl. It’s a subgenre of the Queen Bee, or HIBC trope (Hot Bitch In Charge) that has its roots in Hollywood’s Golden Age, embraced by the likes of Rita Moreno (Anita in 1961’s West Side Story), Nancy Allen (Chris Hargensen in 1976’s Carrie), and Stockard Channing (Rizzo in 1979’s Grease).
McGowan even wrote in her memoir, Brave, that she based Courtney on Giene Tierney’s character, Ellen Berent, in 1945’s Leave It To Heaven: “In that [film], she pushes a little kid in a wheelchair off a cliff. When her husband says, ‘Why did you do that to Timmy?,’ she responds: ‘But darling, we needed more time alone together!’ I always thought that was bizarrely hilarious, and so I based Courtney Alice Shayne on her, a character that was my tip of the hat to classic Hollywood.”
But if the Mean Girl has always lurked on the margins, the ‘90s were her heyday. The boom of teen movies that was kicked off with Heathers in 1989 (featuring legendary Mean Girls Heather Chandler and Heather Duke, played by Kim Walker and Shannen Doherty, respectively), would go on to birth such memorable characters as Darla Marks (Parker Posey, 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Nancy Downs (Fairuza Bank, 1996’s The Craft), Katherine Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Geller, 1999’s Cruel Intentions), Taylor Vaughn (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, 1999’s She’s All That), and finally, on the tail end, Regina George (Rachel McAdams, 2003’s Mean Girls), who owes more than just her slo-mo hallway strut to Courtney Alice Shayne.
That particular breed of Mean Girl was overwhelmingly white, rich, and gorgeous. She was self-centered to the point of sociopathy. McGowan told Refinery29 that she purposefully leaned into Courtney’s most evil instincts, while never letting her grasp the consequences of her actions. “Sociopaths don't really know that they're sociopaths,” she said. “They just are."
Courtney was capable of unspeakable horrors to retain her social status, and the loyalty of her minions. Even among the Mean Girls mentioned above, she stands stands out as one of the meanest, boldest, most callously evil young women to ever rule over a lunch room. And for that reason, she rang the death knell for her kind.
Our Mean Girls are softer today. The O.C.’s Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), Pretty Little Liars’ Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse), Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Riverdale’s Veronica Lodge (Camilla Mendes) — all of them possess redeeming qualities, endearing quirks, fuzzy emotional cores or a sad backstory defined by trauma that make you root for them despite their vicious impulses. Even Regina George ends Mean Girls having somewhat reformed. She channels her aggression into sports. Courtney Shayne would never.
Maybe it’s because the medium on which this new generation of Mean Girls continues to thrive has evolved. A TV series, by definition, lasts longer than a feature film. These characters must have enough substance and nuance to last for several seasons, over multiple narrative arcs. It’s not enough to simply make them bitchy — they have to have ups and downs for us to feel invested enough to watch them win or fail.
But I suspect there’s also another element at play. For a long time, we gravitated towards villainesses because they were our only option for on-screen portrayals of female complexity in a world viewed through male conceptions of womanhood. A “mean girl” implies a “nice” protagonist, the kind of woman who fits into patriarchal conceptions of femininity. With so many bland Snow Whites out there, can you blame a girl for worshipping at the altar of Maleficent?
That desire to branch out from what is deemed “acceptable” explains the modern cult of female Disney villains as feminist icons — they’re often unmarried, free from traditional constraints and obligations, and in the case of Cruella DeVil and the sea witch Ursula (two of my own personal favorites), actually preach against the dangers of falling prey to a man’s love.
The Mean Girl is an extension of that same trend. She’s a symbol of transgression and sexual freedom. The image of Courtney standing over her jock boy toy and commanding him to demonstrate a blow job on a Popsicle to arouse her feels groundbreaking even by today’s standards.
But with more and more roles being made available to women, and a push to increase representation behind the camera, there’s a larger pool of complex, interesting characters to choose from beyond the Mean Girl.
As McGowan herself pointed out, Courtney isn’t a character that could realistically exist in today’s climate. For one thing, her constant bullying of other women, and trivializing of sexual assault feel as dated as her flatforms. “But it's a rarity that a woman is just angry or bitchy because she just is. It’s rare that a movie doesn’t try to fix her anger,” the actress said.
Maybe that's why, unlike most Mean Girls, Courtney never quite gets her comeuppance. Sure, her misdeeds get exposed and she gets pelted with floral corsages at prom, but that seems pretty mild compared to Heather Chandler’s death by bleach, or Regina George getting hit by a bus. She lives in on a parallel universe, where Satan rules unfettered and is stylish as hell. And we love her for it.