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Inspire Curiosity and Independence in Girls with Nature

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Moving Beyond "Mean Girls"

by Lyn Mikel Brown

Lyn Mikel Brown

Lyn Mikel Brown is an author and researcher on girls' social and psychological development. Read more »

When I began writing about girls' social lives with Carol Gilligan in the early 1990s, we were concerned about the ways young women were pressured to always be nice and kind, to fit an ideal that stifled their creativity and voice. Girls in school were more likely to be praised for the neatness of their papers than the intelligence of their ideas. Afterwards, programs popped up across the country to encourage girls to embrace intelligence as a "girl thing," to take higher-level math and science courses, to raise their hands and be heard. The programs worked. Go to most any school these days, and you'll see unabashedly smart, assertive girls excelling in school, applying to college, imagining a world they will help to create and oversee.

It's no coincidence that just as girls were exercising their power and challenging gender roles we saw more concern about meanness and aggression among girls. While they're feeling powerful and in control, girls are up against new pressure to act like traditional nice girls or risk being labeled mean. As a result, many take their strong feelings and competitive urges underground or at least out of sight of adults who might be watching.

These girls are young. They are redefining femininity. These are growing pains. We expect mistakes. If this were all we were dealing with as parents, we could handle it. We could help girls know their thoughts and feelings and speak them respectfully; teach them how to claim their power in ways that respect other girls and boys who are busy claiming theirs.

But this isn't all. The media has grabbed onto this new version of girl power and fueled a mean-girl frenzy. The past few years have offered a torrent of books, news stories, and reality shows portraying today's girls as a breed apart: mean, aggressive bullies in need of controlling. Why? Because it sells. Every day it's a new mean-girl chick-lit book series. Every fall it's a new collection of reality shows: Laguna Beach becomes The Hills becomes Gossip Girl becomes a new and improved (that is, meaner) 90120. No one tells us about the heavy editing that goes into creating such "reality." Nope, better to think it's "girls will be girls."

I've been struck by how often marketers use girlfighting and competition to sell products. They do this because it's attention-getting, but also because it creates anxiety. If girls think a product might reduce the awfulness of being left out or judged by other girls, companies make a lot of money. Friendship and solidarity doesn't sell, of course. No anxiety there.

New studies are telling us that media mean girls are having an effect. Psychologist Norma Feshbach found so much mean and catty behavior in TV shows popular with girls, she concluded that indirect female aggression as shown on TV sitcoms has reached the status of a female character trait, and that girls are trained in social aggression by the media. A new study found that college-age women became just as aggressive after watching scenes of girls behaving aggressively in the movie Mean Girls as they did after watching the graphic violence in Kill Bill.

There's much we can do as parents when faced with the issue of girlfighting. These tips offer practical solutions. Most importantly, we can acknowledge the full range of girls' emotional lives and move beyond simple labels like "nice" and "mean" that box girls in. As novelist Anne Lamott says, "It is so much easier to embrace absolutes than to suffer reality...reality is unforgivingly complex." We are all complex beings with the capacity to do harm and to do good, sometimes within the same hour. Labeling girls "mean" may make us feel more in control (and maybe a little superior), but not only do we become part of the problem we're trying to address, we forgo the hard conversations about what underlies these behaviors and the real work of supporting the best in girls.


Beth Snyder writes...

This is all well and good, but what is to be done about the eternal problem of mean boys, as well?

Lyn? writes...

Hi Beth,

Sorry to take so long to reply--I spent the weekend with the flu.

I wouldn't say "all well and good" but you raise a good question. Part of the point I've been trying to make about "mean girls" is how much the media has over-hyped this issue, so that we don't stop to think about the larger problems facing both boys and girls (like poverty, racism, etc.). A new study just out in the professional journal Child Development "challenges the popular misconception that indirect aggression is a female form of aggression." After looking at the results of 150 studies, the University of Arizona and University of Kansas researchers found that "while it's true that boys are more likely to engage in physical aggression, girls and boys alike take part in social aggression." The myth that this is a girls' issue doesn't hold true, but it's kept in place because of stereotypes we hold about girls and women and a media culture that sells us female social aggression as entertainment.

nicole writes...

Hi Lyn. My 4 year old daughter's nanny bought her a collecion of Disney princess stories. Ugh! I probably should have told my daughter that we'd read it when she got older. Of course, that's the book she wants to read every night.

As I read through your list of tips, "Question the tradtional romance story" struck a chord with me. Many of those princess stories are about finding "true love," getting kissed by a prince, etc. I find myself either paraphrasing most of the story or putting my foot down and not reading some of the selections.

Am I doing the right thing? Or, should I just hide the book and tell my child it's lost? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

Lyn? writes...

Hi Nicole,

Trust your instincts here. It is cause for concern that girls are fed princess stories with the same endings over and over, in part because this story will connect with a ton of other princess stuff over her childhood years, and marketers will connect that stuff with a narrow image you may not like all that much. You don't have to take these books away--her love of them may also suggest her love for her nanny. Ask her nanny to clear things with you first, and make sure you review and okay them. But also ask her to give your daughter some books with brave girls who make their own way in the world and who make different choices (You can buy her a few to give to your daughter as presents. My daughter, when she was a few years older than yours, loved The Paper Bag Princess; also the Kevin Henke books, like Sheila Rae The Brave). Absolutely, go ahead and change the words or the gender of characters to create stories you feel better about. You are the parent here and can make choices about what messages she takes in. But don't forget to talk with her about the way the stories could go, and ask her to help you think of other possible endings. What if the princess decided to start her own business and invited the prince to help. The princess really likes animals. Maybe she could become a vet. What does happily every after mean? What will she and the prince do with their time? Would she help defend the castle too? Make a game of it. If you start conversations now about the books she's reading and the shows she's watching, you help her engage with this stuff and not just passively take it in.

Jaime writes...

Your article really speaks to me. This is something I've struggled with since I first found out I was having a girl. I want her to be independent and assertive but I don't want her to cross that line into meanness. (I second you, Beth, on the "mean boys" - I've got a son, too, who I'm striving to help grow into a good guy and great man.)

I read a great book once, called "Growing a Girl" by barbara Mackoff. It talked about the Princess Phase and how to handle those aweful Disney Princesses and a lot of stuff (time to re-read!)

Lyn? writes...

Thanks Jaime,

Raising good little people is hard work, and it's sad when the hype about whatever the latest crisis is causes us to see anything less than the potential for our children to be wonderful, strong, kind people. The mean girl/nice girl line is impossible to walk because everything gets lumped under "mean"--from truly awful behavior to assertiveness and healthy expressions of anger (like in response to hurt or unfairness). The best thing to do is stress how complex we all are, that labels don't help us understand, but just box us in. I find it helps a lot to stay at the level of behavior and feelings (she did something that hurt me). That way I can address situations in context rather than label people.

Mike writes...


I have a great little girl named Katie who is 9. My issue with her is that she has only one friend. Each school year she has paired up with one girl and hangs out with only her. She can be very shy and sometimes comes off as unfriendly(does not always say hello to people, etc). I notice that girls play best together when there are two rather than three of them. Three is usually a recipe for trouble. That being said, my wife and I encourage her to be friendly with everyone, but all we seem to hear is "she's mean, or she doesn't like me". She is not into sports(though she is close to becoming a black belt in Tae Kwon Do). What's the deal? We just want her to be more social and have more friends.Thanks

Lyn? writes...

Hi Mike,

It's hard to know because I can't talk with Katie or see her with her friends. What does come through is your worry and concern, and my guess is that this is coming through to Katie as well. "Mean" is a power word right now for girls and she probably knows that if she uses it about another girl to explain why they aren't friends, you will let the conversation drop...because of course we don't want our daughters staying in relationships that are hurtful to them. You don't say what Katie wants, but you do say what you want for her. I don't have the sense that she is suffering, only that she may feel like she is disappointing you by not having more friends or a wider social circle. She may simply be introverted and uncomfortable in big social groups. If she does have a good friend and she is doing things she loves, and congrats to her for her almost black belt, I suggest supporting her Katie-ness for now.


Amanda writes...

I have a daughter in seventh grade. The other day one of the so-called "popular girls" said she really liked the shirt my daughter was wearing and asked her if she could borrow it. It's one of my daughter's favorite shirts so she didn't want to lend it to her. She said , "no," but did so in a very nice way. The "popular girl" was angry and said some mean things to my daughter. Then she proceeded to "get back" at my daughter by spreading a bad rumor about her. What advice can I give my daughter on how to handle a situation like this if it happens again?

Lyn? writes...

First of all, congratulate her on her courage and make sure she knows that courageous acts have consequences that are often difficult to deal with. Let her know that while she may not see them or hear from them, there are others who watched this interaction and were "with" her, even emboldened by her response, and they will be more so if she doesn't let the rumors get to her or slow her down. She can't control someone else and their reactions, but she can control how she responds to the outcome by holding on to her personal power in this situation. So what can you do? Support her. Praise her. Tell her about a time you experienced something similar and what you did or didn't do. Tell her these small acts of courage get easier with practice, and those who practice them end up being the real movers and shakers in the world.

Nicole writes...

Lyn, I so appreciate your suggestions and will start employing them tonight. Keep up the good work! Thanks again.


Mickaela writes...

Hi lyn,
im currently studying Society and Culture at school and I have to pick a topic and investigate. I have choosen to do "the reality of mean girls" (my idea comes from the movie Mean Girls)im using serveys and focus groups to gain info, I was wondering if you could give me ideas of what questions to ask to gain the most information.

Lyn? writes...

Hi Mickaela,

I don't think I can answer this via this forum, which is really designed for parents to ask questions about this issue. I suggest you work with a professor in your program or department and develop a reading list and work with a developmental psychologist to develop questions. You'll also need to go through your college's Institutional Review Board to ensure your questions do not harm or negatively impact those in your study. Also, for the record, you do see the obvious contradiction: a study of "the reality of mean girls" inspired by the movie?

Aubrey writes...

Hi, my name is Aubrey im a 19 year old sophmore in college, when i began college i met a girl who when i would walk into a room she wouldnt even look at me, she always had a bad look on her face when she seen me, it was very strange. Well believe it or not we became friends at the end of the first semester, we had lots of fun and we got along really good, she always stayed in lots of drama but i was never really included in it, so we never had any problems, so when we started having issues at the beginning of this semester i slowly distanced myself from her. Now she texts me at times, she tells my friends that my male friend who i really like is trying to date her new friend (who replaced me). But out of all the things she tells me or text messages me she never tells me this. Why? Can you please shed some light on all of this thanks.

Ann writes...

I am really struggling with something: I have noticed that some parents will (almost proudly)throw up their hands and announce that their daughter is a "mean girl" as if to make clear that the only other option (i.e., "odd girl out") is "not their child." Your article and answers suggest that there are many nuances to all of this. Is it possible to steer your child towards satisfying deep friendships and avoid these labels altogether? It seems that there is such real fear of someone being that the "odd girl out" that parents are relieved when they see "meanness" in their child because it indicates that perhaps their child won't be excluded.

Samuel writes...

Great work should always be appreciated.Thanks.Great site for parents and kids too. San Jose Movers

Tessa writes...

Dear Lynn,

I am 13 years old and i have been bullied by these girls for 2 years now. they never seem to stop pushing me around. they say "why are you being mean to us?" but i never did anything to them. they never stop making me feel depressed or sad. i talked with my counseler in 6th grade because my grades were slipping because of them. it spread to my teacher and they were talked to by my teacher and they made up lies like " i want to be friends with you.." they made up lies and i counldn't say anything because i didn't want to look like a tattletale. my parents were constantly informing my teacher with e-mails about how i came off the bus in tears and other things. they have alot of friends but seem to pull my friends in on their bullying. i was with my friends and they told me to go find someone, then they ran away to chat somewhere else. i felt like the world didn't care about me. i never talked to anyone. i wouldn't open up. but in 7th grade, i have more friends now than i had in 6th grade. my depression grew when my papa died of cancer. i hadn't seen or heard from him in 7 years. i cry sometimes at night, wishing for him to come back. one of the girls would constantly ask me what bra size i wore. i never answered her though. then she would brush her fingers on my cheek, but i would pull away and look out the window. 8th grade is coming up and i know it will continue. What should i do when school starts and it begins again?

ABG writes...

My daughter's middle school has just informed us that she is the "queen bee" of the 8th grade and that she can be unkind and exclusive with her friends and that is why the teachers do not like her. They did not really give me any examples it was more of a general description.

My daughter is the 2nd of 3 girls. She has always been strong willed, funny, and charismatic. Recently her grades have tanked and she often tells me that all the teachers hate her. I think she is right - they do dislike her. I found my daughter a therapist but I feel like she is branded at school and the environment is toxic. I also think that the school doesn't quite understand the nuance of teen girls so you are either "nice" or "not nice." I'm working with my daughter but I am not sure I can work with the school.

Harrishcolin writes...

Thank you for this good post

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