The Curious Appeal, and Rise, of the “Mean” Girlfriend

“Why do men marry mean girls?" Rebecca asks me.

She’s almost in tears, and my heart aches for her. Rebecca’s a beautiful, talented single New Yorker in her mid-30s who, despite her attributes, hasn’t had much (any) luck with relationships.

We’re conversing in a quiet corner at a wake. Rebecca’s just delivered a lovely eulogy, and, as she read, I marveled silently that men wouldn't be stampeding to meet her, even if it was a funeral. I've always been uncouth like this. 

Rebecca doesn't want to care about marriage too much, and she has a rich life. On the other hand, she’s baffled and hurt by the elusiveness of marriage, or even a serious relationship. She conveys what a wise, divorced friend once called the "sad energy of The Unchosen." Rebecca observes that when men do commit, they often choose women who don’t treat them all that well.

“If I have to be mean to get someone,” she sniffs, “then I don’t stand a chance at marriage.”

This was my first encounter with Cruella syndrome, the mean girlfriend’s marital triumph over the nice. Granted, I haven’t been single for 15 years, and can’t be certain that this mean girlfriend phenomenon is true for any notable portion of men. But by now, I’ve heard it from enough single, urban women that it merits some freewheeling speculation.

First it strikes me that “mean” and “nice” are misleading slang. The words refer to specific kinds of traits. In this context, mean seems to code for: independent, feisty, assertive, snippy, snarky, and not deferential to the boyfriend. Those are good traits, actually.  Nice seems to code for: solicitous, “sweet,” eager to please, inoffensive, and demure, even. And some of those are good traits, too.

An important clarification:  there are partners who truly are mean—who abuse, hurt, harass, and stalk. There are people who don’t understand the word NO, and keep pestering until they end up with a restraining order against them. But it’s not my sense that when Rebecca talks about mean girlfriends or, conversely, when “nice guys” bewail women’s preferences for “jerks,” that they have these law-breaking cases in mind.

You know the type they’re referring to:  The mean girlfriend embarrasses her nice boyfriend when he solicitously buys her a martini, because he chose the wrong vodka. “I like Stolichnaya, goddamnit!” she snaps in front of their friends. The nice girlfriend prepares an amazing souffle for the jerk boyfriend, who makes clear that he’d prefer to eat Doritos while watching football.  

“She/He must be a SAINT to put up with Him/Her!” the friends exclaim. “What’s the appeal?”

It’s hard to say, or generalize. But I think it has something to do with desirable spousal traits in an age of optional marriage, and diminished dependency between husband and wife. When we don’t need to marry, and don’t need each other as much within marriage to play complementary roles, our criteria for mates naturally change a little.

And if nothing else, meanness proves a girlfriend’s minimal dependency and insouciance toward commitment. Of course, there are nice women galore who are independent. It’s not as if “self-reliant” equals “mean.” But with a surly girlfriend, the man’s got proof. That’s my hypothesis about her secret seduction. He knows that she’s not clingy, because she’s capable of treating him so carelessly. Subconsciously, it's a weird security blanket, to be treated abrasively. This woman won't need him that much, or place too many demands on him.

A friend of mine told me about a friend of hers whose red-headed girlfriend was so snarky toward him that they nicknamed her Red Yeller. He’d ditched a lovely, even-tempered woman for Red Yeller, whom he eventually married.

On the surface it made no sense. But in some way he preferred her surlier temperament. Maybe that meanness suggested authenticity or strength to him. Maybe it reassured him that he wasn’t getting manipulated or cunningly sweet-talked into marriage in a world where scores of advice books now instruct women on how to “snag” a man—as if he were prey!—and lure him to commit. Maybe it felt less encumbering, to choose Red Yeller, who needed him so little that she could afford to be surly, and squander a prospect.

There’s a larger rebellion afoot against the cloying romantic who thinks too much of marriage, in both senses of the phrase. Consider all the pejorative slang that’s emerged in the last decade for women who lean hard on their men. I’ve personally heard them called “Cling-ons,” “Energy Vampires,” and “Anchors.” They’re also known as “high-maintenance,” “needy,” and old-school “wifeys.”

This negative vocabulary to describe romantic dependency has proliferated because a marriage-centric focus is no longer the gold standard, nor is the idea of marriage as an interdependent symbiosis. I don’t know if men or women truly want partners who just “couldn’t live without” them anymore. I didn’t. We want love and commitment, certainly—but not too much weight to bear.

Maybe sixty years ago, each one of those slurs for the relationship-focused girlfriend had a positive counterpart.  Maybe today’s “energy vampire” was the 1950s’ “devoted wife”; 2011’s “cling-on” was 1951’s “dedicated” girlfriend.

You’d have to think so, if you read 1950s marriage manuals, with their wisdom that wives have the pillows fluffed, the toys picked up, and their “soft, low, pleasant” voice ready for the return of King Husband at the end of the workday. It sounds cushy for the husband, right? Except that the wife’s fawning attention came at the price of dependency for support, neediness, and a spouse who was prescriptively focusing her life and identity almost exclusively on marriage.

This marriage-centric woman is slightly out of step in the cultural mainstream today. If men once selected for “boobs,” as Betty Friedan joked, as proof of femininity, today maybe some of them select for meanness, as proof of non-needy autonomy.  It’s just that sometimes they go overboard, and choose someone a little too mean.

And so it is that Cruella gets her man.

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