The ambiguous “they” say not to judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what I did when I first came across Lisi Harrison’s The Clique series in my middle school library. At the time I just thought the girls on the cover (of what was actually the third book, Revenge of the Wannabes) looked pretty. A decade later, I view that otherwise unmemorable afternoon as the start of a journey that radicalized me. No, unfortunately not regarding the inanity of Eurocentric beauty standards (we’ll save that story for later) – but rather on the excesses of capitalism and the power of a PalmPilot gone unchecked.
As a quick primer, The Clique focuses on the ultra-rich and glamorous Massie Block and her equally wealthy friends, dubbed the “Pretty Committee.” Massie, the queen of the all-girls Octavian Country Day, seemingly has it all — an endless collection of credit cards and designer bags, a cute pug named Bean, and the affection of the hot guys at OCD’s all-boys counterpart, Briarwood. The only thing standing in her way to continued total domination of the 7th grade is the arrival of the shy and naive Claire Lyons and her family, who move into the Block family’s guest house as they get set up in Westchester.
It’s possible to read through the 14 books (and 5 bonus novellas!) and come away with nothing but a feeling of mild disgust. At first glance, the series does read as just Gossip Girl For The Youths. But, digging deeper into the absurd, excruciatingly detailed depictions of the ultra-rich girls and their complicated middle school friendship dynamic – based on Harrison’s own experiences at MTV, I’ve realized the brilliance of Harrison’s subtle manifesto.
For starters, The Clique taught me that power corrupts. Take Alicia Rivera, the eternal “beta” to Massie’s “alpha.” Alicia doesn’t appreciate how good she has it, with all of the benefits of being at the top of Massie’s inner circle and none of the responsibilities of running an empire. Instead, she desperately wants more influence and tries on multiple occasions to dethrone Massie, only to let her ego get in the way. She finally becomes an alpha after Massie’s departure to London, but not before spending several hundred pages proving that you can be the hottest girl in school and still be completely ugly.
The Clique’s most convincing call to arms, however, comes in the form of Claire Lyons. Claire, one of the only explicitly lower-income characters in the series, begins as an outcast mocked by Massie. But over the two years the series spans, Claire repeatedly turns the tables on Massie and beats her at her own game by accidentally stealing the heart of Massie’s first real crush, beating her out for the starring role in a movie, and even planting fake bedbugs in Massie’s bed so the Blocks have to fumigate their house. Claire learns to read and capitalize on her enemy’s weaknesses and there are certainly times where she fights dirty, but she never loses sight of who she is at heart.
Massie is eventually forced to recognize her true power, but even when she’s accepted into the Pretty Committee, Claire continues to eat with her “Loser Beyond Repair” best friend, Layne Abeley. She sees through the posturing of middle school social dynamics and brings truth to power. In doing so, she breaks the oppressive iron grip of the Pretty Committee from the inside. My one critique of Claire is that she’s a reformist, not abolitionist, but I trust she gets there in high school and beyond.
I like to think that I learned about as much about class warfare from The Clique as I did in my introductory sociology classes. Rereading (and literally laughing out loud at) the books as I’m home during the pandemic, I recognize how much I’ve used what I learned, first as a girl from rural Wisconsin at a fancy private white university, and now as a Desi woman who did not come from generational wealth and who started in community organizing, but somehow landed in corporate America.
I still pull on the lessons on how to talk like a rich person – and all the brand names – that I learned from The Clique when I talk to certain coworkers at the coffee station. But even more so, I pull on the reminders that it’s all BS. No matter how many microaggressions I face, I am reminded that arbitrary flexes of social status and wealth, and the power structures that amplify them – whether they’re traditional capitalist institutions or the Pretty Committee – are really all just waiting for a Claire Lyons to tear them down, start society anew, and spread the wealth.
Harrison is no Marx but there’s definitely a socialist reading of The Clique that I’m 100% willing to believe actually makes this pre-teen chick-lit series a truly revolutionary text. I will not rest until it’s made into a full Netflix Original Series. Until then, I’ll be happily rereading this gutsy manifesto about my problematic eternal faves.