Chasing Cordelia: The Rise of the “Mean Girl” Heroine from Buffy to Pretty Little Liars

TV Features Pretty Little Liars
Chasing Cordelia: The Rise of the “Mean Girl” Heroine from Buffy to Pretty Little Liars

“Tact is just not saying true stuff. I’ll pass.” —Cordelia Chase

”Honey, you can’t be a shark if you’re toothless.” —Mona Vanderwaal

Cordelia Chase is not a Mean Girl.

Hear me out. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is widely hailed for rocketing the Ditzy It Girl archetype to Chosen One heights: Buffy Summers, featherweight blonde, saved the world—a lot. Adding complexity to Hollywood’s portrayals of teen girls was the show’s whole thing, and now you can’t swing a hot vampire/werewolf/alien/superhero/football player brother without hitting a teen girl who could kick his ass.

Cordelia Chase’s legacy, though under-examined, is no less impressive. While introduced as the archetypical Mean Girl (a.k.a the Alpha Bitch), set up to foil Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Chosen One protagonist, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) spent the first two seasons of Buffy systematically knocking down every Mean Girl stereotype she could find, eventually standardizing an entirely new archetype: the Mean Girl Heroine (a.k.a, the Lovable Alpha Bitch), foiling no one but herself.

The Mean Girl Heroine is everywhere these days. Name a TV series starring or marketed to young women, and the Mean Girl Heroine is almost certainly on it. The Vampire Diaries? Caroline Forbes was a Mean Girl before becoming Mystic Falls’ favorite vampire heroine. The Originals? Hello, Rebekah Mikaelson, nice/terrifying to meet you. Want fewer vampires? Teen Wolf has genius banshee homecoming queen Lydia Martin and barely socialized were-coyote Malia Tate. Want to skip supernatural monsters entirely? Petra Solano (Jane the Virgin) and Lauren Cooper (the late, great Faking It) are ready and waiting!

What defines the Cordelia Chase-style Mean Girl Heroine is her ambivalent, tempestuous alliance with the Scooby Gang at her series’ core, an ambivalence heightened by the Mean Girl’s certainty that she is just as good as—if not better than!—the allies and assumptions the protagonist arms herself with. This Mean Girl/Alpha Bitch not only could be but should be the heroine of the story being told. She knows it, the audience (she presumes) knows it, and damnit it all if she won’t burn whole houses down to try and make sure the protagonist knows it, too.

Well, if burning down houses is an option, this next almost goes without saying: Pretty Little Liars’ Mona Vanderwaal (Janel Parrish) is the strongest and best iteration of Cordy’s Mean Girl Heroine to date.

Like Cordelia, Mona is introduced as the classic gossip- and fashion-obsessed Alpha Bitch who considers popular opinion paramount, and who sees the gleeful tearing down of potential rivals as the most efficient means to popularity’s end. (This is also true about Sasha Pieterse’s Alison DiLaurentis, the Alpha Bitch upon whom Mona models her every move, but Alison starts the series MIA, and her Mean Girl archetype morphs, bafflingly, into Damsel in Distress, so discussion of her is best saved for another time.) Also like Cordelia, Mona finds a degree of social currency through connection to the funny, fashionable blonde anchoring the series’ core group of protagonists. However—again like Cordy—Mona starts her story decisively outside of that group, looking in on but not quite trusting the camaraderie she’s being left out from.

Cordy’s transition to Heroine, though novel for its time, is fairly straightforward from this point on: She gradually warms to the idea of the Scoobies (or, at least, is Stockholmed through enough near-death experiences in their proximity to see them as evolutionarily useful), and, just as gradually, wins them over to liking (or at least appreciating) her unique talents. She has a momentary fall from their good graces after breaking up with Xander (this following a literal fall, straight onto some rusty rebar), but eventually, her unapologetically tactless personality still intact, she heroes up with the rest of them during graduation (Season Three) and stakes her first vamp, then heads off to Los Angeles to become a Champion/God, as is only right.

Given Cordelia’s archetypal rules to break, Mona’s path to heroism is much more circuitous. As in, Mona, every bit as sly as Cordelia is blunt, spends her first two seasons seeming to airheadedly tolerate the Liars’ demands on Hanna’s (Ashley Benson) time, only to be revealed as the mastermind behind their techno-psychological terror all along.

Unfortunately, Mona’s hyper-adrenalized evolution of the mean part of Cordelia’s Mean Girl Heroine means that Mona has to sacrifice—and bleed—more and longer than Cordelia ever did to get back on the right path. And since the nature of the Liars’ antagonists is shadowy anonymity (whereas Buffy’s were all monsters who could be punched), Mona’s redemption is never provable. She has no vamps to stake, so to speak, and so has to stake herself, faking her own death to trap herself in A’s nightmare dollhouse all on the off chance she might solve the mystery before Hanna and the Liars are hurt any more.

Now, the moment the Liars end up in the Dollhouse with Mona is the moment her redemption arc should match back up with Cordelia’s, ending with her engineering an escape that buys her a permanent place among the Liars and sends her off into the sunset with themto be a Champion/God in her own right.

In my unwritten fan fiction, this is exactly how it goes; in PLL canon, the story jumps ahead five years, and, the Liars having scattered, Mona has had no friend-shaped moor upon which to tie herself (as Cordelia did with Angel at Angel Investigations). And so Mona is again mistrusted, and again left to fight and claw and snark and sacrifice her way back into the Liars’ friendship.

As of the series’ penultimate episode, this sacrifice reached the point of complete mental breakdown, Mona’s apparently tenuous hold on reality snapping after too-long exposure to A.D.’s final game. Should this be the last move Mona makes as Mean Girl Heroine, it will be an utter shame, and a betrayal of the compelling, complex character who’s developed over the course of seven seasons, a character who both could and should have been the story’s heroine all along, or at least one of them. She knew it, we knew it, and she burned down more than one house to try to make sure the Liars knew it. For her to break in the eleventh hour, even as her break proved to what deadly ends she’ll always go to protect them, it’s a fizzle where a heroine deserves a bang.

Still, whatever comes in the finale, whether more fizzle or much-deserved bang, never forget: Like Cordelia before her, Mona Vanderwaal is not a Mean Girl.

She’s a Heroine.

The series finale of Pretty Little Liars airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Freeform.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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