Friday, January 16, 2009

Miniature mean girls

by Laura Smith-Gary

Long before they reach
Mean Girls age, cruelty and power plays flow freely between female children. I was reminded of the power of little girls' particular ways of torturing each other during a recent diversity training at work (I know, it sounds like it could inspire eye-rolling, but it was run by Visions, an excellent group, and was about self-exploration and understanding multiculturalism, not preaching or guilt-tripping). In a conversation with some of my female co-workers, in which we were discussing our childhood recognition of being "us" or "them" in a group, almost every one of us came back to the same thing: little girls torturing each other. My co-workers and I are a variety of ages, we come from a wide spectrum of geographic locations and socioeconomic classes, and we represent several races and ethnicities...and every difference was, for us, painfully hammered in by witnessing, experiencing or being part of elementary school age girls hurting each other.

By the end of the conversation, several of us -- successful, educated, confident women all -- were in tears, remembering the still-raw slights, taunts, and shames at the hands of ten-year-old girls. This isn't a limited phenomenon: every woman seems to have a story. Look at Amazon's reader reviews of feminist author
Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, a beautiful and brutal novel that revolves around the agony and lasting scars of childhood girl-on-girl tormenting: almost all mention how painfully true-to-life the story is.

I must emphasize that I'm not in any way saying that young boys don't bully and torture each other and girls. Nor am I asserting that types of bullying clearly split along gender lines. However, boys and girls do tend to torture their peers in different ways, the kind of bullying that boys engage is tends to be more broadly recognized for what it is. Overt taunts and physical harassment -- the kind boys tend to use -- can be horrifying experiences, but they have long been mentally classified as bullying by almost everyone, so the first step, recognition, has taken place. The National Crime Prevention Council's article "Girls and Bullying" points out that "The typical girl who bullies is popular, well-liked by adults, does well in school, and can even be friends with the girls she bullies...she spreads rumors, gossips, excludes others, shares secrets, and teases girls about their hair, weight, intelligence, and athletic ability." The internet has given rise to the disgusting trend of "cyber-bullying," allowing bullies' power to extend into their victims' homes -- the consequences of which became clear a few years ago when a young girl killed herself after being tormented by her classmate and her classmate's mother. The "girl" kind of bullying is pernicious and pervasive. Furthermore, systematic cruelty (and I don't think that's too strong a statement) by girls to other girls is often dismissed or minimized in gender charged language: "Well, girls are catty," of the perpetrator and "She's so oversensitive," of the victim.

This might seem like a odd topic to discuss on a feminist blog: not only do I seem to be hinting that girls are intrinsically evil, but the issue does not seem to be directly relevant to the lives of those of us who aren't parents, teachers or under twelve.

First of all: am I saying young girls are evil? A little. It seems to me that all children are a little bit evil, in the sense that they engage in power plays to establish heirarchy that often involve deliberately inflicting pain on others. Am I saying that different forms of bullying indicate any kind of intrinsic differences between boys and girls? Absolutely not. In my opinion, in a society where girls are trained not to directly express aggression, and where their heirarchical jockeying becomes all the more urgent because they are often seen as as beginning in second place to boys, and where they are handed such delightfully vicious tools as obsession with looks, clothes, and weight, it would be astonishing if this form of bullying did not emerge. Children are smart and (if my first statement is right) a little bit evil: if you tell girls a thousand times to be sweet, they're not necessarily going to be sweet. They might just become sneaky.

Second of all, there are several reasons why I think it's worth discussing here:
1. As I began explaining above, I see "girl bullying" as another manifestation of a society that circumscribes girls' power and focuses their attention on a few key variables of "value": do boys like you, are you overweight, do you have the right kind of hair, and so on. It's enabled by the fact that as a culture we have already undermined many girls' confidence in themselves, then taught them it's wrong to be aggressive or rude, or to ask adults for protection. We've given girls every incentive to sweetly smile while twisting knives into each other, and given victims no tools with which to defend themselves or even articulate their pain.

2. Practically, many of us will be parents at some point, and some of us will be teachers. We need to figure out what to do about this (in addition to fighting those societal expectations, of course...). Given the profound failure of the War on Drugs, it seems likely that a War on Bullying would also fail. It has been pointed out that zero-tolerance policies don't work, and it has been suggested (sometimes in deeply annoying ways, sometimes more reasonably) that some aspects of "bullying" play important roles in social development and learning to navigate relationships. In The New York Times Magazine, Dacher Keltner (the "more reasonably" article I linked above) makes some good points about the playful, bonding, and even moral-code-enforcing elements of teasing. However, he draws a clear distinction between "teasing" and "bullying": "[B]ullying is...aggression, pure and simple. Bullies steal, punch, kick, harass and humiliate...By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge..." While that may be true, this mindset can be used to play down what I'm calling "girl kinds" of bullying, the bullying that presents itself as teasing and blames the victim: "Can't you take a joke?"

It seems that zero-tolerance policies will have little effect, and other policy changes may also be ineffective (anyone have suggestions?) I've been thinking about solutions like uniforms, which could limit a bully's tools, or stronger internet regulations, which could limit their access. Even if these solutions had no problems, though (which is not the case) in the end if a group of girls is bent on establishing a social heirarchy through cruelty they're going to do it, one way or another. Truly effective solutions are probably going to have to take place on an individual parenting and teaching level: girls need to learn to stand up for themselves when they need to, to ask for help when they need it, and, sadly, to have the self-confidence and outside affirmation (from their parents, for instance) to be able effectively process a certain amount of abuse without becoming scarred. They also need to learn about the unacceptablity of bullying through the teaching and example of their adult role models. There are many resources for parents dealing with their children being bullied or bullying others (just google it), though few deal specifically with "girl bullying."

3. From my own experience, and that of others close to me -- and, of course, the wonderful Margaret Atwood's -- undergoing and perpetrating cruelty with other girls at a young age can have lasting impacts that can affect our perceptions of ourselves as female, our relationships with other women, and even our understanding of feminism. (Check out Cat's Eye. Really.) I hope to open a conversation about how women's views of gender and power are shaped by our earliest experiences with female peers.


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