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.
- Do you think that at times Gurba went too far with her actions?
- What are some similarities between Gurba and the typical mean girl in pop culture?
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.
OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2019. Web. 21 October 2019.