Gossip Girl: New Jersey edition
by Kelly Roache
This week, the NYT reported that Millburn High School, well known in New Jersey for its academic and extracurricular excellence, was the center of a particularly ugly hazing of incoming freshmen – that is, ugly enough to cause such a small town to make New York Times headlines. Allegedly, a group of Millburn senior girls wrote a “slut list” rife with vulgar details containing the names of incoming freshmen, passing them out by the hundreds. School authorities claim that the list targeted “pretty and popular incoming ninth graders,” accompanied by senior athletes pushing the girls into lockers and blowing whistles in their faces. A slew of anonymous parent and student comments alike echoed the same sentiment: the girls felt both unsafe and unwelcome in their new school environment.
The recent events at Millburn hardly constitute an isolated incident; the token girl-on-girl hazing story is covered every year during sorority rush and the start of the fall athletic season. Yet some encounters are much more pernicious, with the number of 10- to 17-year-old girls arrested for aggravated assault doubling from twenty years ago. For instance, in one highly publicized case in 2007, in New York a 13-year-old girl was attacked and beaten by three female classmates, who recorded and posted the assault on YouTube – that is, they were proud of their “accomplishment.”
The rise of girl-on-girl violence is not only despicable for its direct consequences, but problematic for feminism in general. Our movement is judged – however fairly or unfairly – by the way women treat each other. Incidents such as these provide fodder for those hostile to and looking to discredit the feminist cause, perpetuating stereotypes of girls and women as boy-crazed (the 13-year-old’s beating was spurred by a catfight over a guy) and emotional to the point of irrational behavior – both of which I have toiled to debunk in my own experience. Even if their usage to give feminism a bad name is unjust, these cases paint the end for which so many women have fought for equal rights as petty, manipulative, mean-spirited, and hypocritical. Until this behavior is addressed, it will always seem to some as if we don’t have a leg on which to stand, and when it comes to our critics, perception is often, sadly, reality in the roadblock it poses for us.
This point aside – and worse yet – is the question of the source of this disturbing and violent trend among girls. For instance, the oldest assailant in the New York case was just 14; these girls are learning this somewhere. Certainly there has always been a fair amount of cattiness and angst as girls become young women struggling to define and explore their place in the social quagmire that is high school. But when did the drama get so far out of hand? Perhaps the most disturbing point was broached by Millburn’s principal regarding the infamous “slut list”: “We’ve had girls — which is one of the bad things — obsessed that their names are on it, and girls who were upset that they didn’t make the list.” Other freshman shrugged off the significance of the hazing as “all in good fun,” saying of those who wouldn’t participate, “Then you’ll be the loser.” One senior described her involvement in the hazing as, “Not more than anyone else.” So how did we stray so far from the progress of the past century?
At the risk of sounding like my father spewing it’s-that-darn-MTV diatribe, I blame Gossip Girl. Not exclusively of course –a farrago of social factors bears some share of responsibility, not to mention GG’s equally inane and lesser-famous equivalents – but this show makes asinine bitchery into an art. The insipid behavior of the main female characters, Blair and Serena, has been lionized for reasons that continue to surpass my understanding. Bitch is the new black, and “whore” is just another name for your best friend when you’re angry with her. None of this would be particularly problematic were the show not so popular, even and especially disturbingly so among friends who consider themselves active feminists. Try as I might to view it as escapism, I can’t quite justify a “guilty pleasure” that contains such witty exchanges between ex-best girlfriends fighting over a tangled web of men as, “Brown doesn’t offer degrees in ‘slut’” (ah, my favorite word again).
Maybe I’m particularly fired up because the Millburn hazings hit a little close to home – I spent quite a bit of time there in high school at academic competitions, and got to know some of the students fairly well. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a freshman, or that my little sister is one now. Or maybe I’m just taking a pop culture phenomenon that’s supposed to be “fun” too seriously. But I doubt it. I used to laugh at Tina Fey’s Mean Girls when Lindsay Lohan’s character daydreamed about high school as jungle where girls physically wrestled like animals over boys and shoes, or when she slipped the most popular girl in school protein bars to make her unwittingly gain weight. But more and more, this seems less and less like a joke, while we anxiously await Serena and Blair’s next vapid moves in the coming weeks’ episodes.