I moved to a new school when I started third grade, full of hope. We’d arrived in an East Bay suburb of what seemed to be regular families, a mix of professionals and hard-working immigrants. My father had taken his first academic job at the local college.
It wasn’t easy being the new girl, though. I did make friends—one of my closest at first was Eileen Lee, who lived six houses up the street from me and whose father was a cook at a nearby retirement home. But I had a nemesis, too, Molly Flanagan, who was big and brassy and blonde.*
During one birthday party at an ice-skating rink—oh, the ecstasy I felt at being invited!—Molly pushed me over every time she glided past. She convinced at least half the girl guests to trip me or send me otherwise crashing to the ice, all to that most hated of kid soundtracks: giggling.
I don’t remember the details. I’m pretty sure the birthday girl’s mother put a stop to it; I think the birthday girl herself was angry at Molly. Probably the most ironic outcome is that Molly and I became best friends by fourth grade, a close relationship that continued throughout high school.
Molly has been on my mind lately. At that time, with me as a target, she acted as a mean girl. She made clear who was queen of the playground asphalt. Yet Molly was so far from the stereotypical privileged fashion plate that it makes me question current conceptions of girl bullies.
It happens that I’ve had a number of discussions with other mothers about mean girls. This is not breaking news; books like Queen Bees and Wannabees and Emma have been sounding the alarm for centuries about the pain of being ostracized by other girls. But many worried moms of daughters believe meanness is on the rise. “Mean Girls” is now used in media commentaries about bullying, as reductive as “Goth.”
I’m the mother of a young son, so maybe I’ve been spared. It’s a truism that boys, being socially clueless, end up doing less emotional damage. Yet while I agree that boys operate differently than girls, tusseling like packs of wolf cubs and one-upping each other, they don’t get a pass on meanness.
To assume that male displays of hostility are somehow more honest is to to deny the sexism implicit in “mean girls.” I’ve caught myself thinking that way, and I don’t like it. When feminist moms begin dissing alpha-girl second graders, I worry that we’re eating our own. We’re allowing legitimate worries to overwhelm a more realistic assessment of our children’s social lives.
The rise of cyber-bullying is definitely troubling; the anonymity afforded those who want to be nasty via Facebook and blogs may do real psychological harm. I’m happy to see school principals at least mouthing the right words about a no-tolerance policy towards bullying of all kinds.
The awful tale of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass., has turned up the media heat again these past months. After a bit of googling, I found this May 2010 request for interviews from Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls:
“Does your life ever feel like the movie Mean Girls? Are you being bullied by other girls? Are your friends more like frenemies? The story of Phoebe Prince, the girl who committed suicide because of bullying, is haunting us all. I’m writing a story for the October issue of Teen Vogue about extreme meanness and bullying….”
I’m genuinely curious—and concerned—about how extreme today’s meanness by girls really is. Maybe it’s worse than in eons past. There are plenty of good reasons given by Simmons and others for why female aggression may be more covert. But I suspect it’s always been bad for those who were targets. And I don’t believe girls are the only meanies out there.
I pretty much hated high school. It’s never great being a female “brain,” yet I did have a group of fellow nerd friends, including Molly. We sat out the senior prom together. We weathered each other’s obsessions with Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. “Clique” is the wrong word for us—we were more like the kids thrown together in Glee.
The worst harassment I endured involved a new boy who was assigned a seat next to me in English class. He felt me up every chance he got, covert and blithe. I was mortified; I was also fortunate. The teacher, one of my favorites, allowed me to move my seat without any public comment. Still, for months, I endured notes from him passed by other kids: All you need is a good…
I think meanness is an old story. An ancient story. The meanness practiced by both boys and girls is a way of establishing hierarchies and policing behavior; it’s a way of grappling with social status, a kind of brutal practicum. It’s also complicated, because kids grow and change and shift roles.
Once Molly had shoved me around, for instance, she took to me and my parents. She was a budding artist, and my mother the painter praised the portraits of Hollywood stars Molly so lovingly sketched and for which she received little support in her own family. She had a teacher and a principal for parents, but my family’s shabby bohemianism seemed elite to her.
A purely therapeutic analysis of Molly’s bullying would emphasize her insecurity. But it wouldn’t get at how she and I supported each other’s awkwardness and oddball enthusiasms, or the way we honed a shared sense of humor. It wouldn’t address what she must have felt when I bolted away from high school to an elite college, making my own status jump. It wouldn’t encompass the way we drifted apart as adults.
Media accounts and movie portrayals of mean girls certainly nod to the class-system of high school, often in satirical ways. There are so many of these movies (Clueless, Election, Heathers) that they form a genre that is easily satirized itself, as in Glee or Mean Girls. The wit in them can be fun, but it does little to illuminate how actual teenagers live, develop ethics, or learn to embrace Carol Gilligan and Robert Coles.
Before that move across the Bay, my family had lived in graduate-student housing near Stanford. I’d been one of the poor kids at the public school I attended there, which was much worse than being pushed down at an ice rink. I had no friends. I had a few comrades-in-arms, fellow denizens of neighborhoods that were literally across the tracks. But BFFs in first and second grade? I don’t remember any.
What I do remember is staring longingly at the girls who lived in the wealthy town nearby, wearing their pressed blouses and skirts. They ignored me. This school had a maypole on May Day, and I stood with my father on the sidelines, wishing so much that I could be one of the girls holding a flowered garland. My father clasped my hand in silent recognition.
Was this just a girl thing? Again, I don’t think so. Decades later, after describing those early days to a friend, she told me she didn’t believe I’d been able to make economic class distinctions at such a young age. But I think kids understand status very young, even if they don’t have the words for it. At least they do if their family is farther down the ladder than everyone else.
Maybe the biggest difference between Emma and contemporary mean-girl comeuppances is that Jane Austen put the nuances of social status front and center. It’s clear from her first sentences why this young heroine has a lot to learn. She’s not just a queen bee; she’s a realistic mix of good and bad:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
I was a sensitive girl with a whole load of family baggage. Before third grade, we’d survived a year in which my mother was in a psychiatric hospital. I had to learn not to appear too damaged, to be a kid among the kids—to be happy—and perhaps the social hazing I went through wasn’t the worst thing.
My ability to survive the bullies of my time is embedded in the many interlocking variables that determine who I am. I had my moments of meanness, too, when I lashed out at someone who didn’t deserve it. I laughed along when Molly mouthed off about the horrid blue eye shadow that made Cindy Sawyer “look like a whore.” We’re all fallen creatures in this regard, whether we actively trash somebody or ignore a shy kid who isn’t like us.*
I know it’s tough for girls to find their place in the world among all the conflicting messages about niceness and success, the vampires and werewolves, the ever-present harsh evaluation of sweet young flesh. Yet given my circumstances, I was lucky to move to that less privileged East Bay suburb. I was lucky Molly cared enough to shove me down on the ice.
*Molly Flanagan, Eileen Lee, and Cindy Sawyer are pseudonyms.