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Home » Culture and Criticism

Girls, Girls, Girls

Submitted by on March 11, 2002 – 1:31 PM2 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled "Girls Just Want To Be Mean," about a woman named Rosalind Wiseman and her efforts to, as author Margaret Talbot describes it, "make middle-school girls be nice to one another." Apparently, there's a whole area of study on "relational aggression" — the nasty, bitchy, covert things girls do to act out against each other in lieu of physical bullying — and Wiseman runs a seminar called the Empower Program, which purports to bring these patterns and tendencies out into the open, thereby helping girls recognize and deal with them. The piece interviews several middle-school girls about themselves, their social lives, and Wiseman's program, and explores the sociological implications of girls' behavior at that age, often in a tone of head-shaking amazement that puzzled me when I finally looked the article up today and read it for myself.

I'd seen the article linked to on various weblogs and bulletin boards; several people, knowing I'd gone to a girls' school, mentioned it to me, wondering what I'd thought of it. But I hadn't read it until today — in fact, I'd deliberately not read it, because I knew what it would say. Because I could have written it myself. Because, like a lot of other women, I lived it. Because, not quite twenty years ago, other girls said nasty awful things to me, and said other nasty awful things about me in a voice low enough to escape a teacher's notice but designed to carry to where I sat, and looked me over from head to toe before curling their lips in exaggerated sneers of contempt, and interrupted me as if I didn't exist, and squeezed me out of lunch tables with a wall of backs, and screeched to each other down crowded hallways about my bra, and the tampons in my bag, and "Bunting, Bunting, she's our MAN, if she can't do it, no one can," and then the choked-on giggles when I flinched and they disappeared around a corner and left me by myself to burn with shame, because a girl I thought of as my best friend got a new best friend who knew more boys when seventh grade started and, after weeks of pointedly ignoring me even when I spoke directly to her, told me to my face exactly why I'd gotten downgraded, the disdainful tone implying that I should have figured out for myself why she had no use for me anymore, because a sentence addressed to me by a female and begun with the words "no offense, but" can still cast a deep cold shadow the length of my soul. Because knowing that another girl has seen you, sized you up, and disappeared behind her hand to whisper about you is probably the loneliest feeling on earth. Because I didn't know how to stop it from happening. Because I turned around and did it to other girls myself, even though I knew how much it hurt.

Because after so many years, I read that article and felt a twinge, like a long-healed broken bone when rain is coming.

Nobody talked about it, not at the time. We just lived through it every day — at least, I did, getting dressed for school and packing my bookbag and arming myself mentally for the eight hours ahead of me, playing defense, trying to patch the biggest chinks in the armor. What will they zero in on today — my hair? My clothes? The contents of my lunch? What will they seize on that I didn't think of, didn't prepare for? Will it come in private, just two of us, in the bathroom, at the lockers, a blow in passing? Or will I have an audience again, an expectant pack of skinny cats watching the trap while the blood comes up and sears my face? Will I come up with a retort today? Or will I backtrack, stammer, shrug, apologize again for breaking a rule I didn't know existed? And when one of them laughs at the jokes I crack so desperately to remind myself that my voice makes a sound, will I fall all over my own punchline like I did yesterday, the day before that, last week, for months, so happy that they saw me for a split second, ruining it like I always do, every day, because I try too hard and get it wrong?

And I didn't have it that bad, really, compared to other girls. Most of the time, the Cat Pack just didn't notice me, because…well, I still don't know why, exactly, and back then, I didn't think much about the particulars. I only knew that the rules had changed and that I'd never figure them out, no matter how hard I tried. And I did try, at first, for awhile, but they didn't seem to follow any logic that I could understand, and struggling to obey them only led to humiliation, and eventually I decided that those girls had a certain something that conferred popularity upon them, a mysterious quality which I quite obviously lacked. And I accepted that. I hated the Pack, because I sensed that they hated me (read: didn't care much about me one way or the other), but I accepted their judgment. I didn't look right, talked funny, wrong shoes, something — didn't matter. I had something wrong with me. So be it.

But other girls…other girls got mocked to their faces, without even a gesture at whispering or secrecy. One girl left school in the middle of the marking period, bullied so thoroughly that she couldn't keep food down anymore; when her doctor found an ulcer, her parents got fed up and transferred her. She protested, apparently — she didn't want the Pack to know they'd broken her. Another girl got imitated during homeroom whenever the teacher went down the hall for a cigarette; she'd sit there, frozen, a glazed grin on her face, as the Cats shuffled around the room pigeon-toed, mimicked her stutter, leafed through her Trapper Keeper and snorted, "Gahhhd, I can't even read your handwriting," and she'd smile, that girl, knowing if she cracked and broke down and cried that her whole world would rush into her head and split it open and kill her, knowing that if she could just get through the performance, the Cats would chirp, "Oh, just kidding!" and move on to another victim or maybe draw horses on the blackboard or something and forget about her, and after an appropriate period, she would get up and walk to the bathroom all casual and lock herself in the last stall and cry, quickly and quietly and fiercely get it all out don't let them hear, and then she'd splash cold water on her face and look into the mirror at herself all wrung out and worthless at only eight-twenty in the morning, and I know she did that because I'd done it myself so many times, but I never said a word in her defense. Never said, "Come on, that's mean." Never said, "Guys, quit it." Never followed her to the bathroom to check her okay.

No, I laughed instead. Sat there and laughed at her. Did a pretty accurate imitation of her myself when called on, too, and when called on, I never said no. I'd gone to that girl's house and played Q-Bert. I'd stayed up late with that girl eating Ring-Dings in front of Knight Rider, spent hours diving for pennies with that girl. She never did anything bad to me, that girl, except hang out with me back in the day, but that sealed her doom. She'd turned out dorkier than me, and if I sacrificed her, maybe I'd ascend to the pantheon, so the Pack handed me a dagger and I plunged it straight into that girl's heart, without hesitation.

I didn't ascend to the pantheon.

You've heard this story before.

We all got older, and things got better, and most of the Pack grew up into pleasant, funny, friendly women. But when it's cold and damp, that bone still throbs. The things we said and did to each other, the notes we passed, the murmurs we heard and wished we hadn't — it's a thing we all survived. It's a battle girls still get up and gird their loins for every day. Boys get bullied and picked on too, but I used to envy boys their fights and scuffles. If I'd gotten pushed or slapped or knocked down, then I'd have known what I had in front of me. I'd have known I had to push back, slap back, get up, call for help, win. I'd have known what to do, how to fight back. I never knew how to fight back, because I didn't know where the fight had come from in the first place. I like to think that, if I had it to do over again, I'd fight back — but against what? And why?

So what's the lesson? Everyone gets picked on and pushed around at some point as a kid, really. It's a part of growing up — coming to an understanding of the fact that, frequently, people suck. Seventh-grade girls ripping each other to shreds isn't exactly a recent phenomenon (read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye if you don't believe me), and Wiseman can try to "liberate" girls from the pattern, but it probably won't work. Human nature won't allow it. Lord of the Flies gets pretty violent, but compared to the gusts of sobs a twelve-year-old girl hangs on through after school when her "friends" cut her dead in the caf for no reason? Child's play, so to speak.

The author of the Times Magazine article wonders if it doesn't do more damage to put girls' behavior under a microscope than to leave it alone, and when I read about Wiseman's work, I wondered the same thing. Sure, asking girls to take responsibility for their nastier actions is a good idea, but in practice, I don't know. I got busted once for writing a horrid note about a classmate, and my punishment only made me resent the classmate, who had tattled on me, and the teacher who thumped me with a week of detention. Adult intervention doesn't always have the desired effect. Kids have their own society, and it helps them learn how to deal with things, even if they do it badly and treat people (or get treated) like crap. Could I have told the Cat Pack to get bent? Sure. Could I have stood up for other girls? Probably. Did I do either of those things? No. What came out of that? A lot of ugly shit, it's true, including a whole whack of self-esteem neuroses, but I also learned how much I could take, what I could survive. I learned to value good friends when they came along and stayed. I learned that I needed to work on doing the right thing, the hard thing, on sticking to what I believed in. I learned what I didn't want to become. I learned to hope for better times. Better times came.

I hated seventh grade, I hated the Cat Pack, I hated myself for letting their shit roll downhill, and I hate knowing that girls still pull the three-way-calling trick on each other. I wouldn't say that the cruelty girls inflict on each other works for good, because it doesn't. It's cruelty, period. But a part of me thinks that steel gets forged in those fires. Girls must get something out of it, must take something from it besides how to hate themselves. I have to think that, or the whole thing is just too depressing to contemplate.

March 11, 2002

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  • Cecelia says:

    The recent tragedy with Phoebe Price made me remember this piece of yours, though I had to Google a bit before I could find it (the string that finally led me here: +girls +rules). Do you ever think about revisiting this topic, in light of the way bullying seems to have worsened over the last decade (unless we're just hearing more about it than we used to)?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Cecelia: I'm not sure what I'd have to add. I think we're more aware of bullying than we used to be, partly because of Columbine. As it happens, that wasn't the killers' motivation, and in fact Eric Harris launched a bullying campaign of his own against another kid (I happen to be listening to an audiobook about the event in the car right now); that kid and his parents ratted him immediately and tried to get the authorities involved and divert it. This kid was explicitly told by Harris the day of the massacre, more or less, everything's cool with us now so get out of here while you can.

    But what's really changed since I wrote the piece? Social media have given bullies new "ins" with their targets, I think is the big thing, but bullying is bullying.

    If I'd add anything, it would be this: some bullies can be endured, even befriended, and there is a certain ration of shit that, it being high school, you have to expect for yourself/your kids. Other bullies are just bad and had shitty parenting, and there's nothing you can do but absent yourself/your child from their sphere of influence. And some school cultures apparently encourage bullying or at least do nothing to intervene. If I were a parent at Price's school, between this and the follow-up incident where one of the girls assaulted another student for talking to authorities, I would take a second job to get my kid into private school, like, NOW.

    But generally speaking, I don't know what the answer is. Ideally, school districts would consult with psychologists, and get known bullies into some kind of compassion-building workshop when it's clear there's a pattern emerging — while also encouraging the bullied to tattle, even if it's just an anonymous tipline or something. But school districts do not have money for that kind of thing these days.

    Would that have worked in this case? Doesn't seem like it. They hounded this girl to death, her SISTER FOUND HER, and then they defaced her Facebook memorial. A certain lack of organic empathy can be expected and excused in a teenager because they may have no perspective on their own lives, much less those of others, but when it's to this extent, there's a pathology that, if I were a parent, would indicate to me that for safety's sake my kid needs to go to school somewhere else. Territorial bullying that went way too far, okay; it's wrong, but you can address it. Continuing the campaign once you've driven her to take her own life? That's antisocial personality.

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