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 victim 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,2 "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 crystallize sex roles, or the idea that we expect certain responsibilities to be assumed by males and females because of their sex.3 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."4 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.5
"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.6 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 post-feminist 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 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 I'm cranky."
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."
Try as they might, most girls can't erase the natural impulses toward anger that every human being knows. Yet the early research on aggression turned the myth of the "good," nonaggressive girl into fact: The first experiments on aggression were performed with almost no female subjects. Since males tend to exhibit aggression directly, researchers concluded aggression was expressed in only this way. Other forms of aggression, when they were observed, were labeled deviant or ignored.
Studies of bullying inherited these early research flaws. Most psychologists looked for direct aggressions like punching, threatening, or teasing. Scientists also measured aggression in environments where indirect acts would be almost impossible to observe. Seen through the eyes of scientists, the social lives of girls appeared still and placid as lakes. It was not until 1992 that someone would question what lay beneath the surface.
That year, a group of Norwegian researchers published an unprecedented study of girls. They discovered that girls were not at all averse to aggression, they just expressed anger in unconventional ways. The group predicted that "when aggression cannot, for one reason or another, be directed (physically or verbally) at its target, the perpetrator has to find other channels." The findings bore out their theory: cultural rules against overt aggression led girls to engage in other, nonphysical forms of aggression. In a conclusion uncharacteristic for the strength of its tone, the researchers challenged the image of sweetness among female youth, calling their social lives "ruthless," "aggressive," and "cruel."7
Since then, a small group of psychologists at the University of Minnesota has built upon these findings, identifying three subcategories of aggressive behavior: relational, indirect, and social aggression. Relational aggression includes acts that "harm others through damage (or the threat of damage) to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship, or group inclusion."8 Relationally aggressive behavior is ignoring someone to punish them or get one's own way, excluding someone socially for revenge, using negative body language or facial expressions, sabotaging someone else's relationships, or threatening to end a relationship unless the friend agrees to a request. In these acts, the perpetrator uses her relationship with the victim as a weapon.
Close relatives of relational aggression are indirect aggression and social aggression. Indirect aggression allows the perpetrator to avoid confronting her target. It is covert behavior in which the perpetrator makes it seem as though there has been no intent to hurt at all. One way this is possible is by using others as vehicles for inflicting pain on a targeted person, such as by spreading a rumor. Social aggression is intended to damage self-esteem or social status within a group. It includes some indirect aggression like rumor spreading or social exclusion. Throughout the book, I refer to these behaviors collectively as alternative aggressions. As the stories in the book make clear, alternative aggressions often appear in conjunction with more direct behaviors.
beneath the radar
In Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye, the young protagonist Elaine is seated frozen in fear on a windowsill, where she has been forced to remain in silence by her best friends as she waits to find out what she had done wrong. Elaine's father enters the room and asks if the girls are enjoying the parade they have been watching:
Cordelia gets down off her windowsill and slides up onto mine, sitting close beside me.
"We're enjoying it extremely, thank you very much," she says in her voice for adults. My parents think she has beautiful manners. She puts an arm around me, gives me a little squeeze, a squeeze of complicity, of instruction. Everything will be all right as long as I sit still, say nothing, reveal nothing....As soon as my father is out of the room Cordelia turns to face me...."You know what this means don't you? I'm afraid you'll have to be punished."
Like many girl bullies, Cordelia maneuvers her anger quietly beneath the surface of her good-girl image. She must invest as much energy appearing nice to adults as she will spend slowly poisoning Elaine's self-esteem.
Some alternative aggressions are invisible to adult eyes. To elude social disapproval, girls retreat beneath a surface of sweetness to hurt each other in secret. They pass covert looks and notes, manipulate quietly over time, corner one another in hallways, turn their backs, whisper, and smile. These acts, which are intended to escape detection and punishment, are epidemic in middle-class environments where the rules of femininity are most rigid.
Cordelia's tactics are common in a social universe that refuses girls open conflict. In fact, whole campaigns often occur without a sound. Astrid recalled the silent, methodical persistence of her angry friends. "It was a war through notes," she remembered. "When I wouldn't read them, they wrote on the binding of encyclopedias near my desk, on the other desks; they left notes around, wrote my name on the list of people to send to the principal." This aggression was designed to slip beneath the sight line of prying eyes.
Most of the time, the strategy works. Paula Johnston, a prosecutor, was dumbfounded at the ignorance of her daughter's teacher when Paula demanded Susie be separated from a girl who was quietly bullying her. "[Susie's teacher] said, 'But they get along beautifully!'" Paula snorted. "I asked her to move Susie, and she moved one in front and one behind! She would say, 'Everything's wonderful; Susie's adorable,' and meanwhile, Susie's in the library hiding."
A Sackler sixth grader described her attempt to expose a mean girl to her teacher. "[The teacher] said, 'Oh my gosh! You in a fight? How can that be!'" At every school I visited, I heard stories of a teacher being told of a girl's meanness, only to respond, "Fight? She'd never do that!" or "I'm sure that's not true!" or "But they're best friends!"
Covert aggression isn't just about not getting caught; half of it is looking like you'd never mistreat someone in the first place. The sugar-and-spice image is powerful, and girls know it. They use it to fog the radar of otherwise vigilant teachers and parents. For girls, the secrecy, the "underground"9-the place where Brown and Gilligan report girls take their true feelings-are hardly unconscious realms. In the film Cruel Intentions, Kathryn cloaks her anger in syrupy sweetness. In a bind, she decides to frame another student because, she purrs, "Everybody loves me, and I intend to keep it that way." Later, surreptitiously snorting cocaine from a cross around her neck, Kathryn groans, "Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24-7 so I can be considered a lady? I'm the Marcia-fucking-Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself."
In group discussions, girls spoke openly to me about their intentionally covert aggression. When I visited the ninth graders in Ridgewood, they threw out their tactics with gusto, prompting the semicircle of bodies to lean forward, nearly out of their desks, as eager affirming cries of "Oh yeah!" and "Totally!" filled our fluorescent white lab room.
Walk down the hallway and slam into a girl-the teacher thinks you're distracted! Knock a girl's book off a desk-the teacher thinks it fell! Write an anonymous note! Draw a mean picture! Roll your eyes! Send an instant message with a new username! Steal a boyfriend! Start a rumor! Tell the teacher she cheated!
"You step on their shoe. Oops!" Jessie squealed in a girly-girl singsong voice. "Sorry!"
"You walk past someone and you try to bump them. You say, 'Excuse you!'" The girls laughed in recognition.
"The teacher says she didn't mean it, she just bumped into her," Melanie explained, "but the girls, they know what it is because it happens so much."
"Girls are very sneaky," said Keisha. "Very."
"We-are-sneaky!" Lacey crowed, emphasizing every word.
The next day, the Ridgewood sixth graders met. The freight of the good-girl image still weighed heavily upon them, and they lacked some of the boisterous energy and sarcasm of the ninth graders. Their voices were hesitant and halting. Amy was brave.
"The teachers don't say anything. They don't expect it. They don't think we're doing anything, but..." She paused.
"But what?" I asked. I was getting used to sentences abandoned midway.
She was silent.
"The teachers think girls behave better," Elizabeth explained.
"Does that make a difference in how people get in trouble?" I asked.
"Some people call each other names and stuff and the teacher wouldn't believe it. They would say, so-and-so did this to me, and the teacher would say, 'No, she didn't.' Some teachers have pets, and you say, 'She called me a bad name,' and the teacher says, 'No, she wouldn't do a thing like that.'"
Leigh said, "Some girls act real good around the teachers, and then when they do something bad, the teachers don't believe it because they never seen them do it."
"Boys don't care about getting into trouble. They think they're all bad and don't worry about it. They don't care if they got in trouble, but girls don't want anyone to know they got into trouble," Maura said. "Girls worry about how they're going to look. They have more of a nervous system than boys." The room tittered.
Tina raised her hand. "A girl in my class passes notes and never gets in trouble for it. Around the teacher she acts all sweet and stuff."
"Everybody writes notes," Sarah Beth added. "Teachers are so stupid. They don't get it. You can see it. It's easy."
Kim said, "Girls can be passing notes during class and the teacher will find out about it. She won't get them in trouble because they're like one of her best students. Most of the girls in her class are but the boys usually aren't."
Torie sat up on the back of her chair, elbows on her knees. "If girls are whispering, the teacher thinks it's going to be all right because they're not hitting people. If they punch, they get sent to the office. Teachers think they're not hurting you," she said, looking cautiously at her classmates, "but they are."
At once I was reminded of scary movies in which only children can see the ghost. The adults pass through the same rooms and live the same moments, yet they are unable to see a whole world of action around them. So, too, in classrooms of covertly aggressing girls, victims are desperately alone even though a teacher is just steps away.
Sixth period was about to end. Jenny's stomach clenched harder with each loud click of the wall clock. She never jumped when the bell rang. Although she prided herself on her good grades, Jenny stopped paying attention five minutes before class ended. Still, at 1:58 her heart started to race. By 1:59 she was short of breath.
Through the cracks between her straight brown hair she watched the other seventh graders get up. As usual, she pretended to be slow and preoccupied. She shuffled her pencils noisily in the cool metal air inside the desk, buying time. In a moment she would be free to leave.
Ever since Jenny arrived two months ago from San Diego, the popular clique at Mason Middle School had decided two things: first, that she was a major threat to their status, and second, that they were going to make her life miserable.
She had moved reluctantly with her family to the small ranching community in Wyoming four days after the end of sixth grade. In San Diego, Jenny had gone to a huge city school and had mostly Mexican friends. She spoke fluent Spanish and loved the warmth and friendship of Mexican culture. She never minded being one of the only white students in school.
That everything was different in Mason was an understatement. There were eight hundred white people in the whole town. Everybody knew each other's business, and outsiders were unwelcome. So it didn't matter to Brianna and Mackenzie that Jenny's entire family had grown up right in Mason. Even though Jenny spent her summers riding tractors through their families' fields with her grandfather, the town alderman, she may as well have been born on a spaceship.
Brianna and Mackenzie were the queen bees, and they presided over the seventh grade. Brianna was the prettiest, Mackenzie the best at sports. Their favorite hobby was having a boyfriend. Jenny wasn't really interested in a boyfriend, but she still liked hanging out with the guys. Mostly she liked to play soccer and basketball with them after school. She liked to wear jeans and T-shirts instead of makeup and miniskirts.
She had barely introduced herself when Brianna and Mackenzie gave her a code name and started calling her Harriet the Hairy Whore. They told everyone Jenny was hooking up with the boys in the woods behind the soccer field. Jenny knew that being called a slut was the worst thing in the world, no matter where you lived. No one was even kissing yet. It was the lowest of the low.
Brianna and Mackenzie started a club called Hate Harriet the Hore Incorporated. They got every girl to join except two who didn't care. All the members had to walk by Jenny in the hallway and say, "Hhiiiiiiiiii...." They made a long sighing noise to make sure she knew they were sounding out the initials of the club: HHHI. Usually two or more girls would say it and then look at each other and laugh. Sometimes they couldn't even say the whole thing, they were laughing so hard.
Then Brianna got the idea to charge into Jenny as she walked the hallways. The other girls followed suit. Wherever Jenny was between classes, a girl would body slam her, knocking Jenny's books, and sometimes Jenny, to the ground. If someone was watching, they'd pretend it was an accident. Even though Jenny was small for her age, only four foot eleven, she decided to start smashing the others first, figuring they'd stop. They didn't. She ended up with a lot of bruises, missing papers, and an uncanny ability to predict when the bells would ring. There was no teacher in the hallway to see.
She tried to shrug it off the first few days, but by the end of the week, Jenny burned with embarrassment and fear. What had she done? It seemed like Mackenzie and Brianna had suddenly made it their goal in life to ruin her. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In San Diego, she had three best friends. She had always been good at everything but not because it was easy. She strove for success in everything she did. In her head she heard her father's voice: "If you try hard enough, you can do anything." This was her first failure.
It was her fault.
She knew she'd never touched a boy, but maybe there was something really wrong with her. There were two other new girls in seventh grade, and they were doing just fine. They worked hard to fit in, and they did. They bought the same clothes and listened to the same music as everyone else.
Jenny closed her eyes. They also let Mackenzie and Brianna and the others determine who they would be. Jenny didn't want that, at any price. She wanted to keep speaking her mind. She liked her California clothes and Mexican embroidered shirts. Maybe she didn't want to try hard in the ways you had to in seventh grade. Her father was right.
Jenny began to weep quietly in her room not long after she realized there would be no end to her torture. She managed to wait until her homework was done, and then she cried, silent always, her sobs muffled by her pillow. There was no way she'd tell her mother, and certainly not her father. She felt nauseous just thinking about telling her parents she was such a reject.
Every day was an endless battle. She was exhausted trying not to cry, stiffening her body against the hallway attacks, sitting through lunch after lunch alone. There was no one else to be friends with in the grade because everyone, the few that there were, was against her. Her cousin was a year ahead of her and felt sorry for Jenny. Sometimes she let Jenny hang out with her clique. It was small consolation that they were the popular group of the eighth grade. In fact, it seemed to make Brianna and Mackenzie even angrier.
One night Jenny's sadness left no room for her fear, and she picked up the phone. Jenny called Brianna, Mackenzie, and a few other girls. She asked each of them, "Why do you hate me?" They denied everything. "But why are you doing the Hate Harriet the Hore club?" she pleaded.
Their voices were light and sweet. "We don't have a Hate Harriet the Hore club!" each one assured her, as though they were telling her the earth was round. They were so nice to Jenny that for a second she didn't believe it was really them. Then she could almost feel her heart surging up through her chest. The next morning, she actually looked forward to getting out of bed. It would be different now.
Then she got to school.
Jenny blinked back tears and locked her jaw. She hated herself for being surprised. She should have known. The strange thing about it was, even though she was used to it, this time her heart felt like it was breaking open. Brianna and Mackenzie had seemed so genuine on the phone. And Jenny, stupid, stupid Jenny, she muttered to herself, had imagined herself at their lunch table in the back of the cafeteria. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," she repeated through gritted teeth, raising her books as a shield as she made her way into homeroom.
One day, months later, searching through desks after seeing the girls pass it around in homeroom, Jenny found the petition. "I, Mackenzie T., promise to Hate Harriet the Hore forever," it said. Every single girl in the class had signed it, and it was appended with a long list of reasons why everyone should hate her. Jenny's eyes bore into the paper until the words blurred. She suddenly felt dizzy. The weight of her anguish was too heavy. She couldn't take it anymore. Jenny felt like her world was crumbling. She went to the principal.
Mr. Williams called Brianna, Mackenzie, and some of the others into his office. They glared at her for weeks but said nothing. HHHI was officially disbanded.
Jenny struggled through seventh grade alone. Because the meanness of her peers was almost invisible, not one teacher had noticed or intervened on her behalf. Because she was a new student, it was difficult to observe changes in her behavior and character. Her parents had known something was wrong, but had they asked her how she was, Jenny told me, "I would have told them, 'Fine.'"
HHHI never resurfaced and Jenny adjusted well over the next several years. She became captain of the softball team and pep club president, but her pain stayed fresh and hidden as she waited patiently for revenge.
Brianna, her chief HHHI tormentor, had begun dating the most popular boy at Cheyenne High School in fifth grade. That was the way things were, Jenny said. "You pretty much picked who you were going to date when you were ten or eleven and that's who you dated until you left Wyoming." Eric was captain of the basketball team and everything else that was important at Cheyenne. Brianna had lost her virginity to him and wanted to marry him.
Jenny's chance came in the fall of her junior year, when she was asked to manage the boys' basketball team. She quickly became friends with Eric. "I made it my goal to steal him from her, and I did," Jenny said. "I know for a fact it had nothing to do with him. It had everything to do with taking what was important to her." Jenny and Eric dated secretly for a month before Jenny made him call Brianna from her bedroom and break up with her. I asked Jenny how it made her feel.
"I just had this feeling of victory. I wanted to rub it in her face. I felt really good that I had hurt her back," she said. "It's vindictive and it's sad, I know, but to this day I hate this girl and I wanted to hurt her." Today Jenny is thirty-two, and she feels neither shame nor remorse, only the anger that still smolders some twenty years later.
relationship and loss
At first glance, the stories of girls not being allowed to eat at the lunch table, attend a party, put their sleeping bag in the middle, or squeeze inside a circle of giggling girls may seem childish. Yet as Carol Gilligan has shown, relationships play an unusually important role in girls' social development. In her work with girls and boys, she found that girls perceive danger in their lives as isolation, especially the fear that by standing out they will be abandoned. Boys, however, describe danger as a fear of entrapment or smothering. This contrast, Gilligan argues, shows that women's development "points toward a different history of human attachment, stressing continuity and change instead of replacement and separation. The primacy of relationship and attachment in the female life also indicates a different experience of and response to loss."10 The centrality of relationship in girls' lives all but guarantees a different landscape of aggression and bullying, with its own distinctive features worthy of separate study.
To understand girls' conflicts, one must also know girls' intimacy, because intimacy and anger are often inextricable. The intensity of girls' relationships belongs at the center of any analysis of girls' aggression. For long before they love boys, girls love each other, and with great passion.
Girls enjoy unrestricted access to intimacy. Unlike boys, who are encouraged to separate from their mothers and adopt masculine postures of emotional restraint, daughters are urged to identify with the nurturing behavior of their mothers. Girls spend their childhood practicing caretaking and nurturing on each other. It is with best friends that they first discover the joys of intimacy and human connection.
Yet ours is a culture that has ignored the closeness of girlfriends. Many people believe girls should reserve their true emotions for boys, and that girls should channel their caretaking toward husbands and children. Anything up to that life stage is assumed to be practice, if not insignificant.11
In fact, it is the deep knowledge girls have of relationship, and the passion they lavish on their closest friends, which characterizes much of their aggression. The most painful attacks are usually fashioned from deep inside a close friendship and are fueled by secrets and once-shared weaknesses.
Moreover, the relationship itself is often the weapon with which girls' battles are fought. Socialized away from aggression, expected to be nice girls who have "perfect relationships," many girls are unprepared to negotiate conflict. As a result, a minor disagreement can call an entire relationship into question.
What do I mean by this? In a normal conflict, two people use language, voice, or fists to settle their dispute. The relationship between them is secondary to the issue being worked out. But when anger cannot be voiced, and when the skills to handle a conflict are absent, the specific matter cannot be addressed. If neither girl wants to be "not nice," the relationship itself may become the problem. And when there are no other tools to use in a conflict, relationship itself may become a weapon.
Since relationship is precisely what good, "perfect" girls are expected to be in, its loss, and the prospect of solitude, can be the most pointed weapons in the hidden culture of girls' aggression.
During her interviews with adults, sociologist Anne Campbell found that where men viewed aggression as a means to control their environment and integrity, women believed it would terminate their relationships.12 I discovered identical attitudes in my conversations with girls. Expressing fear that even everyday acts of conflict, not to mention severe aggressive outbursts, would result in the loss of the people they most cared about, they refused to engage in even the most basic acts of conflict. Their equation was simple: conflict = loss. Like clockwork, girl after girl told me twenty variations on the following remark: "I can't tell her how I feel or else she won't want to be my friend anymore." The corollary works like this: "I just don't want to hurt anyone directly, because I want to be friends with everyone."
Fear of solitude is overpowering. In fact, what victims of bullying recalled most to me was their loneliness. Despite the cruel things that happened-the torrents of vulgar e-mail and unsigned notes, the whispered rumors, the slanderous scribblings on desks and walls and lockers, the sneering and name-calling-what crushed girls was being alone. It was as though the absence of bodies nearby with whom to whisper and share triggered in girls a sorrow and fear so profound as to nearly extinguish them.
Girls may try to avoid being alone at all costs, including remaining in an abusive friendship. "You don't want to walk alone at recess," a sixth grader explained when I asked why she wouldn't stay away from a mean friend. "Who are you going to tell your secrets to? Who are you going to help and stuff like that?" An eighth grader, recalling a television documentary, remarked plaintively, "If a female lion is alone, she dies. She has to be part of the group."
As girls mature, the prospect of being seen alone by others becomes just as daunting. They know that "perfect girls" have "perfect relationships." "Walking through a hall and feeling like everyone's looking at you is the worst," a Linden ninth grader told me. "People who are alone are pitied and no one wants to be pitied. They're secluded. Something's wrong with them. Being seen as a loner is one of our biggest fears." Driven by the fear of exclusion, girls cling to their friends like lifeboats on the shifting seas of school life, certain that to be alone is the worst horror imaginable.
Every child, boy or girl, desires acceptance and connection. Most boys would not prefer or even tolerate being alone. Yet as girls grow up, friendship becomes as important as air, and they describe the punishment of loneliness in dramatic terms. "I was so depressed," Sarah explained. "I sat in class with no friends. Everything I cared about completely crumbled." A fifth grader said of her solitude, "It was like my heart was breaking."
it's just a phase
When thirteen-year-old Sherry's friends suddenly stopped speaking to her, her father, worried for his devastated daughter, approached a friend's mother to find out what happened. She was underwhelmed. "Girls will be girls," she said. It's typical girl behavior, nothing to be worried about, a phase girls go through. It will pass. "You are making a mountain out of a molehill," she told him. "What are you getting so upset about?"
Her remarks echo the prevailing wisdom about alternative aggression between girls: girl bullying is a rite of passage, a stage they will outgrow. As one school counselor put it to me, "It's always been this way. It will always be this way. There's nothing we can do about it." Girl bullying, many believe, is a nasty developmental storm we have no choice but to accept. Yet the rite-of-passage argument paralyzes our thinking about how the culture shapes girls' behavior. Most importantly, it stunts the development of anti-bullying strategies.
The rite-of-passage theory suggests several disturbing assumptions about girls. First, it implies that there is nothing we can do to prevent girls from behaving in these ways because it's in their developmental tea leaves to do it. In other words, because so many girls engage in alternative aggressions, they must be naturally predisposed to them. Bullying as a rite of passage also suggests that it is necessary and even positive that girls learn how to relate with each other in these ways. Rites of passage, after all, are rituals that mark the transformation of an individual from one status to another. So the rite of passage means that girls are becoming acquainted with what is in store for them later as adults. Because adult women behave in this way, it means it's acceptable and must be prepared for. (Many despairing mothers I spoke with, as well as those who shrugged off the bullying, confided a sense of consolation that their girls were learning what they'd come to know sooner or later.)
The third assumption emerges directly from the first two: it suggests that because it is universal and instructive, meanness among girls is a natural part of their social structure to be tolerated and expected. And there is one final assumption, the most insidious of all: the abuse girls subject each other to is, in fact, not abuse at all.
I have heard schools decline to intervene in girls' conflicts because they do not want to interfere in the "emotional lives" of students. This philosophy makes two value judgments about girls' relationships: it suggests that unlike aggressive episodes between the sexes, which are analyzed by lawyers and plastered on evening news programs, problems between girls are insignificant, episodes that will taper off as girls become more involved with boys.
Second, it trivializes the role of peers in children's development, turning into school policy the myth that childhood is "training for life," rather than life itself. A strategy of noninterference resists the truth of girls' friendships, remains aloof from the heart of their interpersonal problems, and devalues the emotional intensity that leaves permanent marks on their self-esteem.
Yet there is an even simpler reason why schools have ignored girls' aggression. They need order in the classroom. On any given day, the typical teacher is racing against the clock to meet a long list of obligations. She must complete her lesson plans, fulfill district and state standards requirements, administer tests, and occasionally find time for a birthday party. Like an emergency room doctor, the teacher must perform triage on her discipline problems. Disruptions are caught on the fly and met with swift punishment. Generally, boys are more disorderly. Girls, ever the intuiters of adult stress, know that passing a nasty note or shooting mean looks like rubber bands is unlikely to draw the attention of an exhausted teacher who is intent on completing her lesson plan.
When she sees a perpetrating girl, a teacher has little or no incentive to stop the class. Taking the time to address relational discord is not always as easy as yelling at a boy to remove his peer from the trash can. As a sixth grader explained to me, "Teachers separate the boys." Relational problems, however, demand attention to something that is more complex. Invariably, the teacher is far more concerned with the boys flinging balls of paper and distracting the other students.
Schools lack consistent public strategies for dealing with alternative aggressions. In the absence of a shared language to identify and discuss the behavior, student harassment policies are generally vague and favor acts of physical or direct violence. The structure of school days also complicates teacher intervention: in many schools, for instance, lunch aides supervise at recess, when bullying is rampant.
Since alternative aggressions have been largely ignored, their real-life manifestations are often seen through the lens of more "valid" social problems. For example, at many schools, the threat "do this or I won't be your friend anymore" is considered peer pressure, not relational aggression. In academic writings, researchers explain girls' manipulation of relationships as a form of precocity or a way to "establish central position and to dominate the definition of the group's boundaries." Some psychologists classify teasing and nasty jokes as developmentally healthy experiences. They call rumors and gossip spreading "boundary maintenance."13
Also common is the assessing of the targets of meanness among girls as having a social skills deficit. According to this school of thought, bullied children are obviously doing something wrong if they are attracting the social abuse of others. This usually puts the onus on the victim, who must toughen up or learn to integrate socially. Perhaps she is responding to social situations inappropriately, failing to "read" the feelings and attitudes of others correctly. Perhaps she needs to pay more attention to clothing trends. Perhaps she is too needy, daring, as one book lamented, to say "Let's be friends" instead of the more subtle "Let's go to the mall this weekend."
Relational aggression in particular is easily mistaken for a social skills problem. When a girl is nice one day and cruel the next, or is possessive, or overreacts to another child, the behavior can be interpreted as a sign of delayed development. This is an especially insidious problem because the victims may be encouraged to show patience and respect to their perpetrators. In the course of things, the aggressive aspect of the behavior is lost, and the perpetrator is left alone.
Most disturbingly, what the victim understands to be true about her own feeling of injury is denied by adults. Since perpetrators are often friends, girls, ever compassionate, spring easily to the rescue with their endless understanding shown human mistakes. Annie, who is profiled in chapter two, remembered Samantha, the girl who made her cry all night, with whom she was still friends. "Right now Samantha has a lot of friends and is more socially skilled," Annie explained. "But back then she wasn't really....If she had a friend, and if they said some slight thing to her, she would think that it was the most offensive thing that anyone's ever said to her. I don't think I really ever said [this was wrong]. I think she was trying to keep the friendship just as she could have it." In order to be a good friend, Annie showed compassion for Samantha's social limitations while shelving her own painful feelings.
Misdiagnosing bullying as a social skills problem makes perfect sense in a culture that demands perfect relationships of its girls at any cost. Social skills proponents claim that the best interactions are situation appropriate and reinforced by others, reflecting abilities in which girls are already well schooled. Indeed, the majority of female bullying incidents occur at the behest of a ringleader whose power lies in her ability to maintain a facade of girlish tranquillity in the course of sustained, covert peer abuse. She also directs social consensus among the group. As far as the social skills school is concerned, then, girl bullies appear from the outside to be doing A-plus work. At one school trying the social skills solution, for example, the mean girls were simply urged to be more "discreet."
The trouble with the social skills argument is that it does not question the existence of meanness, it explains and justifies it. As a result, it has helped alternative aggressions to persist unquestioned.
As they try fiercely to be nice and stay in perfect relationships, girls are forced into a game of tug-of-war with their own aggression. At times girls' anger may break the surface of their niceness, while at others it may only linger below it, sending confusing messages to their peers. As a result, friends are often forced to second-guess themselves and each other. Over time, many grow to mistrust what others say they are feeling.
The sequestering of anger not only alters the forms in which aggression is expressed, but also how it is perceived. Anger may flash on and off with lightning speed, making the victim question what happened-or indeed whether anything happened at all. Did she just look at her when I said that? Was she joking? Did she roll her eyes? Not save the seat on purpose? Lie about her plans? Tell me that she'd invited me when she hadn't?
Girls will begin summoning the strength to confront alternative aggressions when we chart them out in their various shapes and forms, overt and covert. We need to freeze those fleeting moments and name them so that girls are no longer besieged by doubt about what's happening, so that they no longer believe it's their fault when it does.
Copyright © 2002 by Rachel Simmons
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