Recently, several counselors have asked me the following question: “Does your program include something about mean girls?” Mean Girls, a phrase that taken out of context sounds like an indictment, has now become common in the lexicon of educators.
Of course, what they are talking about is a particular brand of peer aggression, which has come to be known as the “mean girl” problem thanks to the 2004 movie of the same name. The movie brilliantly parodies the cut-throat politics and social maneuvering among The Plastics, a clique of self-absorbed high school girls who are both revered and feared. Like royalty, they determine the fates of their classmates with an arsenal of put-downs, rumors, dress codes, secrets, and back-stabbing. Effectively using the metaphor of a jungle, there are fantasy scenes in which the students become wild animals, tearing at one another’s throats in a battle of life and death– and death, of course, is synonymous with social exclusion.
Tina Fey’s comic screenplay was taken straight from the pages of Rosalind Wiseman’s groundbreaking book, Queen Bees & Wannabees, published in 2002: a thorough examination of adolescent girl friendships and cliques. Wiseman’s “Girl World” is explored in such detail, including maps and an exhaustive list of roles and titles (Queen Bee, Sidekick, Banker, Floater, Torn Bystander, Pleaser/Wannabe/Messinger & Target) that it lends itself well to comedy. It depicts a perilous world and offers advice to parents who aspire to understand and guide their daughters through its hazards. When the book came out, Wiseman became a staple on the talk show circuit, and her ideas resonated. Fey’s movies then launched them into pop culture history.
Both works document high school culture, but as any elementary school teacher knows, the “mean girl” dynamic can start much earlier. From the first day of elementary school, girls seek and form groups to explore common interests and to gain a sense of belonging. Their connections tend to be more verbal and fantasy based, playing pretend and acting out roles. Social skills are honed and relationships can become intense. It is a normal part of development, but the stakes can be high, especially when someone feels excluded.
My daughter Lydia, who is in her twenties, recently reminded me of an event from second grade, when she fell victim to this dynamic. I asked her about it for this blog and she reprised the story. Here is an exerpt:
“When I was in second grade there was a group of girls who called themselves ‘The Club.’ The Club was Chrissy’s idea. Chrissy made the rules for the two other girls in The Club. On certain days, the trio would co-ordinate clothing or hairstyles. As far as I could tell, club meetings involved standing in a corner of the blacktop with arms crossed, talking. At the time, I was only interested in playing at recess. Chrissy sometimes glared at me for reasons I never understood, but I did not care much about The Club…That is, until I was specifically excluded.”
I was becoming friends with a girl named Grace. One day she told me that she couldn’t play with me. Chrissy was inducting Grace into The Club that day.
The next day I asked Grace to play at recess. This time she told me, “I’m in The Club now so I can’t play with you today.” When I asked her why, Grace said, “That’s what Chrissy said…I do wanna play. Maybe tomorrow.”This continued for what seemed like a long time to me. Sometimes Grace would say, “Maybe Tuesday- or next Thursday.” Another girl I liked and talked to, Stephanie, was an original member of The Club. One day she also told me that Chrissy said she couldn’t play with me. Apparently, Chrissy was making rules about what days The Club members could play with other kids. Eventually the girls’ excuses evolved into, “Chrissy says I can’t play with you.”
Feeling friendless, Lydia’s attitude toward school changed. Distraught, she told my wife and me about what was happening. Needless to say, it was heart-wrenching to see our eight year old girl, who typically loved school become so discouraged. I wrote a note to the teacher, and the club was immediately dissolved: a true testament to the power of an authoritative figure in the lives of second graders.
What is also remarkable is the similarity between “The Club” and “The Plastics” of movie fame. Our experience not only predates the works of Fey and Wiseman, but illustrates the same cruel dynamic in girls who are barely old enough to read. Why do girls act this way and why are they so good at it?
Lyn Mikel Brown, activist and co-author of Meeting At The Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development, characterizes this dynamic as “the tyranny of nice and kind.” Because girls are required to act nice and accommodating at an early age, they learn to hide strong feelings like anger from public view. Denied open expression of anger, they become experts at more subtle forms of aggression, such as gossip, spreading rumors, and exclusion. This way, they maintain the image of being “nice,” while at the same time wielding power.
For me, Brown’s explanation holds water. Chrissie (leader of The Club) clearly saw Lydia as a rival. Knowing it inappropriate for a girl to physically, clash, hit, call-out, or otherwise display anger or violence toward her, (like Fey’s wild animals) she employed her refined social skills. What a boy might have communicated in an athletic contest or a fight, was instead suppressed into a finely orchestrated coup de tat. Using friendship as a commodity, she left her rival bankrupt and alone. Club members acted as loyal players to the plot, and only adult intervention brought it to an end. Chrissie’s club was dissolved, and the members regained their free will.
Is this dynamic preventable or is it inevitable? Is our only hope as counselors and educators to short circuit such behavior when we see it happening or can we replace it with a better alternative? I think we can do both.
Olweus’s 4 rules, (Do Not Bully, Help Others, Include Everyone, and Tell An Adult) are instrumental in promoting open dialogue about the way girls treat one another. Discussing “The Club” dynamic openly as a form of bullying, emphasizing the pain of exclusion, and describing and promoting empathy are all worthwhile and effective methods of reducing peer aggression. And thank goodness Lydia chose to tell an adult. In the case of “mean girls,” however, two additional areas require our attention: promoting assertiveness and evaluating friendships.
Recently, while counseling a woman in her late 20’s, I asked her if she had attempted to rectify a situation by being assertive. She responded, “I don’t want to be mean.” While girls have mined the depths of subtly aggressive communication: silent treatment, eye-rolling, sighs, stares, whispering, and pretending not to hear (to name a few), being direct or assertive is considered mean. Correcting this distortion is crucial to empowering girls and helping to avoid the “mean girl” dynamic as both victims and perpetrators.
Using an “I” statement to tell someone what you want is easy to teach and model. Assertiveness role-play helps girls to build confidence and become more direct and powerful. It is respectful and responsible and can be taught to a kindergartner. It is far less abstract than “pillars of character” and can be used everyday. Wouldn’t it be a great addition to the curriculum?
Finally, there is the question of friendship. Though I shy away from using the word frenemy, it is true that many children maintain friendships that are toxic. In an environment where friendship is a commodity, and “best friend” is a title to be coveted, many kids are blinded to the fact that some friendships are bad. I recently found a Friendship Quiz online, designed to help girls decide whether or not someone is a good friend. Qualities like “stands up for me around others” are followed by check columns: Always, Sometimes, or Never. Answers are numerated for a friendship score (6-This friendship is worth keeping!, 0-3-This friendship is over! etc.) With my daughter Lydia in mind, I would surely include the quality: “Tells me whom I can and cannot play with.”
Enough said… for now. This blog is on the long side, but I had a lot to say. I love my job, bringing mental health issues to schools (I tell other therapists that my “client load” is a half dozen adults and 2000 children per week). Needless to say, girl peer aggression, assertiveness, and friendships are topics that I will continue to explore. And, as requested, they will be covered in Part III of our anti-bullying programs which is currently in production. Working title: Warm Heart, Cool Head.