of the grievances among the girls you interviewed is that girls
"never forget." One girl stated that "Boys duke it
out. Girls, they don't finish [the fight]. It grows bigger."
Would it be better for girls to "duke it out?" Or do girls
prefer "nice abuse" to outright aggression?
A: Most girls long to have the kinds
of conflicts they witness boys having. They want to be told something
to their faces rather than be cut out of a group without a word.
Part of the reason girls "don't forget" is that they don't
have the opportunity to express their anger in a healthy, fulfilling
way. Girls feel that in order to be "nice"- something
most parents and teachers expect from girls-they cannot be in open
conflict with others. They must be "friends," at least
externally, with everyone. As a result, girls often repress their
anger or allow it to emerge in indirect or covert ways. When girls
cannot assert their feelings directly, resentment often lingers,
leading to grudges and, in some cases, future acts of vengeance.
seems to be no specific target for this aggressive behavior. It
could be directed towards an unpopular girl, a new girl, or even
a very popular girlthe simplest comment, whether malicious,
thoughtless, or even innocent, can provoke a well-strategized and
sometimes global "attack." Is it fair to say that, regardless
of the "just do it" girl power promotions, society's influence
on proper "good girl" behavior drives relational aggression
and will continue to do soperhaps indefinitely?
A: Absolutely. When I first set
out to write this book, I assumed girls punished each other according
to an unfortunate teen logic. What I expected was that the uncool,
the overweight, the differently-abled would be punished. What I
found was a far different landscape of female anger. Because females
are expected to be caretakers in our society, the challenge of negotiating
the impulse to anger and the obligation to sacrifice one's needs
for others is significant. In my interviews, girls told me that
expressing anger would result in the loss of their relationships
with others. The prospect of solitude terrified them, and it was,
moreover, a major violation of their caretaking roles. "Nice"
girls, they told me, have lots of friends. They don't get in fights.
As a result, much of girls' aggressive behavior goes underground.
The fear of confrontation makes anger a circular issue that increases
the scope of the conflict and causes girls to use relationships
with each other as weapons against each other. Although the weak
will more often be preyed upon, relational aggression targeting
has less to do with an external characteristic than with a conflict
that has not been addressed directly and openly.
Q: Is there
some advice for parents and girls on how to deal with this type
of relational aggression? That is, advice which doesn't simply advise
a girl to "ignore it," and that helps a parent approach
a teacher who may not believe that another child can be "manipulative,
competitive, and underhanded?"
A: Actually, I think it's a real
mistake to tell a girl to ignore what's happening to her. Girls
can't ignore it. When a girl is being targeted, it is pretty much
the only thing she can think about. After I interviewed each girl,
I asked her what she wished her mom or dad would have done to make
her life easier. Overwhelmingly, the girls said they wished their
parents had not trivialized their pain. Don't tell me that it will
pass; that it's a phase; that she's "just jealous;" that
I'm taking things too seriously; that they're just joking. Honor
my pain for what it is - devastating." It's hard for a parent
to just listen and hold their daughters. But that's exactly what
the girls told me they wished for.
Approaching teachers is no easy task. We don't have
a language to talk about these behaviors, so parents are often forced
to speak in derogatory terms about other children's aggressions,
saying a child is a "liar" rather than saying she is engaging
in an act of social or indirect aggression. Because alternative
aggressions, as I call them in my book, lack a public consciousness,
it is important for a parent to be calm in her approach to a teacher.
It is very easy, in these situations, to get pegged as the "hysterical
parent" who is overreacting to her child's social misfortune.
Once that happens, well, a lot of teachers just turn off. Try to
interview the teacher about what is happening, about how much she
can see; ask if your child can switch classes (switching desks is
often futile since girls can send mean looks anywhere they want),
because a great deal of social chemistry, particularly in elementary
school, forms along classroom lines.
your book, you list incidents of young girls "steering clear
of the details" and apologizing to end fights just for the
"relief" of having it over. This is, as you say, because
girls feel a "prime directive" to maintain a relationship
"at any cost." You interviewed quite a few adults who
either suffered from or delivered this type of aggression in childhood.
Are they continuing this behavior as adult women and/or do they
still suffer from the effects of being a target or perpetrator?
A: One of the hardest things for
me as an interviewer was to listen to the stories of adult women.
These women, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, still carried with them
the vestiges of victimization. They told their stories with unusual
clarity; they could remember the clothes they wore, the food they
had eaten, the words they spoke on the hardest days of their girlhood.
These women reported a life filled with troubled relationships with
other women. Most difficult for them was trusting other girls or
women afterward. Even when the women had close friends, they reported
not being able to shake a nagging feeling that these friends might
at any moment and without explanation, abandon them. These interviews
in particular saddened me because they pointed to the great rift
among women that I have long heard about but never experienced in
my personal life. Women are the ones who say that women never help
each other in the workplace, that they can't be trusted, and so
on. I think the genesis for these adages is the experience of girl
bullying. When these episodes go unexplained and unaddressed, it
is not difficult to understand why a girl would grow into a woman
skittish around others of the same sex.
book is groundbreaking in its subject matter, but it is only the
beginning of a new stage in female-to-female relationships. Where,
Rachel, do we go from here?
A: Now we act.
We ask society to accept alternative aggressions as a valid form
of aggression deserving the same attention more conventional kinds
of aggression receive. One of the ways we can do this is to modify
harassment and anti-bullying policies to reflect the new research
on girls. Most rules in use at schools deal with physical and direct
aggression-the behaviors disproportionately engaged in by boys.
We need to amend those rules to include acts of ganging up, sustained
negative body language, rumor spreading, and so on.