From the Publisher
Praise for ODD GIRL OUT
"There has not been so much interest in young females since psychologist Mary Pipher chronicled anorexics and suicide victims in her 1994 bestseller, Reviving Ophelia."The Washington Post
"Provocative . . . Cathartic to any teen or parent trying to find company . . . it will sound depressingly familiar to any girl with a pulse."Detroit Free Press
"Encourages girls to address one another when they feel angry or jealous, rather than engage in the rumor mill."Chicago Tribune
"Peels away the smiley surfaces of adolescent female society to expose one of girlhood's dark secrets: the vicious psychological warfare waged every day in the halls of our . . . schools."San Francisco Chronicle
"Passionate and beautifully written. A significant contribution to our understanding of the psychology of girls." —Michael Thompson, co-author of Raising Cain
An American School Board Journal Notable Book in Education
Why are girls becoming more aggressive in their everyday lives, and how is it affecting their overall self-esteem? Rachel Simmons, a Rhodes scholar who has painstakingly researched female bullying and the psychology of girls, feels that girls' aggressiveness is just as harmful as that of boys but is much harder to recognize. How can parents and teachers help with this growing problem?
The New Yorker
Catherine Hardwicke’s new film, “Thirteen,” has once again raised the issue of adolescent girls’ social rituals, especially the more brutal aspects. The same topic propels two recent books, Rachel Simmons’s Odd Girl Out and Queen Bees and Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman. According to Simmons, adolescent female culture is fraught with treachery and strained niceties (“alternative aggressions,” she calls them) that are more reminiscent of a sixteenth-century court than a sweet-sixteen party. Wiseman, whose book has been released in paperback, includes a set of charts that plot “power plays” and track the ascendance of a socially dominant girl, a “Queen Bee” among the drones. But by collecting the byzantine stories of betrayal, both authors provide a tonic to social isolation: as Simmons puts it, “What crushed girls was being alone.”
Linda Perlstein came to a similar conclusion in her interviews with Maryland middle-schoolers in Not Much Just Chillin'. For all their rebellion, experimentation, and body piercing, kids still want to be reached by their coaches, teachers, and even parents. “Wanting to be independent is not the same as wanting to be left alone,” Perlstein writes. The sixth to eighth graders she interviews have complex opinions on justice, religion, and mortality -- while adults fret over whether video games create irrational fears of violence, students formulate sophisticated responses to events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th. And one seventh-grade girl is equally philosophical about love: “The one for you could be two years old right now, or ninety. My soulmate could’ve been Benjamin Franklin.” (Lauren Porcaro)
Although more than 16 years have passed, Rhodes Scholar Simmons hasn't forgotten how she felt when Abby told the other girls in third grade not to play with her, nor has she stopped thinking about her own role in giving Noa the silent treatment. Simmons examines how such "alternative aggression" where girls use their relationship with the victim as a weapon flourishes and its harmful effects. Through interviews with more than 300 girls in 10 schools (in two urban areas and a small town), as well as 50 women who experienced alternative aggression when they were young, Simmons offers a detailed portrait of girls' bullying. Citing the work of Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown, she shows the toll that alternative aggression can take on girls' self-esteem. For Simmons, the restraints that society imposes to prevent girls from venting feelings of competition, jealousy and anger is largely to blame for this type of bullying. It forces girls to turn their lives into "a perverse game of Twister," where their only outlets for expressing negative feelings are covert looks, turned backs and whispers. Since the events at Columbine, some schools have taken steps to curb relational aggression. For those that haven't, Simmons makes an impassioned plea that no form of bullying be permitted. (Apr. 30) Forecast: This subject has received much media attention lately, with a 'New York Times Magazine' cover story two months ago and the March publication of Emily White's Fast Girls ( Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Approached from the viewpoint of working through past problems, this book relates the author's experiences of being shunned by a close friend and her eventual realization of her own abusive treatment of another girl. Quoting from her introduction, "Now is the time to end another silence: There is a hidden culture of girls' aggression in which bullying is epidemic, distinctive, and destructive." She researched this phenomenon for three years, conducting interviews with perpetrators and victims and leading many discussion groups with young girls to find out why this happens and gain some insight into the motivation for the ways girls handle their fear and anger. She points out the difference between aggression in girls and boys and the difference in the cultural reactions to these behaviors, and she highlights the insidious nature of what is happening wherever girls live out the dynamics of social life. Her victims' stories are often related in their own words. Straightforward, clear, and insightful, this book tells about the pain and isolation that bullying causes among school age girls, gives various reasons why they use it, and makes an attempt at supplying some responses to this long ignored problem. It could be emotionally painful to find yourself in these pages, but it could be helpful to realize that it is widespread, and there is a need to become aware of the dynamics and how to combat the problem. The book is weakest in the area of concrete responses, perhaps because of a general lack of experience in this area. One chapter deals with how parents and teachers can approach it, and one chapter deals with better attitudes than we have traditionally used in relating to loved onescaught in these power plays. The book is well indexed and footnoted and an extensive bibliography will guide the reader to more information on the subject. It would be valuable to any collection, professional or regular, for raising consciousness about the problem. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Harcourt, 301p. notes. bibliog. index.,
Boys use direct physical and verbal behavior to bully others, says Simmons, but society denies those weapons to girls, so they deploy backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulate psychological pain on target victims. Drawing on her training in political science and women's studies, she explores epidemic, distinctive, and destructive aggression of girls. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Read an Excerpt
the hidden culture of aggression in girls
The Linden School campus is nestled behind a web of sports fields that seem to hold at bay the bustling city in which it resides. On Monday morning in the Upper School building, students congregated languidly,
catching up on the weekend, while others sat knees-to-chest on the floor, flipping through three-ring binders, cramming for tests.
The students were dressed in styles that ran the gamut from trendy to what can only be described, at this age, as defiant. Watching them,
it is easy to forget this school is one of the best in the region, its students anything but superficial. This is what I came to love about Linden:
it celebrates academic rigor and the diversity of its students in equal parts. Over the course of a day with eight groups of ninth graders, I began each meeting with the same question: “What are some of the differences between the ways guys and girls are mean?”
From periods one through eight, I heard the same responses.
Girls can turn on you for anything,” said one. “Girls whisper,” said another. “They glare at you.” With growing certainty, they fired out answers:
“Girls are secretive.”
“They destroy you from the inside.”
“Girls are manipulative.”
“There’s an aspect of evil in girls that there isn’t in boys.”
“Girls target you where they know you’re weakest.”
“Girls do a lot behind each other’s backs.”
“Girls plan and premeditate.”
“With guys you know where you stand.”
“I feel a lot safer with guys.”
In bold, matter-of-fact voices, girls described themselves to me as disloyal, untrustworthy, and sneaky. They claimed girls use intimacy to manipulate and overpower others. They said girls are fake, using each other to move up the social hierarchy. They described girls as unforgiving and crafty, lying in wait for a moment of revenge that will catch the unwitting target off guard and, with an almost savage eye-for-an-eye mentality, “make her feel the way I felt.”
The girls’ stories about their conflicts were casual and at times filled with self-hatred. In almost every group session I held, someone volunteered her wish to have been born a boy because boys can
“fight and have it be over with.”
Girls tell stories of their anger in a culture that does not define their behaviors as aggression. As a result, their narratives are filled with destructive myths about the inherent duplicity of females. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich notes,4 “We have been depicted as generally whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating.”
Since the dawn of time, women and girls have been portrayed as jealous and underhanded, prone to betrayal, disobedience, and secrecy.
Lacking a public identity or language, girls’ nonphysical aggression is called “catty,” “crafty,” “evil,” and “cunning.” Rarely the object of research or critical thought, this behavior is seen as a natural phase in girls’ development. As a result, schools write off girls’
conflicts as a rite of passage, as simply “what girls do.”
What would it mean to name girls’ aggression? Why have myths and stereotypes served us so well and so long?
Aggression is a powerful barometer of our social values. According to sociologist Anne Campbell, attitudes toward aggression crys-
tallize sex roles, or the idea that we expect certain responsibilities to be assumed by males and females because of their sex.5 Riot grrls and women’s soccer notwithstanding, Western society still expects boys to become family providers and protectors, and girls to be nurturers and mothers. Aggression is the hallmark of masculinity; it enables men to control their environment and livelihoods. For better or for worse, boys enjoy total access to the rough and tumble. The link begins early: the popularity of boys is in large part determined by their willingness to play rough. They get peers’ respect for athletic prowess, resisting authority, and acting tough, troublesome, dominating,
cool, and confident.
On the other side of the aisle, females are expected to mature into caregivers, a role deeply at odds with aggression. Consider the ideal of the “good mother”: She provides unconditional love and care for her family, whose health and daily supervision are her primary objectives.
Her daughters are expected to be “sugar and spice and everything nice.” They are to be sweet, caring, precious, and tender.
“Good girls” have friends, and lots of them. As nine-year-old
Noura told psychologists Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, perfect girls have “perfect relationships.”6 These girls are caretakers in training. They “never have any fights . . . and they are always together.
. . . Like never arguing, like ‘Oh yeah, I totally agree with you.’” In depressing relationships, Noura added, “someone is really jealous and starts being really mean. . . . [It’s] where two really good friends break up.”
A “good girl,” journalist Peggy Orenstein observes in Schoolgirls,
is “nice before she is anything else—before she is vigorous, bright,
even before she is honest.” She described the “perfect girl” as
the girl who has no bad thoughts or feelings, the kind of person everyone wants to be with. . . . [She is] the girl who speaks quietly,
calmly, who is always nice and kind, never mean or bossy. . . . She reminds young women to silence themselves rather than speak their true feelings, which they come to consider “stupid,” “selfish,”
“rude,” or just plain irrelevant.7
“Good girls,” then, are expected not to experience anger. Aggression endangers relationships, imperiling a girl’s ability to be caring and “nice.” Aggression undermines who girls have been raised to become.
Calling the anger of girls by its name would therefore challenge the most basic assumptions we make about “good girls.” It would also reveal what the culture does not entitle them to by defining what nice really means: Not aggressive. Not angry. Not in conflict.
Research confirms that parents and teachers discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls early on while the skirmishing of boys is either encouraged or shrugged off.8 In one example,
a 1999 University of Michigan study found that girls were told to be quiet, speak softly, or use a “nicer” voice about three times more often than boys, even though the boys were louder. By the time they are of school age, peers solidify the fault lines on the playground,
creating social groups that value niceness in girls and toughness in boys.
The culture derides aggression in girls as unfeminine, a trend explored in chapter four. “Bitch,” “lesbian,” “frigid,” and “manly” are just a few of the names an assertive girl hears. Each epithet points out the violation of her prescribed role as a caregiver: the bitch likes and is liked by no one; the lesbian loves not a man or children but another woman; the frigid woman is cold, unable to respond sexually;
and the manly woman is too hard to love or be loved.
Girls, meanwhile, are acutely aware of the culture’s double standard.
They are not fooled into believing this is the so-called postfeminist age, the girl power victory lap. The rules are different for boys, and girls know it. Flagrant displays of aggression are punished with social rejection.
At Sackler Day School, I was eating lunch with sixth graders during recess, talking about how teachers expected them to behave at school. Ashley, silver-rimmed glasses snug on her tiny nose, looked very serious as she raised her hand.
“They expect us to act like girls back in the 1800s!” she said indignantly.
Everyone cracked up.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, sometimes they’re like, you have to respect each other, and treat other people how you want to be treated. But that’s not how life is. Everyone can be mean sometimes and they’re not even realizing it. They expect that you’re going to be so nice to everyone and you’ll be so cool. Be nice to everyone!” she mimicked, her suddenly loud voice betraying something more than sarcasm.
“But it’s not true,” Nicole said. The room is quiet.
“Anyone else?” I asked.
“They expect you to be perfect. You’re nice. When boys do bad stuff, they all know they’re going to do bad stuff. When girls do it,
they yell at them,” Dina said.
“Teachers think that girls should be really nice and sharing and not get in any fights. They think it’s worse than it really is,” Shira added.
“They expect you to be perfect angels and then sometimes we don’t want to be considered a perfect angel,” Laura noted.
“The teacher says if you do something good, you’ll get something good back, and then she makes you feel like you really should be,”
Ashley continued. “I try not to be mean to my sister or my mom and dad, and I wake up the next day and I just do it naturally. I’m not an angel! I try to be focused on it, but then I wake up the next day and
In Ridgewood, I listened to sixth graders muse about what teachers expect from girls. Heather raised her hand.
“They just don’t . . .” She stopped. No one picked up the slack.
“Finish the sentence,” I urged.
“They expect you to be nice like them, like they supposedly are,
but . . .”
“I don’t go around being like goody-goody,” said Tammy.
“What does goody-goody mean?” I asked.
“You’re supposed to be sitting like this”—Tammy crossed her legs and folded her hands primly over her knees—”the whole time.”
“And be nice—and don’t talk during class,” said Torie.
“Do you always feel nice?” I asked.
“No!” several of them exclaimed.
“So what happens?”
“It’s like you just—the bad part controls over your body,”
Tammy said. “You want to be nice and you want to be bad at the same time, and the bad part gets to you. You think”—she contorted her face and gritted her teeth—”I have to be nice.”
“You just want to tell them to shut up! You just feel like pushing them out of the way and throwing them on the ground!” said Brittney.
“I wanted to do it like five hundred times last year to this girl. If
I didn’t push her, I just walked off and tried to stay calm.”