We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden
In her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman divides adolescent girls into Alpha, Beta, and Gamma categories—the in-crowd, the hangers-on, and the outsiders, respectively. The New York Times Magazine’s Margaret Talbot, always ready to throw herself bodily onto a sexy subject, called the Alpha types “mean girls” in an April cover story. This is the pseudoscience—the study of hallway exclusions, rumor-mongering, and back-stabbing among adolescent females—that is hotting up the best-selling realm between Oprah-ish, observation-driven self-help and actual sociology.
Trace this touchy-feely-listeny approach to girlish infighting back to 1995, when clinical psychologist Mary Pipher released Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Pipher was trying to draw attention to the unique shapes adolescent girls’ unhappiness takes—a not unwarranted red flag amid the consensus that youth overall is a lot more troubled today than it used to be. In light of the subcategories the subject has since spawned, not only in clinical treatment but in sociology and contemporary anthropology, Pipher’s humble collection of case studies now looks mild-mannered and old-fashioned—quick portraits of anorexics, depressives, and borderline rebels, and their bewildered families, none too far gone to pull back from the brink with the help of a sympathetic but unexcitable therapist. (“She explored who she was, but not in ways that were self-destructive,” a typical case study concludes. Elsewhere, Pipher notes, “Rape hurts us all.”)
After which, the dual strains of what-to-do-about-playground-bullying and we-must-nurture-our-daughters dovetailed into this very strange school of observation that held that girls, you see, don’t hit, and yet girls are involved in bullying. Enter Rachel Simmons’ well-meaning Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, in which the author talks to junior high and high school girls to tease out just what drives their sniping and excluding.
The answers, it turns out, are as unrevolutionary as the question: insecurity, puberty, demands of the culture. Simmons, a national trainer for the Pipher-spawned Ophelia Project (purveyor of such terms as “relational aggression”), divides her book into nine themed chapters, which explore, in part, fallings-out among “best friends,” the stresses of popularity, motivations of the bullies, and the reasons a girl might be cast out of the tribe. The book is rich with case histories that walk you through the poisoning and dissolution of the undying friendships between “Megan” and “Anna” and “Vanessa” and “Stacey,” and what happened when the elite turned on dictator “Erin,” until you feel as if you were trapped inside a bottle of sparkly pink nail polish. The many stories are an effective enforcement of Simmons’ point, though, because the girls’ voices sound real and their lives feel as individual as Pipher’s briefly sketched subjects seem like composites.
Simmons is young and eager, and the way she writes of her relationship to her subjects makes a stronger case against the lasting effects of cliquism than do her words. She’s the kind of hip professional gal who wants to be down with the kids. “‘Cool music,’” one interviewee says as she climbs into Simmons’ car, “nodding to my Jill Scott CD.” She opens the book with her own story about being bullied, and later, she reconnects with another ex-friend, “Anne”—whom Simmons shunned after the girl was ousted from the popular group. Simmons meets up with Anne in a D.C. bar, and the book becomes bristlingly vivid when Anne can’t resist asking, “‘Remember ninth grade? I just spent that whole year like a wounded animal.’” Simmons concludes that the torment she inflicted on Anne was as natural as rain.
And that’s where the book comes alive, when the bullies tell their stories. One annoying girl tried to mimic her way into the in-crowd, which invented a cool band and even wrote the band’s “hit songs” to torment the poor wannabe. (Alas, Steven, Tommy, and, um, Arion plotted a more sophisticated version of this ruse to use against Katie, who wouldn’t shut up about the places she supposedly had been; we were in our late 20s and early 30s. It’s easy, and it’s satisfying, because finally you know something they don’t know.) These girls have wreaked true havoc on others’ lives, and though some emerged with regrets and bewilderment, like Georgetown student “Kathy,” who finally reaches out to her tormentee, others still giggle and toss their hair. “It was probably something that needed to happen,” one girl says matter-of-factly, reflecting on the vicious group exiling of Erin.
She’s right about that. Nowhere in Simmons’ volume is any acknowledgment that such behavior may be hard-wired, if not into female souls per se, then into their experience of maturation. So much of becoming who we are involves discovering our limits—what we are willing to take from others, how we want to be treated, the kinds of people we want to surround ourselves with. And this applies to both men and women. When the boardroom replaces the hallway as the merging point for males, they, too, find physical violence inappropriate, and anyone who tells you that there are no office cliques is a liar. But by that time, the groups include both sexes and divide themselves by interest, location, or workplace hierarchy.
Insofar as Odd Girl Out needed to be written—which is debatable at least—it is a clear, thorough, and thoughtful study. Simmons calls on parents for understanding, wisely—the mothers interviewed in the book don’t know the first thing about the inner workings of their daughters’ friendships. (Don’t even ask about the teachers.) She rebuts caricatures of girls as either bullies or victims and acknowledges aggression as a female trait. She recognizes the insecurity in girls that drives them to band together against any girl who has what they want—self-confidence, what the girls call “thinking she’s all that”—as well as the contradictory culture, which plies young women with tales of powerful heroines and then insists that they also be thin and gorgeous.
But all of this hand-wringing is predicated on two fallacies: that because female bullying takes different forms than male bullying, it is a unique and unprecedented phenomenon, and that school-age bullying of any kind is a social aberration. The fact is not that girls will be girls but that youth will be youth, and throwing hundreds of teenagers into one building for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year is going to create little Lord of the Flies islands in every hallway. Simmons herself confuses the issue by airily defining “mean” as “conveying open, individual expressions of negative feelings” even as she reports horrific interpersonal injustices that are cruel but not, in her definition, mean.
It is the silence demanded by the insistence that girls be “nice” that allows the fractures within intimacies to burst into full-scale ex-best-friend wars. But learning to speak up, too, is part of the growing process, particularly for girls. The problem isn’t that young people are particularly rotten—most people learn from their own bad behavior, although rotten people generally stay rotten—but that the victims’ youth makes them more vulnerable to the pain of being hurt by peers. The categories Alpha, Beta, and Gamma don’t define who a girl is, nor do they provide a comprehensive description of where she stands in school. All they mean is that after a century of suffrage and the feminist push of the last 30 years, the females with the least means to protect themselves are now victims of the tidy pigeonholes of pseudoscience. CP