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
“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
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
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.”