Hosts Sophie Krueger and Frannie Comstock channel their awkward middle-school selves while picking apart The Clique book series. Credit: courtesy Girls Like Us

Middle school can be a nightmare if you’re not one of the cool girls. Girls Like Us is the Chicago-produced podcast that explores just that, taking on Lisi Harrison’s monumental YA series The Clique. The series follows a group of popular middle-school girls, led by the mean and judgmental Massie Block. Maybe you recognize the plaid book covers, with images of middle school socialites glaring back at you. The series, which arrived at the dawn of the reality television era, was marketed as the younger sister to Gossip Girl. If you haven’t read the books, that’s fine—hosts Sophie Krueger and Frannie Comstock, two cool girls with a genuinely hilarious friendship, synthesize the dreams, dramas, and cruelties in this “morally bereft” and “terribly written” middle school universe.

In the year since they’ve started recording episodes, Girls Like Us has found an audience hungry for a critical analysis of the influential series. The podcast was just picked up by Frolic Media and with recent guests like Lindsay Katai, Nick Wiger, and an episode with author Lisi Harrison herself, Girls Like Us feels poised to make a big splash. I talked with them about queer coding between book characters, dream podcast guests, and what’s next for their show.

Jonathan Dale: Who were you when you first found The Clique series?

Frannie Comstock: I was an extremely awkward seventh or eighth grader, and The Clique series was kind of a way for me to pretend that I wasn’t.

Sophie Krueger: I read the first book at sixth grade camp, which is where they put all the kids from your school on a bus and you go to a campground for three days. While other kids were out doing things, I was inside reading this book. I think I read it in one sitting. Obviously I did not have a lot of friends in the sixth grade.

Comstock: Obviously.

Krueger: I was a very late bloomer, in all things, in my body and spiritually. I remember reading this book and looking outside the cabin and seeing all of the girls drying their bras. And I had literally never even worn a bra before. When I first came to these books I was an outsider, like a sixth grade weirdo who just wanted to read.

What did The Clique have that other books at the time didn’t? What made it so popular?

Comstock: A lot of YA books are intended, and probably rightfully so, to impart some sort of message about the world or how you should be unto their readers. The Clique did not really do that. The Clique I think more reflected the world as it was. It was always a bit scandalous to read, definitely a book you hid from your parents. And that adds an extra layer of interest to it.

It was the same thing like with Mean Girls, for example. That’s obviously supposed to be satirical, you’re not supposed to want to be Regina George, but I came out of it like, “Well I should make a burn book.”

Krueger: Similarly, it’s like, what kind of media do you want to engage with when you’re a child? It’s things that jest at adulthood and the “inappropriate things” that you’re not supposed to be engaging with. They felt like they were being written by somebody who knew what was up and what was cool and what wasn’t. It felt like an ability to participate in a world that felt very unachievable at that age. Especially in a class way, because a lot of the girls [in The Clique series] are really rich. We talk on the podcast about these early experiences of class consciousness that we had in reading these books. They’re meant to be satirical, but these girls are like, “Gap is for poor people,” and then all of a sudden you‘re like, “Whoa, what?! No, my mom buys Gap and we’re not poor!”

Comstock: Also, Gap is expensive.

You talk on the podcast about what you feel is queer coding in The Clique series—could you explain how the relationships between these girls felt queer to you?

Comstock: Something that really drew me in, as a middle schooler who didn’t know she was bisexual, is that these books place such close attention to the relationships between the girls, way more than the relationships between the boys. Whether I knew it consciously at the time or not, female codependency rather than dependency on men was interesting.

Krueger: I think too, queerness with women is categorically different than queerness with men, and letting that be a sliding scale, and letting female desire look different. Something we talk about on the show a lot is that female desire can be very aesthetic, can be “Oh, I want to be that girl.” It goes back to aspirationalism, these books are about girls competing to be more pretty or more popular or get more attention from boys—that aspirationalism to us is queer coded because it’s all about consistently changing and proctoring one’s relationship with other women, and that being the goal.

Comstock: There’s this new lesbian Christmas movie [Happiest Season on Hulu] that’s getting a lot of criticism because it didn’t fulfill this aspect or that aspect of queerness. And I think that goes to show how little actually queer media there is. So to see something that even had a glimmer of reflection of desire, you grasp on to that.

You’ve been recording now for about a year. What’s it been like talking about The Clique with people for the year? Any big things you’ve learned from discussing it and connecting with other people about it?

Krueger: I really like talking about it with straight men who have no experience with the books. They tend to bring, literally, like the straight man in a comedy, because they bring this perspective that’s like, “Oh my god this is incredibly strange, I have no context for this world.” It goes to show that the messaging that they’re giving to young girls is really deranged in a lot of ways. In reading them with people who aren’t familiar with the canon, especially men who don’t have any reference for what’s cool for young girls and what they want to read, it’s very illuminating as to how wild they actually are.

Comstock: I forget that not everyone who read this was wildly unpopular in middle school. Obviously we love [the book series], but a lot of people were like, “Why are you making fun of them?” A lot of people are still attached to these books as they were in middle school. I’ve had to stop reading the iTunes reviews, because, and I think this speaks to who I am as a person, I’m still the same girl I was in seventh grade. It really hurts my feelings and makes me feel upset. No matter how much I’m successful now, as a woman I still feel like that seventh grade girl who doesn’t fit in. I have not been able to separate the part of myself that really liked The Clique in seventh grade from my adult self-confidence now.

Krueger: It’s weird having a podcast about books that people have nostalgia for. Some people get upset when they come to our podcast because they’re looking for a literal recapitulation of the books, they want to relive the books, and they don’t like that we inject in this adult commentary of being like, these are—

Comstock: Bad?

Krueger: Yes, fucked up in a lot of ways, but how are we going to unpack queerness, class consciousness, stuff like that. Some people just want to remember these books. I think that when you get older you feel a certain ownership over media that you consumed as a child. I forget sometimes that these books actually are for children. We’re really interested in talking with young readers who could be reading it with a more critical eye than we did when we were at their age.

Comstock: Lisi brought up how values have changed a ton. I think people are much more aware, even at a younger age, of the consumerism that is forced upon us whereas when The Clique was written it was just more accepted.

What have been some highlights of the pod finding success/an audience?

Krueger: Any time we get into the flow of a really good conversation, they feel like the best seminars in college when you leave afterwards feeling refreshed. My favorite part is having these awesome guests on. Also, the people we’ve met through our listeners, it’s no accident that it’s all women and queer people in our age range who share the same interests. To connect with really cool people who also have things to add to the conversation has been really awesome.

Comstock: For every negative comment, there are five DMs that are like, “I felt just like this. We get a lot of replies on Twitter really engaging with the content and the books in ways that we haven’t thought about. Some people have sent in what they think The Clique girls would be doing now—there’s a real discussion.

Girls Like Us is mostly concerned with The Clique, but you’ve done episodes about other YA content, movies, etc. What’s the future of the show after you fully cover The Clique?

Krueger: Our next series we’re gonna do in regular succession is Pretty Little Liars. In PLL there’s a lot more to unpack because there’s a lot of sexuality. There’s actually a gay character in PLL. The characters are also very rich and privileged but there’s also more vice in that series. A murder has taken place so it’s a little bit darker. I think there’ll be a little bit more to talk about. It’s a richer text just because it’s for older readers. I can’t believe I just called Pretty Little Liars a rich text.

Now that Lisi’s been on the pod, who’s the next dream guest?

Comstock: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Krueger: We’ve been trying for a long time to get the girls from the made-for-DVD The Clique movie, produced by Tyra Banks, on the podcast.

Comstock: Curtis Sittenfield.

Krueger: Something that was special about the Lisi episode and that I think would be special about the Curtis episode is when we have women on who are of a different generation, and we can unpack the differences in how we view things generationally. When we talked to Lisi about some of the problematic elements of her writing, what it comes down to is a difference in perspective, and a difference in timing, and what was important to her at our age, and what’s important to us now.

If you were babysitting an 11-year-old girl who was reading The Clique, would you stop her?

Krueger: It’s complicated. I think kids should largely be left to their own devices, especially reading books. The Internet changes things with regards to whether kids should be supervised with their media consumption. When you see girls in the ten-13 age range on TikTok doing the WAP dance it’s like, this isn’t OK. I was talking to my sister who told me there’s this trend where young girls are doing these kink videos where they’re like, “Oh I want to be choked and slapped by the hot guy from BTS,” and it’s like, I didn’t even know people choked each other during sex until college. You shouldn’t be exposed to that as an 11-year-old.

Comstock: You don’t know about choking until men try to do it to you and then you say “what is going on.”

Krueger: The crux is there are a lot worse things that kids can be doing these days than reading a book.   v