Review of “Mean Girl” Books
The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do-Sex Play, Aggression, and their Guilt, by Sharon Lamb. New York: The Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7432-017-8 (cloth), $24.00
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls , by Rachel Simmons. New York: Harcourt, Inc, 2002. ISBN 0-15-100604-0 (cloth), $25.00.
Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and other Realities of Adolescence, by Rosalind Wiseman. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0-609-60945-9 (cloth), $24.00.
Last spring, the mainstream media was full of articles on a new kind of “bad” girl-the “mean” girl. Suddenly, we were all reading about what had been until then, an often overlooked aspect of growing up female: dealing with backstabbing, sneaky, manipulative, and exploitative “friends.”
For me, the hype about negative aspects of young women was all too familiar; I had spent a good part of the previous decade challenging a similar spate of stories on the “violent” girl, often a gang girl. Here, too, the media had a field day exploring the notion that girls were not simply “sugar and spice and everything nice” and could often be as “bad” or “violent” as boys. Some things about the mean girl media frenzy tracks the same themes, but there are some crucial differences.
Notably, the hype about violent girls was heavily racialized, with almost all the images that accompanied the stories depicting African American or Hispanic girls and the books and articles that developed that hypothesis were written by journalists-virtually all female (see Chesney-Lind 1999). The books exploring the “mean girl”: The Secret Lives of Girl, Odd Girl Out, and Queen Bees and Wannabes have covers featuring white girls and track problems that are more linked to middle class, white femininity than to the economically marginalized communities of the “violent” girl of color. Moreover, two of the three authors of the books (Simmons and Wiseman) are participants in a new cottage industry that has grown up giving adults (both professionals and parents) information about raising their daughters.
But, leaving aside the media hype, what about the books themselves? Do they tell us something important about girlhood? The answer is a resounding yes, but.
Probably the most well known of these books is Rachel Simmons’s best selling Odd Girl Out, for example, does popularize an important new line psychological research, which focuses attention on “relational” or “alternative aggression” which is “aggression that cannot, for one reason or another, be directed (physically or verbally) at its target.” When this is the case, “the perpetrator has to find other channels” (Simmons, p. 20).
To fully understand relational aggression, though, it is important to keep in mind that psychological definitions of aggression include all behaviors that are intended to hurt or harm others. This means that a wide variety of actions fall under the category ranging from rolling one’s eyes and deliberating ignoring people to assault, rape, and murder.
Data on male and female aggression gathered by different studies routinely shows that while boys tend to specialize in physical or overt aggression (either hitting or attacking someone verbally), girls are more likely than boys to use relational aggression, so much so that by the time one includes relational aggression along with the physical, the gender difference in aggression disappears (Crick, 1999). [Crick and her associates contend that the old focus that only males are aggressive has more recently been replaced by a new perspective: “one that posits males and females to be equally aggressive” (Crick, 76).]
Why are girls inclined to alternative aggression? Simmons contends that girls are socialized into an impossible double bind psychologically. They are told that they must be good, nice, and quiet, and they are also told that they should have and value close and intimate relationships. Of course, with intimacy comes conflict, and again according to Simmons girls fear that an expression of conflict will damage their relationships. In short, girls experience anger, but they are not permitted to express it, since they “fear that even everyday acts of conflict would result in the loss of people they most cared about” (p. 69). Trapped in a constraining, stereotypical gender role, some girls begin to craft ways of expressing their anger covertly. These aggressions exist underneath the radar of most parents and virtually all teachers, since teachers and parents have their hands full dealing with the much more obvious physical aggression and violence of boys. As a result, “the day-to-day aggression that persists among girls, a dark underside of their social universe, remains uncharted and explored. We have no language for it” (Simmons, p 69).
Odd Girl Out specifically sets out explore this dark side of girlhood with story after story of girls hurting other girls. Over the course of a year, Simmons talked to girls attending ten schools in three geographic areas: a major middle-Atlantic city, a Northeastern city, and a small town in Mississippi. Simmons argues that she made an effort to seek out schools that serve girls of color as well as a range of social classes, but she never gives us the number of girls she interviewed, nor does she give us any demographic information on these respondents. She also interviewed “approximately fifty” adult women (but again, no demographic information is provided). Also frustrating is that she does not routinely give us social class or ethnic information about the particular girls whose stories she tells. This is particularly problematic since even she notes in her one, brief chapter on girls of color (Hispanic and African American only), that these ethnic groups (particularly working class African American families) do teach their girls how to fight physically, and do not seem as prone to the use of relational aggression, something she would have noticed had she read any of the books available on girls in gangs.
Simmons opens her book on this, the newest female victimization with her own story. In her case, when she was eight a “popular” friend of hers began to whisper to Rachel’s best friend that they should run away from Rachel. One day they did on the way to dance class at a local community theatre, and she spent much of that year trying to make sense of their desertion. As she puts it at the “the sorrow is overwhelming” (p.2) so “now is the time to end the silence” (p. 3).
This seems a little overblown. In fact, the silence on female aggression was broken by two books published a decade earlier than Simmons’: Men, Women and Aggression by Anne Campbell (1991) and Of Mice and Women: Aspects of Female Aggression edited by Kaj Bjorkqvist and Pirkko Niemela in 1992. Simmons does write well, and she provides readers with powerful narratives on the pain girls experience. Finally, she has some very useful suggestions to teachers and parents about teaching girls to be appropriately “aggressive” (being confident, assertive, and competitive) while avoiding mean strategies like vindictive gossip and social exclusion.
Girls’ aggression is also a major theme Sharon Lamb’s The Secret Lives of Girls. Here, the author utilizes a methodology that seems even more haphazard than that used by Simmons. The author reports that she interviewed 122 women and girls in 25 states “using family trips and trips to conferences as opportunities to find women and girls to interview” (p. xv). Ultimately, her efforts (as well as those of two assistants) did result in a sample that is 24% African American and 17% Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican); only a quarter of her interviewees, though, were girls.
Having grown up working class, Lamb, a clinical psychologist who worked with Carol Gilligan, apparently felt constrained by a construction of girlhood that stressed girl’s and women’s “caring natures” (Lamb, p. xiv). Lamb confesses that her experiences with “anger, wishes for vengeance” and sexuality led her to seek “a perspective that gives girls’ sexuality and aggression their due and doesn’t subsume it under a blanket of carrying nor as a defense against oppression” (Lamb, p. xiv).
In seeking to challenge the caring girl stereotype of the eighties, Lamb’s book offers us a chaotic, choppy, and frequently frustrating set of ruminations about various aspects of girlhood. Chapters, many only four pages in length, attempt to deal with a wild array of topics, and while Lamb, unlike Simmons, appears familiar with a range of research on girl’s development, her citation pattern (for an academic) is inconsistent and occasionally sloppy.
Though Lamb spends considerable time challenging the “tyranny of nice and kind” (Lamb, p. 147), most of the book deals with a topic that seems unfortunate in light of current public concern regarding the sexual abuse of children: the sexual games that girls play with other girls (and occasionally with boys). Certainly, there is a need to document, as careful researchers like Deborah Tolman and Barry Thorne have done, girl’s experience of their sexuality. Lamb’s book is far less systematic and more autobiographical. She admits that she “played sexual games with other girls and was deeply concerned for many years after about what I had done (Lamb, p. xiii).” Like Simmons, this early childhood experience has translated in a discussion that seems almost voyeuristic at times, and certainly unanchored from the growing literature on sexual development in children. [Even more worrisome, though she seems concerned about the sexual abuse of girls, at least one the incidents she describes in her chapter entitled, “I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours,” sounded very much like an incident of sexual abuse, not “playing doctor” despite the author’s trying to label it as such (including the victim opening the story with “one time they [a group of boys] tried to get me” (Lamb, p. 22). ]
Especially exasperating is the section of her book on girls and fashion subtitled: “the pleasures of being objectified.” She contends that few feminists have “analyzed the appeal” that media images of “pretty” have for young girls, and she seems quick to condone the fact that “little girls love this look; they love Britney [Spears].”
In virtually all her analysis of girl’s sexuality and sexual games, Lamb seems reluctant to acknowledge the ways in the sex/gender system has shaped female sexual expression. In a misogynistic world, girls learn to assign low worth to women and hold that women achieve their greatest importance when they command the attention of males. The success of pop icons is that they learned how to capture the male gaze, just as young girls seek to do.
By contrast, Lamb’s treatment of girl’s aggression is actually less problematic and more informed than Simmons’ treatment. She addresses girl’s experiences with direct and indirect aggression, and she does particularly well with the agency of girls of color. She is wrong, though, when she says that “society ignores and accepts aggression in girls from low income neighborhoods” (Lamb, p. 142). In fact, the media hype and subsequent demonization of girls in gangs and violent girls has – led to a 56% increase in the detention of girls in the last decade.
Lamb ends her book, as does Simmons, by talking about the need to acknowledge and even support girl’s participation in direct aggression: “when good girls are aggressive they both conform and resist” (Lamb, p. 228).
Well, how do we raise girls that can both exist and thrive in an imperfect world? Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes offers us all a “passport” from “Planet Parent” into what she calls, “Girl World.” [Wiseman apparently draws her interview data from her work with girls in a school based violence prevention program, the Empower Program, but, again, there’s no clear information on where these girls came or what their demographic characteristics are as a group.]
Reading this book closely, it appears that perhaps Wiseman needs a passport out of Girl World; she is certainly accepting and even enthusiastic about even the most repressive and superficial aspects of girlhood. In her introduction, as an example, she gushes about the “key rights of passage your daughter is likely to experience: getting an invitation to an exclusive party in the sixth grade…; her first breakup with a friend; the first time she dresses up for a party in the latest style (p. 3). What happened to her first play or high school graduation to say nothing of being named a Rhodes Scholar?
In fact, though school is the setting for much of Wiseman’s book, we virtually never hear anything about studying. Instead, there is a steady drumbeat of acquiescence to such Girl World “facts” as “beauty and style are so important to the Girl World that it wouldn’t exist without it (Wiseman, p. 76), “breasts are power,” and that girls “can’t be too overt about their academic or athletic accomplishments” for fear of being called “stuck up” (Wiseman, p. 115). Weisman does hedge these observations sometimes with comments like the feminist movement still has “further to go” (p. 115), but if so this book hardly provides parents or anybody else with much of a road map.
Instead, we see six grade girls “sinking as low as they need to win the boy they want” which translates into them being “off the charts cliquey and mean” (Wiseman, p. 211). The next chapter takes us further down misogyny highway in Girl World where we learn that “pleasing boys” means “betraying girls” (Wiseman, p. 235). Admittedly, Wiseman does talk about date rape and other forms of dating violence as well as sexuality and pregnancy in smart ways at the end of the book, but this is off set by long sections on clique dynamics in girls groups urge parents to accept the fact that girls prestige in such groups is almost totally a product of looks, weight, wearing the right clothes and negotiating a world where the worst thing to be is a “fat, uglyÉslut” (p. 111), and where “mean girls” are the most powerful.
Having said all of this, I have to confess that I’ve recommended Wiseman’s book to colleagues who work with girls. Despite my frustration with the limits of her perspective, there is no doubt that she has really listened to girls, and she includes very powerful quotes from young women who have been in the Empower Program. Take this zinger from Maria, age 15: “There isn’t a lot a girl won’t do to make a boy like her.” (p. 258) Or, “If a girl’s stuck in a degrading clique, it’s the same as when she’s later in a bad relationship. She doesn’t expect to be treated any better” from fifteen year old Ellen (p. 36). Finally, her book contains some extremely useful advice to parents and others on what “works” and what does not work with their daughters in certain tricky situations, like the moment when you discover that your own daughter may be a “mean” girl.
So, these books document the fact that girls can be mean (and that this is a major theme in early, female adolescence). That is good to know, particularly if you are working with or raising girls. But, let’s keep a few facts in mind. First, boys also engage in this behavior (though not as much a girls); and second that the context of any aggressive behavior is important. Alternative aggressions are, fundamentally, weapons of the weak. As such, they are as reflective of girl’s powerlessness as they are of girl’s meanness. Women and other oppressed groups have not, historically, been permitted direct aggression (without terrible consequences). As a result, in certain contexts, and against certain individuals, relational aggressions were ways the powerless punished the bad behavior of the powerful. This was, after all, how slaves and indentured servants-female and male–got back at abusive masters, how women before legal divorce dealt with violent husbands, and how working women today get back at abusive bosses.
More than this, probably everybody needs to know about behaviors that are included in alternative aggression, if only to recognize when they are being deployed against you. The myopic focus of these books on girls doing this to other girls tends to blur the fact that girls exist in a world that basically ignores them and marginalizes them—all the while empowering young boys (whose physical and relational aggression against girls is virtually unmentioned in Simmon’s book and minimized and sexualized in Lamb’s work). Certainly, feminists (and particularly feminist parents and teachers want to change much about girlhood, and we do want to stop girls from hurting other, weaker girls, but even in a perfect world, girls will need to know something about how to “do” relational aggression. [After all, it was Machiavelli who first taught us that while all are supposed to be good, if one wants to be successful politically, and one is forced to make a choice, it is much safer to be feared than loved. The world, even the male world, is not a perfect place, and girls need many and varied skills to survive it.]
Finally, I think that we need to keep in mind that there are some basic problems with a concept of “aggression” that includes such disparate behaviors as rolling your eyes at a stupid remark and murder. Yes, psychologists mean this when they talk about aggression, but the rest of us must remember that the degree of harm is important. Some aggression makes us depressed and sad for a day or six, and some we do not survive. Consider how the media hype surrounding the discovery of girl’s meanness seems to imply that this “new” attribute makes girls about as bad as boys or worse. That is not the case; virtually all girls’ aggression is non-violent. This does not mean that girls are perfect, but lets keep our perspective. Boys are still over 80% of those arrested for serious crimes of violence, and it is boy’s violence, not girls’ gossip, that gives the United States the highest rate of firearm-related deaths among youths in the industrialized world.
Bjorkqvist, by Kaj and Pirkko Niemela (eds). 1992. Of Mice and Women: Aspects of Female Aggression. San Diego: Academic Press
Campbell, Anne. 1991 Men, Women and Aggression. New York: Basic Books
Chesney-Lind, Meda. “Media Misogyny: Demonizing ‘Violent’ Girls and Women. Jeffrey Ferrel and Neil Websdale (eds). Making Trouble: Cultural Representations of Crime, Deviance, and Control. Jeff Ferrell and Neil Websdale (eds). New York: Aldine, 1999, pp. 115-141.
Crick, Nicki, et al. 1998. “Childhood Aggression and Gender: A New Look at an Old Problem. In Gender and Motivation, edited by Dan Bernstein. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, pp. 75-141.