Mean Girls

Heathers Everybody tells me that girls are meaner than boys. It makes sense. The truly meanest people that I've met are girls who have cut me down with a withering look, an eye roll, and a whisper about my shabby clothes.

Last week, an op-ed article argued that the notion of mean girls was a big myth. The rate of violence and felonies by girls has gone down in recent years, just as the media is saying that technology has given girls new tools for meanness.

Of course, the authors of the article miss the point. Truly mean girls aren't violent. They aren't beating up the weak girls in dusty baseball fields after school. They simply text the geeky girls and let them know that they are ugly and boring. They don't get caught. 

My sister recommends Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World.

UPDATE: Melissa Summers talks about a new book on mean girls and discusses her own interactions with mean bloggers.


31 thoughts on “Mean Girls

  1. And this is why I don’t let my daughter have a cell phone or FB. Why invite the bullying? And when she does, I will figure out the technology so I can monitor any evil texts and then tell the parents and warn them to make their kids stop or face my wrath, which will be clever yet legal.
    Sorry–I am working myself into “Don’t mess with me” mode in prep for tomorrow’s special ed eligibility meeting (the first one was a major bust).

  2. I had the same reaction to that Op-Ed. We aren’t talking about bloody noses here. I have no idea if girls really are meaner (meaning “more interested in taunting the weak”) than boys.

  3. I feel all humorless(tm) reacting this way, but “girls are meaner than boys”? Really? I’d have the same reaction to the reverse statement.
    Can’t we agree that people have the potential to be evil to each other, regardless of their chromosomal makeup or gender identity?

  4. No, you’re right, LizardBreath. Everyone, regardless of gender, has the capability to be mean. But I think that girls and boys do it differently. Boys are more likely to pound a weak kid at the playground; girls wlll use verbal tools to inflict pain.

  5. ” I have no idea if girls really are meaner (meaning “more interested in taunting the weak”) than boys.”
    I really don’t think so. I think the meanness takes different forms, and thus is easier to miss. But, I also think that the “mean girl” has become a standard staple of tween/teen movies. So standard, that my daughter pointed out the cliche in the movie we’re watching (something with Lindsey Lohan moving to NJ from NY): Mean girl + mean wannabe friends, who aren’t quite as sure of themselves. New girl has potential for joining the mean girl crowd, but doesn’t want to, so challenges them. Mean girl mayhem ensues.
    I think that’s why we’re talking about mean girls. So far, we haven’t encountered this with my to be tween. Physical bullying doesn’t occur, and so far, the psychological “bullying” (no one has decided it deserves that word yet) has been instigated by the boys.

  6. LizardBreath, I know what you mean. I always say (especially in talking about younger kids) that kids come in a range of personalities and each is an individual.
    But I also like to blame the vast majority of differences in behavior between men and women on socialization, and socialization has kicked in by middle school. So if we tell girls from an early age that wrestling is bad but nasty comments won’t be punished, while “boys will be boys” permits wrestling to express your feelings, we might get different behaviors from middle school boys and girls. And we might label some of them as “mean” while we label others as “boys like to fight.”
    But my comment above was meant to be shorthand for “I don’t even know if that much is true.” My husband tells stories about boys being mean to other boys in middle school/high school and it was the same type of thing: pick on the poor kid, or the one with the lisp, or whatever.

  7. The girls do do a “clique” building thing, though where they want to develop a “BFF” (i.e. Best Friends Forever). But, this is a difficult one to regulate, because it stems from the need for deep relationships. They’re looking for another girl who will always be there for them, trying to build a support network. Such a demanding support network (we’ll fight each others battles) has to be limited in size, which in turn will produce cliquiness. Boys seem less likely to produce those cliques (though I don’t know yet), but that’s ’cause they’re not as demanding of the friendship, and expect to defend themselves and rely on themselves.

  8. Oh, and my comments, as with any gender differences observed, are observational. I make no statements about behaviors that one might be able to observe on the playground being innate or intrinsic.

  9. I think the cultural politics that operates in relationships between girls from about age 8 into college are different than boys (or boys-girls). That’s not based on eternal biological differences, it’s just the way that things are at this moment in time. Watching my daughter, I’m just struck that there is a good deal more complexity than I remember in boy friendships/alliances/rivalries, which tended to be structured in part by violence, implied violence, physicality, and to have only a few in-groups and out-groups until late in high school. The girls my daughter knows seem to have these very intricate, constantly shifting patterns of affiliation and very subtle, sometimes cruel, rules about who can do what with whom and when they can do it.

  10. Well, I’m a bit with lizardbreath on this. Talk to some fat 11 year old boys and ask them whether it is the physical beatings or the psychological torment that bothers them.

  11. Thanks for the book recommendation, Laura; I’ve just interlibrary loaned it. Melissa and I were just talking about this the other day–we kind of fear that one of our daughters in turning into a mean girl. She won’t be able to be truly mean, because we don’t have the money for it, and her interests probably won’t position her to wreck much havoc on others. But she seems to have the chops to be pretty exclusive and judgmental, when she wants to be. Hopefully we’ll be able to stop it from so developing.

  12. Russell, if you don’t mind the personal question — how do you know? And how might a parent forestall mean girl development? (A learning moment for me: I’ve got a 3 year old daughter and am a long-term thinker…..)

  13. “Queen Bees and Wannabees” is a great book to start with.
    For a close description of how mean girl psychological warfare operates, I highly recommend, “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls”, by Rachel Simmons.
    Technology makes the problem much worse. There are many ways to exclude other girls in a hurtful manner through IM and Facebook. It doesn’t stay on the playground–it follows a child home. The social media sites allow mean girls to build much larger cliques of followers. Some school systems in our area have banned IM for middle schoolers, as it led to fights at school.
    Our daughter became a target because we did not play the game of keeping up with the Joneses. Our children do not receive brand new Razr phones (or whatever’s in now), nor were they on Facebook and IM the instant they turned 11. We also didn’t dress our daughter in Hollister. That meant she was a natural target.
    Our daughter’s a much stronger person because of what she endured. Changing schools saved her. Had she remained in the system, I would fear for her health. This sort of bullying is community based. Another book I’d recommend is “Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads.”

  14. Julie, it’s just something that we’ve become concerned about, as we watch how one of our daughters interacts with her sisters, and how she interacts with her friends. She isn’t really mean, not yet, but she can be bossy, and sometimes cruel, and she definitely is a diva. Right now, I suppose our strongest hope is that it’s a second-child phenomenon, her defining her territory in light of her older sister’s accomplishments, and that it’ll fade as she becomes less defensive about her differences.

  15. While I am quite convinced of girls’ capability to be mean, I am also convinced about boys’ capability to be mean, too. I am also aware that this meanness takes different forms in both verbal and physical forms. (Mean girls don’t write “dyke” on somebody facebook wall, they spread a rumor that they saw Sally kissing another girl, or better yet a girl and a boy because then she’s queer and a slut; mean boys hack somebody’s facebook account and write “I love to suck dick” as a the status update. Along with the daily cries of “faggot.”)
    But girls get most of the attention which suggests a) a moral panic, b) a desire to patrol girls’ bodies and actions moreso than boys’ c) an unhealthy fascination with teen sexual activity on the part of adults who should know better and d) a curious lack of focus on the roles of the adults in the community who are supposed to be keeping an eye on this stuff (parents, teachers, administrators).
    My tip for dealing with the parents of mean kids (boys or girls), make it clear to them that they are responsible for their children’s behavior. If they do not take action to restrain their children make it clear you will be ensuring that their child’s discipliniary record will be so long that no college will touch them. Then back it up: call the school on their kid, call the cops on their kid do that enough times until you can get a restraining order, then get it enforced. Identify sympathetic administrators at school and get them to act, if they’re aren’t any, find sympathetic teachers (of whom there are plenty) and get them to document behaviors noticed in school and then use that as a basis to threaten a law suit, make school board members aware that you are planning said lawsuit – that usually gets things taken care of quick. Call your local news-station and tell them you have a bullying story (hey, it’s a moral panic which means big ratings! Put that to your advantage.)
    Many, many people will thank you and join your struggle when you go public – especially teachers, who tend to come from the ranks of the bullied themselves.

  16. I remember plenty of verbal nastiness from boys in elementary school and junior high, although certainly dumping someone’s books on the floor every time she tries to walk down the hall (standard boy behavior of the time) was plentifully shitty. Were the girls more subtle in their meanness? Sure. Were they reliably meaner? Not that I remember.

  17. Mean girls do create spoof Facebook accounts, and claim all sorts of vile interests on the part of their targets. The fake accounts do look very convincing, as they’re all adept at copying photos from the web & using Photoshop. They also hack into other kids’ accounts. Don’t share a password with your BFF!

  18. Queen Bees and Wannabees is an excellent book, but it is not for the weak. If your children, especially girls, are young, the information might scare the crap out of you. The only scarier book about teenage girls is Restless Virgins. Queen Bees breaks down Girl World and how it dominates the lives of girls. It is incredibly complex. All girls try to survive in Girl World and have the potential to be “mean girls” at some point in their lives. This does not mean they will be cyber bullies, but they will try to use whatever power they can garner in ways that are not always nice. Cliques are central to this system and often lead to destructive behavior such as drinking and sexual promiscuity. ALL of this stems from a lack of self esteem. The best thing you can do is involve your girls in activities that make them feel intelligent and successful and let them know that it is okay to be themselves. Also, moms need to model good behavior. Snarky comments about other women or worse, other girls, do not help. And neither does putting ourselves down.

  19. There’s a difference between bullying and being mean. Bullying is prolonged and severe toture of a kid by a kid. Mean is much more subtle. While most would be vigilent in making sure that their kids aren’t bullies, they have a blind eye to simple acts of meanness. They’ll quiz their kids on their spelling words, but they won’t make their kids be nice.
    Fwiw, boys don’t pick up on ian’s disability, but girls do. And they won’t sit next to him at the dinner table or they’ll wrinkle their noses at him. you don’t have to knock someone’s books to the floor or write something on a facebook wall to be mean. Mean is sometimes the absence of nice.

  20. I have no idea what the reasons were, but I do remember that in a high school class with 10 girls, they had two different groupings that hardly crossed paths unnecessarily between say 8th grade and the start of the junior year. There were a couple of girls that stayed outside this. Senior year was much more convivial which I attribute to the cooler girls being alone when their older boyfriends were no longer in school and the standard senior year delusions of being part of the best year ever.

  21. So my daughter is a diva, and kind of bossy, too. But, she’s not a mean girl. I’d even go further and say that she’s usually kind. I’m not sure she’d sit next to Ian, because he’s a boy, but she does sit next to his girl equivalent, with open-hearted acceptance, and is spontaneously kind in ways that make me proud.
    I sometimes fear that that we teach girls to not be mean at the expense of teaching them to be powerful (i.e. bossy divas) and think it’s important to show them how to be both. You can be powerful and be kind (though perhaps not absolutely powerful), and in fact, one of the benefits of some power is the resources to be kind.
    I do think that most mean girls probably have mean parents, playing their own power games. I hope our community stays friendly enough to mitigate these games. And, as cranberry said, I think sometimes the only choice is to move communities. If people are playing power games with consumer goods, that’s a choice parents are making. This was a worry I discussed extensively before joining our private school, and it will be part of the discussion in our next schooling discussions, too.

  22. Of course, Ian doesn’t have a “girl equivalent”, since he’s a unique individual, but hopefully, y’all know what I meant in the broad sense, with no disrespect.

  23. We’re having the opposite problem with E. The girls love him. He doesn’t fit in with the boys, though, mainly because he doesn’t know anything about sports and he can’t bring himself to play if he doesn’t really know the rules. Or so we speculate. He doesn’t tell us (thank you, expressive language deficits).

  24. I first read Queen Bees when my daughter was in fourth grade. I found it unrealistic and exaggerated. In sixth grade, everything hit the fan. In the spring of her sixth grade year, she and I could look at the role descriptions, and pick out the same girls. “She’s the Queen Bee, she’s the wannabe, she’s the banker, she’s the go-between, and ____ is a floater.”
    It starts in middle school. I think some women don’t grow out of it. It’s terrible to see thirty year olds who are obsessed with popularity and excluding others.
    Mothers may know nothing of their daughters’ behavior, but some of them do encourage it. They want their daughters to have the right friends and the right activities. Their daughters must wear the right clothes and be thin. Heaven forbid they have quirky interests, an interior life, or geeky friends. As I write this, I realize part of the problem is parents too involved in their daughters’ lives. Your own social standing should not be tied to your daughter’s social life.

  25. “As I write this, I realize part of the problem is parents too involved in their daughters’ lives. Your own social standing should not be tied to your daughter’s social life.”
    I really need to see Mean Girls again. As I recall, the mother of one of the mean girls dresses and talks just like her daughter and the daughter’s peers and relates to her as a peer, rather than as a parent. This may not be entirely a figment of Tina Fey’s imagination. My husband was recently staying at a hotel that was packed with mothers and tween daughters, all of whom were dressed in the same teen style. It turned out to be a cheerleading convention.

  26. “I first read Queen Bees when my daughter was in fourth grade. I found it unrealistic and exaggerated. In sixth grade, everything hit the fan.”
    Oh, lovely. Do you think we can delay the onset by staying in a K-8 rather than a middle school? I hope so.
    I’ve read the grown-up book (parents of Queen Bees, or something like that). I found it to be overly exaggerated. I hope I can attribute that to having parents who are grown-up, but, perhaps it’s only that they’re parents of younger kids. Will keep a cautious eye on everyone.

  27. My daughter was in a K-8 school. Sorry.
    The administration of the school can make an enormous difference. In general, well run private schools seem to be more willing to accept that adults can make a difference. I have heard of girls changing schools due to mean girl troubles, and private schools want to keep their students. Also, a private school can decline to reenroll a child, which helps to keep parents in check.
    Massachusetts is currently in the throes of mean girl bullying obsession, due in part to the Phoebe Prince case. If you Google her name, you will find articles about her suicide, and the felony charges the prosecutor has lodged against her tormentors.

  28. As the father of four girls (and one son), I can attest to the meanness of the fairer sex. Not to mention being the husband of a woman. Whoa. Plus, I spent a summer as a school janitor, and wow, the difference between the girls’ and boys’ restrooms! Both the filth left behind, and the graffiti…the boys were docile compared with the girls.

  29. The argument from evolutionary psychology, which I find persuasive (and which is much mroe subtle than crude “biological differences”), would suggest that boys and girls are equally competitive, aggressive and status-seeking—but that girls’ aggression tends to take forms that will preserve social relationships/networks )ie “frenemies”) whereas boys’ aggression will rupture relationships. I’ve found that to be a very useful heuristic in understanding my daughters and my sons.

  30. I think the “boy beats boy up” versus “girl socially ostracized you” debate misses an entire realm of meanness — young boys being mean to girls.
    In our school, we are still cleaning up the mess from a huge incident in which a half-dozen boys selected a handful of girls to continuously assault with “wiener jokes” and worse. Our eldest Raggirl — who wasn’t a prime victim — came home one day and told us, “I’m not comfortable with the way the boys are treating E.” We of course called E’s parents — who were completely unaware — and when they confronted their daughter she completely melted down in tears, and we soon found out the taunting had been more severe, and had been going on longer than even my daughter had known.
    We are currently in the “let’s see if sex-segregated lunch tables helps” phase. It’s spotty.
    I wonder how many of the eventual Mean Girls are “kicking the dog” from an incident with a Mean Boy, by turning their anger on someone with even less power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s