Let’s Bust the Myth of Mean Girls

April 2, 2010 at 5:09 pm 2 comments

Let me be frank: I hate the phrase “mean girls.”  It runs deep against the grains of my being.  I know, so many thousands and millions of women and girls have stories about how girls can be “so mean,” and “catty,” and “sneaky” and all of that.  As girls growing up, or working alongside female co-workers, or as mothers watching our daughters get hurt by cliques, it’s so common to see and focus on the ways that girls show aggression.  And mean stuff happens online and by text, too.

We’re regularly informed about disturbing events in which girls participate in fights, rumors, bullying, and harassment.  Sometimes the results to a targeted person are tragic, such as the recent heartbreaking suicide of Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince, 15, of Massachusetts, who was persistently bullied by a group of 7 girls and 2 boys.

But overall, I’m not convinced that there is a new type of particularly mean girl taking over the planet. That’s why I was totally blown away tonight when I saw an Op-Ed Column in the New York Times by Michael Males and Meda Chesney-Lind entitled The Myth of the Mean Girl, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/opinion/02males.html?scp=1&sq=the%20myth%20about%20mean%20girls&st=cse Males and Chesney-Lind disprove the notion that girls have become increasingly violent toward each other and society. Although the media – in the news, books, movies, videos, reality TV – displays all kinds of cruelty between girls and perpetuates the belief that girls are becoming more and more anti-social, the facts show rates of girls’ violence actually having dropped over the past decade.

I am grateful to Males and Chesney-Lind for their research. It fortifies the position we hold at Girls Circle Association: girls aren’t inherently mean people.  They deserve respect, not labels, and when they behave with meanness, there is some kind of need or problem, but the behavior does not define a girl’s character. More likely, the need or problem is rooted in her social environment, unhealthy cultural norms, or in some instances, related to traumatic or abusive experiences a girl has suffered by adults responsible for her care.

I appreciate the good work of authors and girls’ movement leaders such as Rachel Simmons  http://www.rachelsimmons.com/ and who are addressing  relational aggression and working to empower girls with leadership and better tools and strategies in their interactions.

But let’s be real about this labeling of girls.  Girls are growing children.  They are first and foremost developing children who need protection, love, relationships, and safety.  They are also female children, and that means in our society they are expected, still, to be nice. They are encouraged to speak up, but as soon as girls are expressing themselves, they have “so much drama.” Everything girls feel real about is too much to the adults. They’re seen as just too sensitive.   As they become teens, girls are nearing the end of the child stage, but are not yet adults. They are intuitive in adolescence, and they are passionate, emotional people. That is their nature. Teen girls are not yet fully developed, not yet efficient in their management of emotional reactions and impulsivity. They are very effective, however, in their capacity for empathy when given the opportunity.

So here’s the thing:

Why are girls being labeled as “mean”?

Couldn’t the media or society more generally say the same about boys, or parents, men or women, school teachers, business owners, politicians, police, screenwriters, or any one of us while hurried and stuck in traffic or standing in line?

Why girls?

My theory: some kind of backlash.

I wish it weren’t so, but girls have gotten stronger in voicing what they know, and maybe it makes people uncomfortable.

The decade of the 90’s was the decade of the girls’ movement.  Empowerment for girls became an important goal in academics, sports, and leadership.  Organizations such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Council for Research on Women, and authors and thinkers such as Mary Pipher, Lyn Mikel Brown, Carol Gilligan, and Janie Ward articulated fundamental and critical issues facing girls and impacting their development, and provided strategies and visions toward healthier development.

Girls Circle began in 1994.  It was our response as mothers to the message that girls like our daughters need to hold onto their voices, and their capacity to stay true to themselves would be strengthened through their sharing with each other.

We’ve seen a huge increase in numbers of girls participating in sports, attending and completing college, increasingly going into professional careers, collaborating in the workplace alongside men.  We’ve listened to hundreds of girls and stories of girls expressing themselves with authenticity and in doing so, finding connection, caring, support, and encouragement.

When girls are provided with the tools to express their needs and feelings, particularly anger, in assertive and direct ways within the relationships important to them, they no longer use relational aggression because they are free to set their boundaries, be real, know their worth.

Many girls and women have found through this girls’ movement that what matters most is their relationships – with one another, with mothers, fathers, family members, teachers, coaches, boyfriends and girlfriends, neighbors, and colleagues.  If you ask girls what makes them feel good, they will tell you being with people who love them – friends, family, pets, teams.  This is what counts.

If you ask girls what to do about meanness, cruelty, bullying, they usually have answers.  What gives them strength to counter the cruelty, though, are their relationships with trustworthy grown-ups and peers who encourage and believe in them. With allies, girls can change just about any distressing peer situation into a safer, more socially agreeable situation for everyone concerned.  Just imagine what girls can do if the media and society generally drops the labels, or even names them for who they really are, amazing girls.

This is one of many reasons I am busting the myth of the mean girl.

How about you?



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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bethgc  |  April 5, 2010 at 5:51 am

    Hi – yes, I do have some very good friends from that time. I recall a lot of rough times with friends and between friends. It wasn’t an easy time, but some of those bonds have sustained us throughout many years.

  • 2. Peters  |  April 4, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Are you still friends with anyone from that time in your life?


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