They walk down the school hallway in slow motion, perfect outfits, hair billowing in the draft. No one crosses them, because crossing them would mean certain death — or worse, death of social status. Everyone hates them. Everyone wants to be them.
The Heathers, The Plastics, you name it: Each generation has a movie dedicated to the beautiful mean girls of high school. They have more bite than in cozy rom-coms or nostalgia-fueled coming-of-age films, and often, the girls are out for blood, be it through social sabotage or literal murder.
This subgenre has a wickedly fun time with the conventions of teenage girlhood, especially when it comes to the design choices. These movies are united in iconic fashion and specific visual palettes that play with the popular aesthetic conventions of their respective time periods. They bring an edge and a hardness to elements often associated with diminutive girlhood, be it bold lipstick, pink mini skirts, or red scrunchies.
But even more central than the distinct visual motifs are the female relationships at the center of these movies. The most catastrophic and disarming relationships these girls have are with each other, and these relationships are simultaneously their saving grace and ultimate downfall. And that thread stitches the more over-the-top elements with grounded relatability — demon-possesed best friends who eat boys aren’t exactly common, but toxic best friends who put others down to climb over them are.
With its pastel-swathed costumes and conniving lead duo, Netflix’s Do Revenge is a worthy entry into the genre. In honor of these black comedies that aren’t afraid to show the dark side of high school popularity, we’ve selected some quintessential classics in the canon of ruthless teenage girls.
The movie that started it all was actually a box-office bomb. But despite not even making back half its budget, Heathers became a cult classic. Writer Daniel Waters intended the movie to satirize how the media sensationalized teen suicides, and to be a darker counterpart to the often saccharine depictions of high school life in the 1980s. (Hello, John Hughes.) And while that may’ve been controversial — Winona Ryder’s agent begged her not to take the role — it sparked for audiences at home.
Heathers follows Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), the fourth member of a ruthless mean-girl clique known as the Heathers (since the other three are all named Heather). She’s a reluctant follower, because she knows siding with the Heathers and helping them forge hall passes and excuse notes is better than being their target. But she finds herself drawn to rebellious new student J.D. (Christian Slater), and after the leader of the Heathers turns on Veronica, she and J.D. hatch a plan. What was supposed to be a harmless prank turns into a murder, and soon Veronica finds herself covering up a string of bodies and disguising them as suicides. J.D.’s plans grow more sinister, the remaining two Heathers deal with a vacuum of power, and Veronica tries to fix everything that’s gone wrong.
While Heathers absolutely set the foundation for this type of movie, it’s also notable for being the sole example on our list that has a male character play a significant role in the clique’s downfall. Still, the focus comes back to Veronica, who claws her way out of the popular clique and then out of J.D.’s misanthropic influences, and eventually extends a hand to her former friend Martha and the more sympathetic Heather.
Heathers is available to stream on Tubi and Prime Video.
The Craft (1996)
Technically, The Craft is a supernatural horror movie, not a dark comedy, and technically, it isn’t about popular girls, so much as it is about mean girls (don’t worry — we’ll get to Mean Girls in a bit). But it’s worth including on this list because of how literal the “hell is a teenage girl” bit comes into play, and because of how much focus is on the inner dynamics of the friend group in question. Also, it’s not particularly scary.
The Craft follows a group of teenage witches who unlock powerful magic in order to enact revenge on those who’ve wronged them and get what they want out of life. That magic eventually causes their friend group to fracture and splinter and eat itself alive. Like many of the other examples on this list, it’s a group of four girls — three who already know each other, and a new interloper who disrupts the already established dynamics
As for the iconic and specific visual palette? It’s Catholic school uniforms, mixed with some trad Goth elements. Since Heathers kicked off this genre by positing a counterculture alternative to popular 1980s teen movies, it’s good to have an entry that actually embraced counterculture aesthetics.
The Craft is available to stream on Paramount Plus.
Jawbreaker is what would happen in Heathers if the other Heathers accidentally killed their Queen Bee and tried to cover it up. After a prank gone horribly wrong, the popular girls of Reagan High scramble to hide their involvement in Liz Purr’s death. Rose McGowan plays cutthroat mean girl Courtney Shayne, a bad bitch who bribes dorky Fern (Judy Greer) into keeping her mouth shut about the manslaughter by giving her an extreme makeover — even changing her name to Vylette — and inducting her into the popular group. Meanwhile, Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), the most sympathetic of the clique, falls out of favor with them.
With its bright pops of Y2K color, Jawbreaker’s visual palette is bold and over-the-top, complementing the outlandish actions Courtney takes in order to maintain her status as the most popular girl in the school (and blame Liz’s death on someone else). Meanwhile, Julie hatches a plan to expose Courtney’s involvement to the whole school on prom night. (Big school dances are another recurring theme in these movies — a queen’s gotta have her official plastic crown, after all.)
Jawbreaker is available to rent on Prime Video and YouTube.
Mean Girls (2004)
No one dies in Mean Girls — but that doesn’t make it any less cutthroat. New girl Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) finds herself entangled with the most popular clique in school — The Plastics, ruled by Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Cady’s new friend Janis (Lizzy Caplan) sees this as an opportunity to take Regina down once and for all, and they hatch a scheme for Cady to infiltrate the group and destroy Regina. But the more time Cady spends with Regina, the more she begins to turn into a certifiable mean girl of her own.
Even without a body count, Mean Girls’ intricate revenge plot, focus on social status, and vicious verbal insults (and also the fact Regina gets hit by a bus), fits this list. And the filmmakers definitely acknowledge the greats that came before, with nods like the plaid ’80s skirt that Regina disses (a style in vogue during the Heathers era) to the scene where she plants photocopied pages of the Burn Book around the school’s empty hallways (a similar scene plays out in Jawbreaker).
Mean Girls is available to stream on Netflix.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Many of these movies flirted with sapphic subtext, be it Fern’s obsession with Liz Purr or Cady’s fixation on Regina George. But Jennifer’s Body embraces the inherent homoeroticism of being infatuated with the most popular and beautiful girl in school — or in this case, also having the hottest girl be infatuated with you.
The studious Needy (Amanda Seyfried) and popular Jennifer (Megan Fox) may not have much in common on the surface, but they’re the best of friends. One night, after sneaking into a local dive bar, a skeevy indie band kidnaps Jennifer and uses her as a sacrifice for a demonic ritual — but it doesn’t quite work, and Jennifer wakes up with a hunger for flesh.
As Jennifer goes around murdering and eating boys, her power grows — and the already toxic friendship between her and Needy begins to disintegrate. There is no central clique in Jennifer’s Body, but the focus on Needy and Jennifer’s intense friendship is enough to sustain it. Needy is the only person for whom Jennifer resists her urge to kill, but also the person whose life she most wants to destroy.
Jennifer’s Body is available to stream on Prime Video.