Toronto Star

Dec. 29, 2002. 01:00 AM

Sugar and spice

Female aggression and bullying are not isolated childhood memories
Universal sisterhood is a notion under attack, by Christin

Toronto Star


Queen Bees & Wannabees:
Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities Of Adolescence

by Rosalind Wiseman
Crown, 336 pages, $36

Odd Girl Out:
The Hidden Culture of Aggression In Girls

by Rachel Simmons
Harcourt, 296 pages, $25

The Secret Lives Of Girls:
What Good Girls Really Do — Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt

by Sharon Lamb
The Free Press, 255 pages, $36.50

Fast Girls:
Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut

by Emily White
Scribner, 219 pages, $33.50
Most everyone agrees that if women ran the world it would be a better place.

Why, even former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright — in a PBS documentary titled, well, If Women Ran The World, said that, if this were so, "They would talk about the problems of the world more rather than fight ... there would be attempts to try to work things out prior to conflict."

We all know women would improve things by being more caring, empathetic and by replacing male-dominated hierarchies based on power and aggression with co-operative agencies that resolve conflict by consensus.

It's so obvious. It's so in our nature. Sisters, girl power and all that jazz.

But who came up with all these truisms? Did these people ever actually know any women, or work with them in, say, a university women's studies department? No strife, politics or conflict there.

I know this all sounds cynical, but the concept of the universal sisterhood has taken a bit of a beating lately (even in women's studies departments) with the surfacing of the hot topics of female aggression and rage — two areas that have been for the most part neglected. This year the concept took another hit when a slew of researchers reported from the most dangerous battlefield of girl politics: the playground.

Rosalind Wiseman, co-founder of the anti-violence Empower program in the U.S. and author of Queen Bees And Wannabees: Helping Your Child Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends And Other Realities Of Adolescence, draws a picture of schools with intense territorial boundaries, with heavily ritualized and esteem-damaging roles, with enemies targeted, maligned, isolated and abused. Wiseman's book is a manual for helping parents survive the trial of adolescence and she minces no words when she stresses that she means the word survival literally.

If you think this is an exaggeration of essentially harmless girl games, than you probably weren't a girl when you grew up. Or, perhaps, home schooled.

While rarely studied or researched, the fact that packs of girls are cruel and a force to be reckoned with isn't exactly a deep, dark hidden secret in our culture. We've come to understand the term "swarming." We're aware violence is not quite as isolated as we once thought.

But Stephen King knew all about it when he wrote about the teenage girls who stuffed Carrie's locker full of tampons and defaced it with the graffiti "Plug It Up." Margaret Atwood wrote about the cruelty of little girls in Cat's Eye. The collective audience memory understood the power of cruelty of bigger girls when it laughed uncomfortably at the Winona Ryder film Heathers in 1989.

Until recently, uncomfortable laughter has been a common reaction to tales of girl cruelty. Girl bullying and aggression have not been taken tremendously seriously, in part because punches are rarely thrown and grudge matches seldom leave physical bruises. Next to the volumes upon volumes of research on boys' aggression, there has simply been a dearth of literature on the topic of girls' parallel problems.

Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture Of Aggression In Girls is a response to this lack. In contrast to popular culture's idyllic representations of girlhood, she remembered her actual childhood being fraught with angst and pain. A trip to the library provided no new insight — there was simply no information.

In response to the lack of serious study on the topic, Simmons decided to become a pioneer in the field and conduct research right at the primal scene — in America's high schools.

Simmons confirmed that female aggression and bullying was not just a childhood memory but a pervasive phenomenon, usually taking the form of psychological mind games rather than physical violence, but with devastating consequences to self-esteem and self-confidence equal to that caused by the physical violence boys often experience.

As the title suggests, Simmons focuses on the scenario of the girl who suddenly, inexplicably and without warning, becomes the "odd girl out" of her clique of close confidants. One day she goes to school, expecting nothing out of the ordinary, only to find every back turned to her. I remember that day. It was terrible.

It's a safe bet that every adult woman can identify with this experience, either because it happened to them or because they lived in constant fear of it happening. I always wonder how many women carry a remnant of that feeling into their adult social lives — if not out of concern for themselves, at least for their daughters.

Why do cliques engage in this scapegoating behaviour? Well, for starters, in order to create exclusivity, cliques logically require an odd girl out; one can't have everybody in the club. Rosalind Wiseman talks of the "queen bees" who establish power at the expense of the "wannabees."

Simmons explores how girls turn to psychological warfare because overt displays of aggression are not as available as they are to male counterparts. Boys' aggression is, at best, curbed, controlled, channeled and disciplined. At worst, it is encouraged with a clichéd "boys will be boys." Male aggression is always acknowledged as being natural, albeit anti-social, behaviour.

Conversely, girls' aggression traditionally has been perceived as non-existent or abnormal. From this starting point, there's very little room to help girls to deal positively with their aggression.

Sharon Lamb, author of The Secret Lives Of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do — Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt, comes to similar conclusions about the possible negative effects of the gendered repression of anger. Her book examines how the repression of aggression and sex drives in girls causes them to act out in potentially dangerous ways. It contains a fascinating account of sex games that, again, we seem to be aware of culturally (when we throw around such terms as "playing doctor" and "naked Barbies") but we never talk about when discussing the development of female sexuality.

All this repression really takes its toll when everybody is fully immersed in high school. Which brings us to the last and perhaps most harrowing of the four books — Emily White's Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth Of the Slut.

As is the case with the other authors, White's odyssey into girl cruelty is motivated by her own adolescence. Her work is triggered by a memory of one Anna Thomas — the girl who occupied the role of high school slut. White remembers being fascinated by Anna, by her reputation and by the odd power position Anna held in contrast to White's own meek invisibility in the role of the good girl.

White discovers that her memory of Anna is shared by everybody she knows. There was an Anna Thomas doing the same disreputable deeds in graveyards with swim teams in every high school she researched.

To White, the stories were too uniform; they began to sound like urban legend. She made the leap to suggest that the archetype of the high school slut was more important than the historical accuracy of local folklore involving the social life of swim teams.

White interviewed more than 150 girls and women who had been or were the high-school slut. The girls often felt they had been chosen as the scapegoat — either because of physical appearance or for more random factors — and had since been subjected to some social isolation, verbal abuse and physical violence.

Anyone familiar with hazing (see sports teams, fraternities) will be unsurprised that high school social hierarchies are run on a system of scapegoating and ritualized violence, but we tend to associate these practices with the male gender. Now that bullying female "tribes" have been identified, it seems quite banal and obvious to state that girls can be overtly cruel. So why has it taken us this long to identify and deal with this behaviour?

Strange as it may seem, I think we have to look to the concept of the universal sisterhood as a part of the problem. It's a dividing point among right now among feminists, already in two camps.

The one camp makes the claim that women are relationship-oriented — fundamentally different from men in the way they deal with moral problems. The other camp, the one Emily White firmly belongs to, has begun to question the Second Wave feminist idealization of women as pacifist, co-operative collectivists.

White went into the work world looking for universal sisterhood and was disillusioned by her experiences at a feminist press rife with power struggles. She found others for whom the notion of universal sisterhood lost some of its hold when the real experiences of encounters with other women and girls didn't conform .

It seems to have even gone further now with occassional reports of girl gangs swarming victims. Worse yet, now people are asking: Did the concept of sisterhood hold us back?

Perhaps we were so caught up in trying to see women in an unrealistically positive light that we blurred our vision to what was right in front of us all along. Perhaps the rhetoric that women are fundamentally relationship-oriented, co-operative, consensus-achieving sisters has gotten in the way of our ability to see sexually curious, aggressive and powerfully competitive little girls.


Toronto's Christine Sismondo is a freelance writer, university teacher and part-time bartender.

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