I was a freshman in high school when I saw Tina Fey's Mean Girls in theaters in 2014, and it isn't an exaggeration to say it changed my entire outlook on girlhood. For the next decade, I looked at other young women in my life with suspicion, treated them like competition, and was always on the lookout for the next attack from a mean girl. Sometimes, plenty of times, that mean girl was me.
"It took me until writing this book to see 'mean girls' as a stereotype, and I still feel so ridiculous for that," Text Me When You Get Home author and journalist Kayleen Schaefer tells Bustle. Like me, she was raised in a culture that taught young women we weren't supposed to be nice to one another. "I literally thought there was something in girls, me included, that made us mean when we were in high school, or first starting out in the workplace. But we aren't. Girls are no nicer or meaner than anyone else," she says.
The misguided sociological perspective that women are somehow naturally nasty, particularly to one another, is one Schaefer attempts to correct in her new book about the evolution of female friendship. Unfortunately, it's a stereotype that dates back much further than Regina George and her Burn Book.
"Even in the middle ages and early modern times, women were told ‘You can’t be friends. You don’t have the moral center to have a selfless relationship with another women. You can’t handle this,'" Schaefer explains. "That was shocking to me that women have been told we are bad at being friends with each other for that long."
In the 1980s, catfights between women became one of the most popular tropes on television. ABC's primetime soap opera Dynasty became the #1 show in America, largely because of its frequent portrayal of heated verbal and physical confrontations between female characters. Flash forward two decades later, and the rise of the "mean girl" dominated the early 2000s, first with the publication of Rosalind Wiseman's guide to teenage girls famously titled Queen Bees and Wannabes, and later, by the film Mean Girls, which was inspired by Wiseman's book. Throughout history, girls and women have been told time and time again that they are naturally mean, and Schaefer believes that's a serious cultural issue we need to address.
"That was shocking to me that women have been told we are bad at being friends with each other for that long."
"If you tell a young girl they are mean, they sort of believe that is the way they have to be," she explains. "I certainly did. I thought I had to compete with other girls, that is just the way it was."
Schaefer is far from the only woman to fall victim to this false ideology. In Text Me When You Get Home, which is a balanced mix of memoir, historical study, and cultural critique, the author examines how generations of girls have been convinced, time after time, that they are incapable of meaningful relationships with one another. More importantly in the book, however, Schaefer uses her own friendships, interviews with other women, and examples from pop culture to point out how and why that dated and damning cliché is, at is core, so wrong.
"What I set out to do was to give women a book that validates these friendships," Schaefer explains, "I wanted to make that point, and to try and lift our friendships out of those stereotypes that we have been smothered by for so long."
More than just a critique of our culture's misguided views on women's relationships, Text Me When You Get Home is a beautiful celebration of female friendship, and of the strength women car draw from having meaningful relationships with one another. It honors the many ways in which women support each other, emotionally, mentally, financially, and even, possibly, politically.
"What I set out to do was to give women a book that validates these friendships."
"I don’t think us being friends is the same thing as political organizing," Schaefer clarifies. "Just because we are friends doesn't mean we all vote the same way or think the same way on the same issues." But the author does believe that by strengthening our friendships with one another, women are making it harder for a male-dominated society to ignore them. "I'm not saying we all have to think in lockstep, but I do think it is important for visibility and for getting our voices heard."
Having female friendships seen and heard is one of the main goals of Text Me When You Get Home. The book's title, the author explains, is something women say to each other in private, a way of expressing their love and support quietly to one another, but there is a shift in the way women are honoring their powerful friendships with one another.
"Now what is happening is we are going from this private text to this public hashtag, this #MeToo and #TimesUp," Schaeder says, "We are saying these bonds have been there. We have always been standing up for each other. Now we are showing everyone that these bonds are there, and that we are changing things because we are doing it together."
These bonds between women that have always been there but have largely gone unacknowledged and invalidated, Schaefer argues, goes beyond the traditional labels we have for them. "Best friend," according to the author, just doesn't cut it. "That is not strong enough for this adult person who has the spare keys to my apartment in case I lock myself out, or the person I cry in her arms when I got fired, or is the person I told about a sexual experience that I don’t feel good about," Schaefer says. "That 'best friend' label isn’t strong enough for this person you can count on for any moment you need them."
Today's modern women are searching for new ways to express to each other, and to the world, how important their friendships really are. Unlike romantic relationships, there is a limited vocabulary, and an even more limited discussion, that addresses the real, deep bonds between women. "The thing about friendship is that it is a relationship that is not tied by anything but our love for each other," Schaefer says. "There is no legal ties, no blood ties, no financial ties. I think we are doing what we can to explain their importance, and we can use our words to make that point."
"The thing about friendship is that it is a relationship that is not tied by anything but our love for each other."
With Text Me When You Get Home, Schaefer hopes that is exactly what women are inspired to do: use their words to talk, openly and publicly, about their friendships. "We don’t have these universal conversation about friendship," she explains. "Everybody knows the signifiers of romantic relationships: the courtship, the engagement. Everyone knows how it goes because we talk about it so much, but in our friendships we just don’t.
In talking about female friendships and in celebrating the important ways they provide love, support, comfort, and satisfaction, Schaefer hopes to change the stereotype of the "mean girl." In its place, the author hopes to present realistic picture of the incredible bonds women share, even when those bonds change.
"It may not be the same women you went to college women, it may not be the same women you had your first job with," Schaefer admits, "but women will still continue to rely on each other, and these friendships will be as important throughout our lives."