But as a preteen and young teenager — i.e. the series’ target audience — I wasn’t equipped to pick up on parody. I thought Massie was awesome: She had a quick mind and a sharp tongue, knew all the “right” things to wear and owned everything a mid-2000s girl could want, including a desktop Mac, a PalmPilot and a horse. Even rereading the books now, I find Massie compelling. She’s witty and dramatic, the main driver of most of the books’ plots. I get the sense that Harrison fell in love with her monster and didn’t have the heart to sideline her.
Were the series truly interested in promoting healthy girlhood, Claire should have been its standout protagonist, forever denouncing the Pretty Committee’s superficial ways. Instead, she falls into the Clique’s ensemble cast, led by Massie, and fights to join the group. Her exhortations that young girls should prize comfort over comeliness become a cutesy trademark. Kristen is the sporty one; Dylan, a size six, is the “fat” one; Alicia is the one with the C-cup breasts; and Claire is the one who thinks it’s OK for middle-school girls to be themselves.
Dylan constantly tries new diets at the behest of her celebrity mother, and Alicia’s breasts get called out by size nearly every time she enters a scene. The books hardly sympathize with Dylan, painting her negative self-image as a laughable side effect of her wealth instead of treating it with horror or gravity. Boys are obsessed with the buxom Alicia, and she capitalizes on this to try and out-popular Massie. As a young reader, I gathered that eating disorders were frivolous — but also that healthy appetites (and above-average bustlines) were shameful.
For the Clique books to be successful works of satire, they would have to spend more time critiquing superficial materialism and less time glorifying it. A quick, unscientific keyword search across the series’ 15 books and five novellas found 421 references to lip gloss, while the word “smart” only made 39 appearances. Inspired by the adult-seeming protagonists, I wore eyeliner and high heels to my middle school dances and got my uniform skirt hemmed as high as my parents would allow. My mother, who prefers cargo shorts to cashmere sweater sets, was baffled by my behavior.
The series does little to subvert preconceptions of “mean girls,” a wildly popular subject during my childhood thanks to the movie of the same name. Massie is undeniably cruel, but she never suffers any real consequences for her actions. Though she alienates her friends, they always come back together, and even apologize to her for leaving. Their attempts to escape Massie’s clutches are mere speed bumps on her road to world domination. The books’ names say it all: “Best Friends for Never,” “It’s Not Easy Being Mean,” “P.S. I Loathe You.”
I was not a popular kid in middle or high school. I loved my dorky, funny friends, but I wondered what it would be like to be one of the girls that all the boys in my school had crushes on. They seemed shinier than me, somehow. And partly because of books like the Clique series, I hated them indiscriminately. I gossiped about them to my friends and called them names behind their backs, because I figured they were doing the same to me. In seeking to escape the mean-girl behavior I so desperately feared, I became, in my own way, a very mean girl.