A couple of people sent me this story from the NY Times decrying the panic over mean girls—female bullies—as a hoax. I actually respect where the authors of this piece were coming from, especially when pointing out that female adolescence is far from catching up to male adolescence in terms of cruelty to others, but I have to turn readers to Sady Doyle’s spot-on criticisms. The biggest issue is that the authors rely on crime statistics to bolster their claims, which misses the mark for two reasons. The first, which Sady points out, is that a lot of bullying doesn’t really fall under prosecutable offenses. The second, which I pointed out earlier, is that even when it does, it’s often treated more like a school and parental discipline issue and less like a law enforcement issue.
We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to girls bullying girls, a behavior that can leave life long scars in its victims. Or worse, as the Phoebe Prince story shows. Sady:
Unfortunately, cruelty between girls can’t really be measured with the hard crime statistics on which Males and Lind’s argument relies. That’s part of what makes it so insidious. As Rachel Simmons wrote in “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Teenage Girls,” bullying between teenage girls expresses itself as physical fighting less often than it does as relational aggression, a soft and social warfare often conducted between girls who seem to be friends. You can’t measure rumors, passive-aggressive remarks, alienation and shaming with statistics. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t damaging or common — or, you know, mean. There’s a difference between being cruel and being violent — a difference that the Times piece seems not to recognize, actually — but cases like that of Prince, or Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being harassed by Lori Drew on MySpace, show that the consequences can be distressingly similar. Girls may not murder people very often, but neither Prince nor Meier were murdered; they were taunted and bullied to the point that suicide seemed like their only option.
She goes on to note that the problem of female bullying, in high school and beyond, gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, and speculates to reasons why. I recommend reading her piece; I won’t reinvent the wheel. But I will say that the focus on “mean girls” often misses the way that sexism is a major factor. Worse, it often comes across as anti-feminist denial that there’s a problem. “Women can be cruel, too,” the argument seems to go, “So obviously sexism isn’t the problem here.”
Wrong, on two counts. I went out with the blogger Pilgrim Soul and others last night, and we talked a little about high school bullying, because of the posts. I pointed out that when I was in high school, the girls could be evil, but they rarely reached the levels the boys could reach in terms of violent abusiveness. I never had a girl grab my ass or throw something at me. Most physical bullying was absent, in fact. And you don’t have a lot of girls ganging up and sexually assaulting their victims. You don’t have a lot of boys go that length, either, but when it does happen, it tends to be boys way more than girls.
Pilgrim pointed out the other aspect of this, which is how much female bullying is about the boys. Boys conferred social status on girls—if the popular boys didn’t like someone, she was socially done for, even if her female friends didn’t want to eject her from the group. The most vicious bullying girls engage in is over boys, fighting for their approval and attacking girls who are seen as getting attention or some other boy-provided goodies that the girl is assumed not to earn. (Which is, from what I understand, a major issue here.) The focus on mean girls rarely acknowledges this issue, instead acting like fights over boys and boy-related issues like clothing and looks, have nothing to do with what the boys want or do. We’re in love with the image of the doofy jock who has no idea what a meanie his girlfriend is to the girls—think of the dynamic on the show “Glee”—but the ugly reality is that boys often cheer this behavior on, and they often have as much social control over the mean girls as the mean girls have over other girls.
After all, there’s a lot for which girls will compete in high school. There’s grades, sports, extracurricular activities, even jobs. I competed with my peers on many fields in high school. But bullying only occurred in the context of fights over popularity, and popularity is about boys, and who does the best job at being the kind of girl that the boys are supposed to like. You wouldn’t see a girl hounded by bullies until she committed suicide because she beat some mean girl at the debate championship. It was the mom of a wannabe cheerleader, not a wannabe track star, that put a hit out on the competition’s mother in Texas all those years ago. Sadly, at the heart of these incidents is always boys and popularity. So yes, I blame the patriarchy.