The Mean Scene
Ten minutes into their first phone conversation, Rachel Simmons, the doe-eyed, 26-year-old author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, had Barbara Winnick in tears.
Simmons recounted how, at age eight, a popular friend decided she just didn’t like her anymore. Maybe it was because she had a lisp, or maybe because she was always the one in class to finish her work first; the friend never told Rachel just what she found so objectionable about her. But she also decided that she didn’t want any of the other girls to be friends with Rachel either—and she was popular enough to convince them not to be. Her campaign of whispers and stealth bullying climaxed in a dance class at the Jewish Community Center, where Rachel’s former friends fled from her in peals of laughter, while she, unable to comprehend their cruelty or perhaps simply unable to stop herself when she did, ran after them in despair.
For her part, Winnick, now literary arts director of the JCC of Greater Washington where that dance class took place, remembered the meanness she and her 5th grade friends had perpetrated against one girl they deemed not cool enough. When they kicked her out of their club, Winnick recalled, still guilty some 40 years later for her own shameful role in the preteen drama, the poor girl “cried and cried and cried.”
So after the conversation with Simmons last winter, Winnick dried her eyes and began making plans for an event to address girls’ cruelty to girls. Initially she booked a 100-seat room. Soon after, the mean girl made the cover of the February 24 New York Times Magazine under the headline: “Mean Girls and the New Movement to Tame Them.” Calls to the JCC poured in, and 600 tickets were sold. (The overflow crowd watched the discussion in a second room, over closed-circuit TV).
The Times article focused on the author invited to be Simmons’ co-panelist for the April JCC evening, Rosalind Wiseman. Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence, published at around the same time as Odd Girl Out, purports to guide parents through the treacherous waters of teen girls’ social lives, with sections headed “The Queen Bee and Her Court,” “The Torn Bystander,” and—most succinct—”The Target.”
Like Rachel Simmons, Ros Wiseman suffered at the hands of other girls in her teen years. She was, she writes in her book, a hanger-on in the popular crowd who was vulnerable to the abuse dished out by the “alpha” girls, and her understanding of the social life of teen girls is clearly informed by her own adolescent experiences. While Wiseman says that she works with teen girls because she likes them, she also depicts them in starkly negative terms and describes their relationships as routinely destructive and manipulative. What she likes as much as girls, it seems, is their ability to control their behavior in ways she could only dream of when she was a teen.
The Times article reveled in the shallowness and meanness of girls’ social lives that Wiseman offered up. And the buzz has continued. Since then, both books have reached bestseller status, their authors appearing on national television and featured in newspapers across the country. The florid portrayals of girls’ bad behavior in these books—both by outspoken Jewish women from the Washington, D.C., area— inspired a backlash article in Newsweek spotlighting kind, ethical. God-fearing girls, girls who had better things to do with their time than worry about popularity and keeping other girls in their social places.
The greatest cultural coup for the mean girls phenomenon is that it made it onto a primetime TV series, as a plot device in one of the final episodes of “Ally McBeal.” Ally’s teen daughter comes to live with her. and as the new girl she becomes a target for the popular girls in her school. It’s a situation that could have been lifted straight off the pages of the Wiseman/Simmons books, and probably was. While the Times article made the mean girl the talk of the town, going prime time proved she’d become, at least for the moment, a cultural star.
The popularity of these books bespeaks their relevance, no doubt. But there’s more going on here than just trend-spotting. The speed with which the media have responded to the mean girls phenomenon goes beyond a benign concern for girls’ well-being. It’s also about the excitement of the cat-fight: pitting females against one another as sport, and the books’ continuing popularity, the appearance of their authors on this fall’s Jewish book fair circuit, and the controversies the books have triggered have implications for girls and women in general, and for Jewish girls and women in particular.
One thing is undeniable: All the writing about mean girls has hit a nerve. Being rejected by formerly close friends can feel utterly destabilizing, and memories of the trauma can stay vivid for decades. (See “Mean Girls in Training,” p. 13.) While many women shrugged their shoulders and said they just must have been lucky enough to know mainly nice girls, a number of women Lilith interviewed for their professional perspectives poured out their own painful memories. They told of what they had suffered at the hands of other girls, at public school and in Jewish schools, youth groups and camps. (See “How One Jewish Gamp Helps,” page 14.) They were grateful that girl bullying was finally being taken seriously, not dismissed as “just something girls do.”
And after a decade of sociological literature that cast girls as sad and silent, it seems healthy to say that girls not only feel ugly feelings, but that some girls act on those feelings in ways that can at times be terribly cruel. Why not say it, after all? Girls themselves do. (Members of oppressed groups often oppress each other.)
But there’s also a less seemly side to the mean girl phenomenon. The authors paint all girls with broad brushstrokes, as if bullying and being bullied is something that almost all girls either do or go through. (Though the authors offer no scientific studies of the subject of girl bullying, it’s an assertion that seems patently untrue.) Wiseman writes: “Cliques are sophisticated, complex, and multilayered, and every girl has a role within them.” The one exception, in Wiseman’s world, is “The Floater”—the girl who has friends in different groups and can move freely among them. But, Wiseman warns parents, she’s a rare breed. So the conversation about cliques and bullying becomes, from the get go, a conversation about Girls with a capital G.
Once that’s established, the mean girl becomes a convenient tool with which to express widespread ambivalences about girls as a breed. She’s silly. After all, she judges other girls on such super ficialities as what brands they wear, how they style their hair or who wears dorky shoes. But she’s horribly powerful, too. In her most extreme forms, her betrayals and abandonments can devastate other girls, the authors seem to suggest, nearly as much as does sexual abuse. The mean girl is at once too aggressive—worse, in fact, than boys, because more calculating—and she’s a weak go-along, too, willing to swallow our culture’s rigid feminine dictates hook, line and sinker.
Girls who are what they wear
Certainly, not all is to be dismissed in the two authors’ theories. The frame Wiseman offers about what motivates girls’ obsession with popularity seems plausible—too many girls, upon hitting puberty, still feel constricted by what’s acceptably feminine. That they’re mean to each other in the name of shallow popularity also rings true.’ Simmons, for her part, argues that girls, like many adult women, are too afraid of losing the people closest to them, so they try to keep their friendships conflict-free. The aggression they feel, she claims, goes underground, only to resurface later on in uglier forms. Because they’re uncomfortable with conflict, she argues, they also seek refuge in their clique, and when they’re angry they’ll gang up, as a group, on the odd girl out.
“Girls are socialized to be indirect with their aggression, and no amount of sports will cure this,” she said at the .ICC event in Washington. She suggested instead that a girl needs to learn how to “say what you don’t like; request what you want; and affirm that the other person is a human being. We need to show kids that conflict is healthy.”
These arguments, too, seem anecdotally convincing, and the two authors’ theories work together well to explain why some girls feel weak and turn mean.
The real problem comes when we’re faced with the depths of meanness that purportedly come from the hands of girl bullies. Then the authors’ insights prove shallow, and after hundreds of pages of the authors’ musings, we still don’t really understand why mean girls do what they do. Most of the indepth stories we read in their books are from victims, and it makes sense—perhaps most sense—to understand and want to help these girls first. But the excited talk and the media coverage have been about the perpetrators, about whom we know the least.
Simmons offers some convincing examples of how girls’ anger, repressed, ultimately explodes. There’s the story of Erin, for instance, a popular, self-involved girl who evokes jealousy and resentment in her friends. Their feelings build, though they say nothing to her, until one day they find out that another girl’s boyfriend kissed her Then they turn against her en masse. They flood her e-mail with angry messages. Some of them call her a bitch. One girl writes that it makes her sick to look at her The group bullying goes on and on for weeks, and Erin is devastated, scarred, it seems, perhaps, permanently.
It’s a nightmare scenario, but at least in this example of group bullying, the cause-and-effect explanation brings the reader (if not the victim)some relief.
But examples like this aren’t really the kind of bullying perpetrated by a Queen Bee. What about when girl aggression is motivated not so much by anger but by competition? Are these acts, too, expressions of the victimization girls suffer in a sexist society? Are girl bullies so bereft of inner self-worth that they pin their identities wholly on the approval of popular boys, stopping at nothing to secure it?
Or are girl bullies just power-hungry, and using to their advantage the rules of the femininity game they’ve mastered well? Are they members of a privileged class of girls who have simply learned how to win? Do girls bully for all these reasons, and for deeper, more personal reasons, too? Even after reading both books, we just don’t know.
Take, for instance, the story in Wiseman’s book recounted by 17-year-old Hope. “When I was in junior high, there was this new girl that a bunch of guys liked. Two girls in the grade went around with a petition they made all the boys sign that said, ‘I will never go out with the megawhore, Lori Shore.'” All Wiseman offers us in way of explanation of this horrifying act is a breakdown of the players—who’s the Queen Bee, who’s the Wannabe, who’s the Messenger. We know for ourselves who’s the Target, no explanation needed. But that isn’t analysis of what motivates girl cruelty. It’s simply proof that Wiseman has mastered the taxonomy.
How do these truly mean girls feel? We don’t hear their voices or understand their motivation. Instead, we just see their breathtaking, mind-boggling cruelty.
How are Jewish girls doing?
Being accused of not being nice is old news. But Jewish women and girls have been especially vulnerable to accusations of not-nice-ness. The Jewish American Princess is not exactly a mean girl, but she’s awfully similar. She’s aggressive, materialistic and spoiled—so goes the stereotype.
Perhaps it’s just happenstance that both Simmons and Wiseman are Jewish. But it hardly seems coincidental that the main girl profiled in the Times article as an example of a Queen Bee—Jessica Travis—is Jewish too. Wiseman, who offered Jessica up to the Times, makes a connection between materialism and cruelty. She told Lilith, “The girls who arc the meanest are the ones who have parents who are disconnected from them. They might be hyper involved in their kids’ lives, but they don’t see kids for who they are, but as an extension of their own social status.” It seems hard to deny this listening to Jessica’s mother, who told the Times: “Not many single parents can do for their children what I have done for this one. This is a child who asked for a pony and got two. I tell her this is the top of the food chain. The only place you can go from here is the royal family.”
Jessica would fit the stereotype of the JAP, the Jewish American Princess of whom Lilith has written so much in the past. In contrast, the girls featured in the Newsweek cover story “Girls Just Want to Be Mean” are all middle-American Christians who, the article tells us, learned their good values in church. In fact, Jewish educators reiterate much of what the Newsweek article asserts about Christian girls—that the values embedded in the culture and the religion, if taught well, can ofHset the materialist culture of mainstream America. But the Jewish girl we see in the Times seems concerned first and foremost with her social standing. Among the details chosen to define her in the Times article: she plays polo, figure skates, goes for a massage once a month—and belongs to the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
Wiseman says that the kind of materialism embodied by Jessica cuts across lines of class and race—only the markers are different; designer jeans, for instance, versus Gucci bags and shoes. Women who work with girls from low-income families, bothered by how the Times article focused on economically privileged girls, say that all girls can be just as mean and suffer just as much from social ostracism as girls from wealthy families.
But when Wiseman spoke at a huge synagogue in Washington, D.C., this August, she tried to articulate a challenge to the congregation to address the materialism of the Jewish community, because, she says, those values trickle down to girls. “The same women who are doing these bat mitzvahs diat up the ante every time,” she said, “are the same women who are most articulate in saying that the JAP stereotype is horrible. God forbid some of the JAP stereotype was true.”
There is, no doubt, a connection between the shallow materialism passed down from parents to children and girls’ social cruelty—once again, a connection worthy bf exploration. But when the popular press is able to cast the mean girl as a rich kid, it makes it just that much easici’ for us to throw our hands up at her and her cruelty. It makes it easier, too, to slap girls down for asserting the power they do have, even if it’s just the power to oppress other girls. Jewish women know all too well the bad press we’ve received for not wanting to be weak
What’s in the xeitgeist that the “mean girl” pops up now?
Ironically, while the mean-girl portrait seems from one angle like a demonization of adolescent girls, it also grows out of the past decade’s germinal feminist writings about them. Remember Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, and Between Voice and Silence? And Mary Pipher’s Reviving Opiielia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girl”? If there’s a problem with the current too-broad generalizations about the mean girl phenomenon, they may in a way be a corrective to the trend of popular psychology that had painted all adolescent girls as voiceless and weak.
But like in those earlier writings, the mean girl authors also make girls over in unsightly ways. Like in a house of mirrors, we’re looking at the same girls we’ve always known, they’re just so much uglier.
Along with her predecessors. Queen Bees‘ Wiseman asserts that by and large adolescent girls are ruled by narrow and constricting ideas of what’s acceptable for females. Girls accept or reject other girls based on whether they conform to this feminine ideal. Any girl too masculine, too intellectually assertive, too sexually threatening, is in danger of ostracism. So, too, are weak girls, the ones who have to try too hard to fit in. Girls themselves are the enforcers of their own oppression, judging other girls harshly on what they wear, say and do.
The girl in the writings of the 80s and 90s, like the new, mean girl on the scene, arrived at her teen years to confront a culture that was media-saturated, over-sexual ized and appearance- obsessed. In the plethora of books about eating disorders, we also saw the adolescent girl singularly obsessed with thinness and beauty and keeping her body, and herself, under control. Faced with a “girl-poisoning culture,” that earlier girl became self-critical, deferential and depressed. Too often, she also lost her drive to achieve, and in some cases even became suicidal. It would have been hard to imagine her having the energy or the confidence to be mean to anyone—except her parents. The only other person she was mean to was herself.
Of course, many girls in America were not failing out of school, sleeping with the first boy who propositioned them or cutting their wrists with razorblades. But others were. Concerns for the suffering of adolescent girls spurred books, lectures and sometimes even funding dollars.
Then, in the late 1990s, a backlash began. Some in the gender debates began to assert that boys were being denied their fair share of the caring and the funding. Commentators and some researchers began to claim that boys were being left out. And in 2000, conservative ideologue (and self-proclaimed feminist) Christina Hoff Sommers gave us The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, asserting that it was really boys who were not being provided the kind of help they needed.
Between the lines about boys’ suffering were, of course, other messages, about girls. Some were positive—that girls were in fact stronger, more capable, better adapted than popular psychology had given them credit for. But the focus on boys was also used to suggest that feminists had secured for girls more than their fair share.
The mean girl came next, and she’s a complex cultural phenomenon.
Looking at the attention to the mean girl through the rosiest lens, we could see women’s willingness to hold the mean girl up for popular scrutiny as a sign that girls, and women, are strong enough to take the criticism—not as uniformly weak—without giving up the claim that girls still suffer and are worthy of special care.
But the media blitz may also be an indication that we as a society are uncomfortable with girls’ power. The timing of this new demonizing of girls is interesting. It has arrived on the scene just at a time when redress for past discrimination— most notably. Title IX and gender equality in sports—is coming under attack. Is there a message that girls have already been liberated enough, and what they need now is to be controlled? (An analogy could be made to the way Black slaves were depicted as docile and happy until Reconstruction, when the image of Black men as sexual predators—the white fear always lurking near the surface—came to the fore.) Is it merely a coincidence that as women and girls gain ground in our society—for instance, girls now go to college in greater numbers than boys—they also come under attack as manipulative and deeply flawed?
Women who work with girls respond
It’s not surprising, with all these ambivalences embedded in the image of the mean girl, that the books and the media coverage of her have evoked angry reactions from some feminist leaders. “The mean girls focus is a backlash against feminist thinking,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, who heads Harvard’s eating disorders clinic and is an expert
on teen girls’ issues. Marie Wilson, the president of the Ms. Foundation, is unambiguous in her opposition. “Yes, girls can be terribly mean to each other,” but what vilifying them in the popular press does, she insists, is simply give ammunition to those who claim girls have already received enough help and the sexism of our society has already been redressed.
What is surprising is that many women who work with girls say that they’re happy for the press, despite their misgivings about how girls are being depicted. Any attention to girls’ issues, they say, is good attention, and friendships and the ways girls treat each other, they add, is a central concern for their girls.
“Girls are sensitive—I think sensitive in a good way—and their feelings can be hurt by who’s popular and who’s not, and even by small things, like not being invited somewhere, so I think the fact that awareness is being raised about it is positive,” says Rebekah Sweder, who runs teen programming at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. Girls, Sweder said, are happy for the opportunity to talk about themselves, and in particular to talk about what hurts them.
Good too, they say, is the money the attention might help them raise to work with girls. Because cultural debate aside, the goal is to continue helping girls grow stronger, happier, smarter, freer—and, indeed, nicer. In that light, adults can appreciate the clues this most recent conversation about girls offers us about girls’ emotions. What is useful, hype and hysteria aside, is the sensitivity it provides to those of us who work with girls or parent girls when we try to help them navigate what can certainly at times be treacherous terrain.
Katie Riley, the program director for The Girls’ Project, based on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said that in their program they already discuss why bullying and exclusion happen, role play possible responses to it, write songs and rhymes about standing up to bullies, even create fortune tellers with solutions to teasing and bullying, because it is, in fact, one of the biggest problems their girls face. It’s important, she said, for girls to come up with their own solutions. But even after all that, she still finds meanness an obstinate problem.
At the end of last year, she explained, one girl who had gone through the program suddenly stopped talking to her best friend. She was clearly angry, but she wouldn’t say why. And the friend who was being shut out grew angry in turn, but she wouldn’t talk about it either. “I said to the girl being excluded, ‘Have you done this before?’ and she said, ‘Yeah.’ But she was unwilling to make a connection between what she was feeling and what she had done to other people.
“There’s this kind of inability many girls’have to imagine stepping out of it and speaking openly about how they feel. It’s like the nuclear arms race of middle school. To me, the real challenge is helping the girls get to the heart of their issues.” Despite her objections to the mean girl phenomenon, Catherine Steiner-Adair herself suggests that until girls learn to be direct about their negative feelings— and learn that it’s okay for females to have these feelings—they will use underground maneuvcrings like excluding bchavior to express what they think.
She notes that “the robust language for envy and jealousy fades in middle school. Girls get confused. They have no way to say ‘I was really upset when you went to the mall without me.’ In order to stay best friends you have to hide your negative feelings (even from your best friend).” Ironically, she explains, girl meanness grows out of “the tyranny of kind and nice”.
There’s truth worthy of exploration in the image of the mean girl. But needless to say, talking about all girls as if they’re mean girls distorts girls in ways that make them hard to recognize by those of us who work with and raise girls and continue to like them for their sensitivity, intelligence, humor, creativity and resilience to the incredibly hard challenges many girls do face.
It distorts their social lives too, which are more complex and textured than a simple ranking on a popularity scale. “We had someone come in to talk to our seventh- and eighth- grade girls for a pilot TV show on popularity a while ago,” Sweder said. “When I heard the girls talk about the social makeup of their schools, they gave me a much more heartening view. They gave me the sense that it’s not all about popularity, and that groups are different in part because they have different interests. I don’t really think that ‘Goth’ kids want to be on the football team.” But in the books about mean girls, it’s the rare girl who seeks out friends simply because she likes them, or for whom the quest for popularity is not all-consuming.
“The statement that struck me the most in the Times article,” Sweder said, “was the one that said. ‘If you ever sat in a sixth-grade lunchroom, you can’t say that girls are innately good.’ I hope to disagree.”
Rachel Blustain is a writer living in New York and a contributing editor of Foster Care Youth United.
Mean Girls in Training: When Summer Camp Hurts
by Alice Alexiou
All this attention now beaming down on the “mean girls” phenomenon awakes in me horrible memories from 40-odd years ago. I was perhaps 10, in Pennsylvania at a Jewish summer camp. My bunkmates included Susan, who would later become my best friend, and two girls, Lois and Ellen, who quickly assumed tight leadership of the bunk. Their heads were constantly bent together, their hands over their mouths, as they whispered secrets to each other. I was one of two first-year campers; the rest were in their second or third years. Lois and Ellen designated me as the girl to be picked on, and everybody else quickly took their lead. I was physically mature for my age, and a bit clumsy. Everything I did was cause for everybody’s criticism. When I missed the ball during a game of newcomb, Lois screeched, Aaa-lice! When I got up in the morning to urinate, I heard them hissing, Alice goes to the bathroom, every morning! My Bermuda shorts, they informed me, were “faggy,” which in the pre-teen vocabulary of the time meant that the fit was too loose, an absolute no-no. I suffered quietly.
Then one day the girls surrounded me as I stood at my cot. They tried to strip my clothes off. “Ugh, I touched her,” Susan said.
Up to now, my two counselors had looked the other way. But now I was crying, sobbing that the girls never stopped making fun of me. As if they didn’t know.
“Alice, don’t let it bother you,” one of them said. She was perhaps 18. Oh right, excellent advice. The other counselor was an older woman, who, I now realize, was probably a Holocaust survivor. She didn’t say anything. I began to write desperate letters to my parents, who, horrified, got in touch with the camp’s owners. My parents offered to take me home. But my pride intervened. Somehow, I would stick out the season. And the head counselor, a kindly widow with two children who was, like much of the camp staff, a teacher, paid a visit to our bunk. She spoke sternly, and directly. You are not, she told the girls, to make fun of Alice. You are not to hurt her feelings.
Ellen, the bunk’s co-Kommandante, then piped up; “But when Alice makes fun of me, she hurts my feelings!”
Ellen, I am happy to say, did not in any way convince the head counselor that she, too, had been a victim of capricious cruelty. Somehow I made it through the rest of the summer. Back home on Long Island, Susan and I became friends. The following summer, we two returned to camp. Lois and Ellen did not. There were several first-year campers in our bunk. One of them got picked on. Everybody participated in this sadistic game. Including me.