Giving the word ‘mean’ a new definition

By: Pilar Paez

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the definition of mean states to “be unkind, for example, by not letting anybody have or do something (OED). As children, we are told to behave nicely to everybody and treat people with nothing but kindness and respect. We are taught to realize that being mean makes somebody a bad person. Being mean is villainized and is often associated with cases of bullying and harassment. This is a common theme that is reinforced by pop culture and characters designed to fit this trait. However, in her memoir Mean, Myriam Gurba manages to overthrow the trope of the classic mean girl into something more powerful, more respectable, and more relevant to the society we live in. This book provides readers with a different perspective about what being mean can really do and how it can be used as a form of self-preservation.

The classic movie cliché of having a mean girl often involves the girl being selfish, petty, relentless, and spiteful. They often bully or harass others based on a deeper insecurity of theirs or they are simply jealous. This pop culture trope isn’t anywhere near uncommon, as it has been used as an ongoing character idea for ages in various types of genres. Characters such as Regina George from Mean Girls, Sharpay Evans from High School Musical, or Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl best exemplify the typical mean girl in media. As viewers, we are often prone to hating these characters but loving their melodramatic actions and dramatic responses to ridiculous situations. 

In her memoir, Gurba presents a different approach to the mean girl by exposing herself reacting to different situations throughout her life. Her reactions to different experiences are what people may claim to be ‘mean,’ but Gurba proudly recounts these moments. They are precious to her in a way that she is unapologetic for, despite the experiences not going the way she would like them to. While the typical mean girl’s reason for her behavior is usually trivial or even by nature, Gurba urges the reader to see that her meanness stems from issues of oppression and violence against women, people of color, and the queer community. Gurba identifies this approach when she admits that “mean is good too. Being mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive” (16). On my first read of this line, I was super distraught by Gurba’s perspective. I felt it was too dark and a bit unsettling after reading a conversation between Gurba as an innocent child and her father. However, the more I read the book, the more I understand what she means. 

Society is smitten with instances of oppression against people like Myriam Gurba. She recounts on times even dating back to the fifth grade where a ‘Race War’ was happening between the White girls and the Mexican girls. Slurs were thrown around and beatings were sometimes a form a retaliation. And instead of being kind and respectful, Gurba chooses to fight fire with fire and refuse to back down. Unfortunately, the teacher chose to believe the white students over the Mexican students and forced Gurba to apologize to them when they begin to cry. Despite the teachers’ inevitable loyalty to the White girls, Gurba still chooses to retaliate. Another instance of Gurba reacting to her surroundings is on the playground during recess. She has established a club for girls only and refuses to let anybody join in. When a few boys beg to join the club and be included, she is quick to reject them unless they climb to the top of the fence and jump. Looking back at her actions, Gurba is visibly unapologetic when she admits, “I hoped Steve would injure himself and die so that I wouldn’t have to let him into my club. That had been my strategy. To give his sex an insurmountable initiation” (15). Gurba rationalizes her brutality and hardness by explaining her aggressiveness towards the opposite gender as a form of self-defense. She indicates that her meanness is an act of retaliating against the world for its more serious, more violent crimes.

Gurba’s take on the word ‘mean’ offers a new perspective than what we might be used to seeing in literacy, pop culture, or even the media. Her nearly callous self has some similarities with the typical mean girl––such as being relentless––but each of them have their own reasons for behaving the way they do. In Mean, Gurba responds to the attacks of sexism, violence, and oppression against women and reveals her unapologetically brutal self in the process.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Do you think that at times Gurba went too far with her actions?
  2. What are some similarities between Gurba and the typical mean girl in pop culture?

Works Cited

Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2019. Web. 21 October 2019.

8 Replies to “Giving the word ‘mean’ a new definition”

  1. Hi Pilar! I loved your blog post. I agree that, at first, I was thrown off by Gurba’s description of being mean. We are always raised to be nice to everyone, and it is off putting to have someone admit to freely that they enjoy being mean. However, once we start to learn more about Gurba, I think we can all agree with her perspective. Hearing about the time Gurba was molested really made me realize how much of a defense mechanism being mean truly is. As a woman, I can definitely relate to the idea of being mean to men to protect yourself or get them to leave you alone. When Gurba states “I knew that what was happening under the table shouldn’t have been happening, but my impulses did not command me to fight. I froze. Many animals do this” (25), I realized just how necessary being mean is. The boy who assaulted her took away her humanity, which is evident when she compares her reaction to that of an animal. Her solution, to be mean, will protect her from anything like this happening again.

  2. Hi Pilar! I agree with you in that Gurba is presenting us with a new meaning for the word “mean” through her different life experiences. To answer your first question, I don’t think that she went too far with any of her actions because she sort of deserves to act out in the way that she does because in certain circumstances in which she is a victim, like when Macaulay molested her during class, she doesn’t speak up. Instead in this instance, she “sens[ed] that if [she] yelped, [she]’d look like the bad guy, [she] obeyed the shh. [She] swallowed [her] chance at rescue” (25). Because she stays silent during times like this, I think that Gurba feels more inclined to speak out in other situations, even if it may not be appropriate. She uses meanness as her coping mechanism for the things that has happened to her.

  3. Hi Pilar! Great blog post. I like how you interpreted how Gurba showed us a different meaning of the word mean. Gurba wrote her book “Mean” in a real way. She did not lie or try to make herself look better in any way and I admire that. She wrote her book in a manner that shows us what it means to be human while writing about topics that are rarely talked about. I do not think that Gurba went too far with her actions because she is being the person that she needs to be to survive in this world. She tells us the bad that happens in the world and does not sugar coat it. She wrote “To get rid of him I pretended to read. Boys hate that shit.” (29) This is her showing us an example of her learning how to protect herself and get what she wants in a cruel world. I don’t think she has to apologize for being the way that she is but she should be praised for it.

  4. Hi Pilar! I loved reading your blog post. It truly opened my eyes to a new definition of the word mean. There were times in the book that I felt that Gurba went too far with her actions. In particular I felt that the time when she was eating dinner with the family she could have been nicer and she did not have to be so rude to them. According to Gurba, the brussels sprouts that she was eating tasted like “eternal damnation”(10). She then continued to spit the brussels sprouts out of her mouth at the dinner table. She could have been more polite about it and spit them out in the garbage can or a napkin. She did not care how the mother would feel when she did not eat the food and called it disgusting, Gurba just cared about herself. Overall, I loved what you did with your blog and I am excited to hear what you are going to say in class.

  5. Hi Pilar! This post was fantastic. I loved how you took a different perspective towards the “mean” concept by including pop culture. It is eye opening because the things we see in every day pop culture helps us define certain things and Gurba, while satisfying those criteria, also rejects some of them with her own definition of “mean”. To answer your second question, Gurba is mean to defend herself. Everyone knows that every villain has to protect something or else they will be destroyed. For some it’s a contract, or an object, and for some it’s themselves. It is hard for “mean” people to be vulnerable. She says, “My hands attacked her and they shoved her chest, making her lose her balance and fall to the sand. My toes flew into her stomach” (19). This was an attempt to defend herself from the racist comments being thrown at her to protect her from other’s.

  6. Hi Pilar! I liked your connection of Gurba to the typical mean girls of pop culture movies from the last decade. I agree that Gurba is taking the mean girl trope, and transforming it into something completely different. Gurba is choosing to celebrate meanness as an almost right of passage for young girls “being mean to boys is fun an a second wave feminist duty” (17). This framing of mean leads to us seeing feminine mean energy as being righteous and powerful, rather than being petty and useless.

  7. Hello Pilar, what a blog post! Do I think that she went too far? absolutely not. In most situations being mean isn’t a good thing. No one ever condones or supports bullying. However she was always kind of different. She was always more mature than her classmates, which automatically came off as mean. Imagine having the mind of a 16 year old young adult as you were a 7 year old kid? I would be mean too. She knew what boys didn’t like and she exploited it. “To get rid of him I pretended to read. Boys hate that shit.” (29) Really, she just ignored him. However she ignored him so blatantly that it gave her power, and I think she liked that

  8. Hey, Pilar! I really love your blog post. You point out an interesting idea of how Gurba twists “mean” into a new use. I agree with you that it was startling and dark at first. I did not agree with her in the slightest, but reading more of the text and your post has made me think about it differently. In response to your question, “Do you think that at times Gurba went too far with her actions?” I do fee that she pushed the boundaries at times. There are moments where her thinking can seem extremely dark, like how you pointed out her wishing that Steve would die. It’s such a nasty thing for a child to think and it makes me wonder if that was her child mind or adult mind inserting that into the text. When Gurba questions, “When was the last time you were mean for fun?” (35) I felt unsettled. I like the being mean to stand up for what’s right or to protect yourself and others, but to mean just for the joy of it is a different story. That is where the fine line is drawn for me.

Leave a Reply