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Jennifer Klepper is an ex-corporate attorney turned PTO president, volunteer child advocate and Cwist contributor. She is leading a discussion on inspriring curiosity and independence in girls with nature. Read and Comment »
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.