What Reneé Rapp Has Taught Me About My Own Queerness

written by EMMA GINSBERG
renee rapp"
renee rapp
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider
Graphics by: Caitlin Schneider

Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone could make it to March of 2024 and not be a huge Reneé Rapp fan. Whether you know the 24-year-old pop star from her two seasons on The Sex Lives of College Girls, her debut album, “Snow Angel,” or have been around since Rapp played Regina George on the original Broadway production of Mean Girls, her talent and star power is undeniable. She was on SNL with Jacob Elordi, her one-off remarks in recent interviews have gone completely viral, and she’s getting tons of hype for her “Snow Hard Feelings” tour. She’s kind of everything right now.

When I first saw Rapp performing on-screen as Leighton Murray on The Sex Lives of College Girls, my life pretty much changed. As a queer woman, I had never seen myself represented so well on-screen. Since then, Rapp has repeatedly come to be much more than just an actress or singer to me; she’s a star who reflects my personal feelings about my gender and sexuality to the rest of the world on a massive scale. With each new project Rapp has released, from the TikTok-viral “Too Well” to her delivery of “Get in loser” in the Mean Girls movie musical trailer, I have felt increasingly seen. Here’s everything that Reneé Rapp has taught me about my own queerness, femininity, and self-perception.

It’s totally normal to feel “not gay enough”

Last August, Rapp revealed in an interview with The Cut that she agonized for months over what it meant for her, when she identified as bisexual and was dating a man, to be playing Leighton, a closeted lesbian exploring her sexuality, on The Sex Lives of College Girls. “I was being very homophobic to myself,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t deserve to be doing this; I’m not gay enough.’” Since then, Rapp has come out as lesbian, but this does not change the fact that she felt dissonance and guilt when she first took on the label, even in a fictional world, as Leighton.

Feeling “not gay enough” has been, and remains, the single hardest thing that I’ve had to work through regarding my own sexuality. Though Rapp now identifies as a lesbian just like her character on The Sex Lives of College Girls, she struggled with internalized homophobia and impostor syndrome, just like I have. Ironically, while Rapp was struggling with what it meant for her to play a character who was exclusively attracted to women, the character of Leighton was the first time I saw myself represented on screen—and I identify as bisexual. This is because Leighton is overwhelmingly straight-presenting. On the show, Rapp is costumed in girlboss-coded, highly feminine outfits that allow her character to blend right in with the primarily heterosexual crowd at Essex College. Seeing a character who dressed like me—in a hyper-feminine, very straight-presenting way—but loved women on television sent me one crucial message: you are gay enough. Leighton showed me that looking the part of a straight girl wasn’t going to bar me from queer friendships or relationships, and seeing that unfold on-screen meant the world.

Seeing a character who dressed like me—in a hyper-feminine, very straight-presenting way—but loved women on television sent me one crucial message: you are gay enough.

Being a “mean girl” is… a little gay

Both of Rapp’s most prominent roles—Leighton on The Sex Lives of College Girls and Regina George in Mean Girls—have been stereotypical mean girls. Rapp herself, as many have come to know through her press tour for the movie musical adaptation of Mean Girls, has many of the traits of the stereotype of the mean girl, from her blondeness to her bluntness. Rapp has taken the stereotype of the “mean girl” and asked us to dig a little deeper into the reasons why a woman might dedicate so much time and thought to trying to one-up other women. She’s exposed the inherent queerness of the “mean girl” stereotype by playing women who are truly obsessed with other women, whether they want to have sex with them or destroy them. To Rapp, the Regina Georges of the world have always been a little gay, and those are the characters that mean the most to her. “I have been equal parts bullied as I have been a bitch,” Rapp said in her interview with The Cut. I’ve never related to anything more.

In high school, I was stereotyped as a “mean girl.” I was not a Regina George by a long shot, but I lacked the revolutionary spirit of a Cady. Due to overwhelming teenage insecurity, I possessed the follow-the-crowd exclusivity of Lisa Luder in Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion plus the academic intensity of Paris Geller of Gilmore Girls. I was also in high school when I realized I was bisexual, and found the experience unbelievably confusing. Though I had no problem recognizing my own interpersonal intensity and my bisexuality, I struggled to reconcile them with one another. How could I be, allegedly, at the “top of the social food chain” in my high school and simultaneously identify as someone who loved other women? Did I hate other girls, as the stereotype of the (assumed to be straight) “mean girl” told me, or did I love them? I had never seen a woman who was as outspoken as I was in high school also identify as queer on-screen until seeing Rapp’s performances. Her portrayals of Leighton and Regina showed me that my feelings of insecurity around other women in high school were always tied to my sexuality. Regardless of how my strong feelings about other women manifested—as competitiveness or crushes—they were always connected to my queerness.

To see a star like Rapp be so unapologetic, as unafraid of calling attention to her own blunders as she is of laying into someone who is being outright sexist or homophobic, is straight-up inspiring.

I don’t have to interpret my queerness through my style

Recently, I sent a text to my group chat telling my friends that “I want to be hot on an ethereal soul level.” What I truly wanted to express was that I want to be attractive to women and men, all the time, regardless of whether what I’m wearing makes me appear more feminine or masculine. Rapp, both on-screen and off, has expressed the same sentiment. In an interview for High Snobiety, appropriately titled “Reneé Rapp on Being Really Hot,” she said, “I really enjoy when I dress hyper-feminine or appear hyper-feminine, and then people are very confused.” As a bisexual woman who has been repeatedly called straight purely because of my extremely feminine style, hearing someone with a platform like Rapp’s express exactly how I feel about my style is unbelievably validating.

At the same time, Rapp expresses her queerness outside of her style, finding gendered nuance beyond appearance. She highlights the confusing experience of being a feminist but disliking another woman in her song “Poison Poison”; she acknowledges that she can come across as harsh while simultaneously calling out the misogyny of people who label her as bratty; she recognizes her privilege as a white cis woman while highlighting the systemic challenges she still faces; she maintains that she is “in love with everybody at all times.” Rapp is all about breaking binaries, and it goes deeper than singing about both women and men or dressing both femininely or masculinely.

In a world that constantly asks me to interpret both my femininity and my feminism through things (is the pink bow in my hair feminist or anti-woman? I’m literally so tired of wondering), seeing Rapp illustrate her own queerness outside of her appearance feels unbelievably liberating. Seeing Rapp unapologetically walk the line in more ways than one gives me a frame for interpreting the nuances of my own bisexuality beyond how I physically look. It is Rapp who helped me realize that it’s completely normal to find my queerness not in how I present externally, but in my existence. Because of Rapp, I personally see my move to the middle of the country after four years on the East Coast as the most bisexual thing I’ve ever done—for some reason, when I find elements of both coastal attitudes in Chicago, I also find it easier to recognize the parts of myself that love men and love women. I see my identification as a feminist and my failures to always be a good feminist as deeply intertwined; I can hold my past “mean girl” label and my present everyone-is-welcome attitude at the same time.

The contradictions in my sexuality and self are what make me legitimately human

I can’t be everything to everyone; in fact, I shouldn’t be

At the end of the day, both Rapp and I represent a highly privileged subsect of the queer community, as white, cis, feminine-presenting women. And Rapp is by no means deserving of unilateral praise: she infamously called herself “ageist” in an interview with Andy Cohen earlier this year, and is known for sparking controversy in press junkets. Her success right now, particularly as a queer female artist, is owed in large part to those who came before her. Before there was Leighton, there was Santana, after all. Rapp is not by any means universally revolutionizing public perceptions of queer women, but perhaps that’s the point. Just because she’s kind of everything to someone who looks like me doesn’t mean she can or should be everything to everyone.

To see a star like Rapp be so unapologetic, as unafraid of calling attention to her own blunders as she is of laying into someone who is being outright sexist or homophobic, is straight-up inspiring. In moments when I feel like it’s impossible to hold my self-perception together, I find myself asking…what would Reneé Rapp do? Especially in a digital world that demands seemingly endless levels of persona-building, Rapp reminds me that it won’t be possible for me to please everyone. I will blindside those who assume I am straight based on my appearance and interests, but I will also repeatedly disappoint those who expect my appearance and interests to change because of my queerness. I will always have been stereotyped as a “mean girl” in the past, even if I’ve devoted my present to loving women in as many ways as I can possibly imagine. The contradictions in my sexuality and self are what make me legitimately human—as Rapp herself says, “Unhinged is the new authentic.” Because of Rapp, I know I can’t be everything to everyone, so I’m not even going to try.