Take your typical setting involving teenagers—say, a High School—wait an establishing scene or two or three, and there she is. See that attractive blonde cheerleader looking down her nose (often literally) and sneering at the frumpy girl in glasses? That’s her.

Alpha Bitch, tvtropes.org

Also known as the “Queen Bee”, the Alpha Bitch is a fairly well-known trope in many books and romantic movies, particularly teen movies and office romantic comedies—the heroine needs a rival, after all.

And don’t get me wrong, the drama and scandal can be a good laugh from time to time, but I worry about how this portrayal can undermine women, and the friendships and relationships we make. Especially in the eyes of impressionable audiences who haven’t yet got the life experience to tell the difference between caricature and reality.

When a real-life Alpha Bitch stresses us out, it’s far too easy to lump them into the “they’re being a bitch” category as a way to emotionally distance and defend ourselves. We have every right to do this, of course, but it does little to improve the space we must share with the person in question when we can’t get away.

Perhaps as well, it’s a microaggression of sorts, dehumanising and dismissing someone who may feel they have no other option but to preemptively attack or lash out.

I once shared an office with a lady who brought her own special brand of Queen Bee to work everyday. While I can’t say I based Eleanor on her, she was definitely the reason I wanted to re-visit the Alpha Bitch stereotype. After spending a year confused by the surprise sting of her barbs, I learned all about how the higher-ups in our company treated her. And I learned what things were like for her outside of work; how her husband’s hereditary lung disorder shaped their lifestyle.

The Alpha Bitch of our little department wasn’t a bitch at all. She was reacting to every moment the way she felt she needed to, given all the forces in her life. Maybe she was more a diamond than a hardarse, and those barbs were just the sheer, sharp edges that life had cut into her. Seeing this made her words hurt less, because I finally understood they weren’t about me.

As a writer, I often feel some responsibility to show the sides of things not acknowledged enough day to day—the pain behind the anger, the beauty behind the misery, the vulnerability behind the bitch. To show another side without playing devil’s advocate, and without taking away from the experience of being on the receiving end. An aggressor’s pain should never invalidate ours, but perhaps understanding it can offer a way out—at the very least by letting us know we’re not completely powerless against it.

I feel there’s still a place for the Alpha Bitch these days, but it’s time for that tired trope to grow up. Everyone’s fighting their own private battle. The most interesting stories make efforts to give us hints of how. And anything that contributes to a softer, more understanding world is a good thing in my book.