'Jawbreaker' at 25: Looking back at the classic teen comedy's HBIC

Where my bitches at? No, but seriously – where the heck are they at? Long an essential ingredient in the frothy mocktail of the teen high school movie, the mean girls of movies like Heathers and the original Mean Girls were an over-the-top celebration of bitchery. (“Boo, you whore,” is one of Mean Girls’ most lasting gifts to pop culture for a reason.) That unrepentant vibe was as vital to the formula’s successful recipe as its iconic costumes, cute dumb boys, and killer needle drops.

But those remorseless characters seem to have gone extinct as of late. No longer are we allowed to simply fuck a chainsaw gently. Now we have to have feelings about it. And the girls have to become friends after it all. Where’s the fun in that? 

So, in 2024’s musical version of Mean Girls, our queen bee Regina George (the radiant Reneé Rapp) gets an entire song dedicated to her complicated feelings for her ex Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney). Suddenly, complex Regina is far more compelling than sweet-then-salty Cady Heron (an underwhelming Angourie Rice) as Tina Fey sands down the sharp edges of Tina Fey’s original film. Tina might be dropping the c-bomb on podcasts, but her characters sure ain’t, perhaps fearing putting off modern audiences.

Yet 25 years ago today we reached what some may consider apex teen bitchiness with writer/director Darren Stein’s 1999 pitch-black teen murder comedy Jawbreaker. Dropping jaws before Regina George was even a twinkle in Fey’s eye, Jawbreaker serves up a technicolor celebration of meanness without a hint of remorse. 

Stein himself called the film “candy color goth,” and it’s easy to see why. ’90s uber-bitch Rose McGowan – fresh off honing her catty chops as Amy in The Doom Generation and Tatum in Scream – stars as Courtney Shayne, the head harridan of Reagan High. And this role strutted McGowan right into the she-devil hall of fame.


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Jawbreaker broke the bitch mold.

Courtney begins the movie as the meanest of the mean girls in her clique, alongside pals Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and “the Princess Di of Reagan High,” Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayanna). But Courtney goes from  H.B.I.C. to homicidal when she shoves a giant jawbreaker down Liz’s throat during a prank birthday kidnapping gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Liz is dead before this trio of teenage pussycats can even pull her cooling body out of the car trunk for celebratory pancakes. A most sour development indeed, but one that Courtney meets with casual, hilariously eye-rolling indifference. (McGowan has said she drew her inspiration from cinema’s foundational female sociopath, Gene Tierney’s femme fatale Ellen Berent in the 1945 Technicolor noir Leave Her To Heaven.) 

With blood on her hands to match her perfectly chosen lip color, Courtney takes the crown as the clique’s queen bee and, unchained by Liz’s do-gooder reputation, is finally loosed to be all the bitch she can be. And her schemes — like her mood swings — are legion. To divert suspicion from herself, she convinces everyone sweet Liz was actually their school’s very own Laura Palmer, with a secret lust for dangerous older men that led to her death. 

And just to make it sing, Courtney frames a local creep (played by international real-life creep and McGowan’s then-boyfriend Marilyn Manson) for the crime. Not only does she have sex with the rando in Liz’s bed to plant the clueless dude’s DNA all across the murder scene, but she also tucks Liz’s corpse underneath the bed as she does the vile deed. (The movie originally got an NC-17 because of this scene, though once Stein trimmed a few of the slow-motion thrusts, the MPAA was placated. But don’t worry — its stomach-churning seediness nevertheless remains.)

Things get even more complicated when wallflower Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) stumbles upon Courtney’s machinations and is drawn into the popular girl’s diabolical web. That’s when Courtney finally commits her most unforgivable crime of all; she weaponizes that most holy relic of the teen movie, the makeover, for evil. Courtney agrees to give Fern the full femme makeover in return for keeping her yap shut. Picture if in Clueless Cher and Dionne had pushed Tai down the stairs after dying her hair, and you’ll feel something close to the correct amount of betrayal. There’s no coming back from such blasphemy! 

Not even the Heathers of Heathers ever got that nasty. Sure, Heather Chandler fucked with the eagles and flew herself right into her glass coffee table. But that was ultimately a dude’s doing. In the end, Veronica finds some form of redemption by blowing up bad boy J.D. instead of their high school, saving the day for all the remaining Heathers and all of the Martha Dumptrucks. 

For her part, Courtney is ultimately taken down by the tag team of reformed mean girls Fern and Julie, all thanks to that cutting-edge ’90s technology known as the birthday card with a voice recorder in it. When Courtney’s murder confession gets blasted for the entire school to hear as she’s triumphantly crowned prom queen, her chickens come home to roost in the form of a rain of corsages coming down on her screeching, mascara-smeared head.

A muscled, topless man licks a popsickle held by a laughing woman.

Rose McGowan and Ethan Erickson get kinky with a popsicle in “Jawbreaker.”
Credit: Columbia Tri-Star/Kobal/Shutterstock

Jawbreaker‘s Courtney is a queen among cinema bitches.

Before she’s forced to do the walk of shame and recreate the album cover of Live Through This (Stein has confessed he did indeed name his protagonist after the lead singer of Hole), there’s something so deliciously liberating in Courtney’s defiant embrace of total and absolute bitchery. She’s our mean girl Prometheus, flying too high and too bright, her make-up and tiara melting from the intense heat of her own destructive power. Her comeuppance gives the movie a happy ending of sorts, yet Courtney gave us a viciousness we could live through vicariously. 

Give us the fire of Fairuza Balk as Nancy Downs in The Craft, smashing that sop Robin Tunney into a wall as she cackles with all the delicious power that the devil’s put in her. Give us Sarah Michelle Gellar grinding on the crotch of her stepbrother Ryan Phillippe and sniffing cocaine out of her crucifix in Cruel Intentions

Or to take it back to the ur-bitch, the sacred text from which all modern teen movie bitches are based, give us Nancy Allen as Chris in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Blowing Billy Nolan (John Travolta, no less!) to manipulate him into doing her dirty business; licking her lips as she tugs on the rope tied to the bucket of pig’s blood suspended over poor pink-dressed Sissy Spacek’s head. Her meanness is an aphrodisiac! Now that’s a bitch who got it done.

There is no Carrie without Chris. There is no goody-two-shoes yin without their equal and opposite bad girl yang. What we make up for with all of these “well-rounded human beings” now we lose in sneering, stomping, diabolically plotting entertainment value. Giving the Maleficents a heart-tugging backstory can only take us so far. At some point you’ve just got to transform yourself into a dragon and burn the whole damn castle to the ground. 

In much the same way that the queer community has come around to embrace the stereotypical “sissies” and villains that were the only representation we had for so long, there can be profound power in accepting and enjoying the retrograde pleasures of watching nasty women take what they want — and doing so unapologetically. (The vector overlap should be noted here; we queers carry a century of cinema’s bitches on our shoulders like they’re our football heroes.) 

So what if celebrating the bitches might not be “good” for us? There’s great good to be had in giving our badness room to breathe. The movies are there for it! They’re meant (at least in part) to be our buried ids safely and healthily unleashed. Our biggest and nastiest fantasies sprung out of our brains, given vivid million-dollar technicolor life. 

And for this it’s in the Courtneys, gum-snapping and gun-snatching, that I will always trust. Because as that queen said herself: Life might be full of sad, fucked-up things, but you are going to walk into that school and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen.

By 111 Tech

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