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Fighting to be Somebody

Illustration by Valerie Williams


Fighting to be Somebody
Research on girls' relational aggression shows the need for activism

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No more sugar and spice, and everything nice. In the past year, the national spotlight has been shining hot on a seemingly new population of mean-spirited girls living largely unbeknownst to most people. They are school-age girls who, among themselves, wield forms of aggression gossip, betrayal, teasing, competition and rejection like invisible weapons in their struggle to gain self-esteem and power in a male-dominated culture.

Women's studies and education scholar Lyn Mikel Brown calls it girlfighting.

While popular books and the media are just now discovering this secret world, a handful of nationally recognized researchers such as Brown have been studying this phenomenon for years. Brown's research examines the dark underside of girls' friendships and peer relations not only its effects but its causes.

Brown, an associate professor at Colby College, Waterville, Maine, is an American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation Scholar in Residence at The University of Maine. For the past two years, she has conducted research in collaboration with UMaine's Women's Resource Center, studying the ways girls' subordination within the culture affects their relationships.

Brown is the author of two books: Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (written in 1992 with Carol Gilligan), and Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls' Anger, a study of Maine girls and their class-related expressions of anger and resistance to conventions of femininity. Her work as a visiting scholar at UMaine will be reflected in a third book, tentatively titled Girlfighting: Betrayal, Teasing, and Rejection Among Girls.

Drawing from her 15 years of research, as well as studies conducted at The Harvard Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, Brown has analyzed interviews with hundreds of girls, ages 5-20, to fathom the complexity of girls' friendships and the societal context that leads us to believe simply that girls, by nature, are catty and cruel to one another.

As part of her two-year residency as an AAUW visiting scholar at UMaine, Brown has presented her research findings in the state and throughout the country. In a conference on campus Oct. 5, Brown will be joined by five other authors and scholars on girls' development. "Girls Will Be Girls? Aggression, Sexuality, and Body Image" will focus on "girls as allies" a counter-culture look at how girls can be strong individuals, supportive of one another, ultimately breaking the destructive cycle of girlfighting.

The following Q&A segment highlights Brown's research on girlfighting.


Why are girls' friendships so important?

Brown: Girls depend on close, intimate friendships to get them through life. The trust and support of these relationships provide girls with emotional and psychological safety nets. With their friends behind them, girls will do and say things that are remarkably creative and brave and "out of character." With their friends at their back, they will stand on principle, rebuke a school bully, report sexual harassment or abuse, develop a radically new idea to fight stereotypes. By understanding the nature of girls' friendships and incorporating this knowledge into our ongoing work, we can help girls learn to resist the pressures to conform to stereotypes and to brave ostracism from those they most want to impress.


So if girls' friendships are so important, why are we seeing relational aggression?

Brown: Whether it's relational or physical, girls are fighting to be somebody. They want to be powerful, visible and respected. They struggle for voice, love, safety and legitimacy within a patriarchal culture that takes them less seriously and subordinates their needs and wants. Physical aggression has increased in girls' peer relationships in recent years, but girls are still much more likely to use relational strategies because they have been taught from day one that girls' power comes from pleasing others and managing their relationships. It is easier and safer and ultimately more profitable, in such a sexist climate, for girls to take out their fears and anxieties and anger on each other. Girlfighting is not a phase but a protective strategy learned and nurtured in early childhood and perfected over time. So much of it is connected to survival. If being loved and accepted means always being a nice girl, then anger has to be hidden. This encourages girls to aggress in indirect and secret ways.


What are the most common girlfighting strategies?

Brown: For girls, the ultimate threat is not being yelled at or hit by another girl, but being excluded, which is the preferred strategy for expressing anger with other girls. It is an acceptably quiet, stereotypically feminine way to exert your strong feelings and also to keep other girls in line. It doesn't attract attention or the ire of adults that physical fighting does. Girls can be extremely tough on other girls. They aggress by talking behind each other's backs; they tease one another, police each other's clothing and body size, and fight over real or imagined relationships with boys. They promote a strict conformity to group norms and rules, reinforce gender and racial stereotypes, and ultimately hold each other back through threats of exclusion and rejection.


What's the harm in girlfighting?

Brown: Girlfighting is a powerful force that mirrors and contributes to wider social divisiveness. Girls take in the messages about being a "good" girl, the kind of girl adults seem to want. They don't see any other way to maintain such an image of perfection unless others are imperfect. Constant surveillance of others' flaws and knowing others are judging yours produces anxiety that separates girls and supports their subordination. The intensity with which girls gossip is connected to their own shame of not measuring up to a false but pervasive ideal of the perfect girl. Girls express their hate or disdain for popular girls but they're also envious of them; popular girls use niceness to get to the pedestal, and then often use meanness to stay there. Exclusive cliques and in-groups start in the early grades and can evolve into emotionally violent bullying by adolescent girls, especially in the middle school years. In addition, in the face of betrayal and the relational treachery it fosters, many girls turn to boys as friends. With boys, girls claim that "what you see is what you get." Expressing anger is more acceptable for boys; their fights are open, brief and life goes on. The problem is when girls give up on girls, they lose the transformative power of girls as allies.


How does popular culture reinforce this behavior?

Brown: In lots of ways. A cover story in The New York Times Magazine recently announced that "girls just want to be mean." Advertisements in girls' magazines sell products by appealing to girls' fears of being judged or talked about by other girls. Talk shows, soap operas, sitcoms and feature films have consistently showcased women and girls who fight over boys or most-popular girl status. Reality shows like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire and The Bachelor have as their premise competition among women for the ideal man. Books that depict girls as nasty, catty and mean are so provocative because they relay something both disturbing and familiar. But such caricature is dangerous because fundamentally it conforms to all the old stereotypes we have of girls and women as deceitful, complaining, manipulative, jealous. It's familiar because it's an old story about the essential nature of femininity; girls will be girls, naturally and indirectly mean. Or it's a phase girls go through; this too shall pass. It trivializes girls' aggression. In the past 15 years, I've listened to hundreds of girls talk about their thoughts and feelings, a complex story of growing up in a social and political world without their well-being foremost in mind.


What's the reality?

Brown: Despite the relentless, simplistic public story of "real" boys and "good" girls, both boys' and girls' own lives and experiences are more complicated and nuanced. The problem is, it's this uncomplicated public story that's repeated and supported by the culture, media, storybooks and even well-intentioned parents. From a young age, girls begin an intense competition for their place in the social world. They're quick to learn about power who has it and how to get it by watching those who have it naturally conferred on them. Research suggests girls 3 and 4 already know they need to speak and fight differently if they want to please others. Girls are balancing their strong feelings and the pressure to be nice, good and cooperative. And they practice ways to get under adults' radar, developing relational aggression gossiping, spreading rumors, using controlling behavior in such a way that it looks unintentional. Adults, including teachers, who do see such behavior too often don't take it seriously. But for girls it's very serious and can have long-lasting effects. We underappreciate the power of the seductive and pleasurable rewards open to all girls who conform to sexist expectations, and we grossly underestimate the subtle ways adults produce and perpetuate this culture.


What can be done to work against negative forms of girlfighting?

Brown: Adults need to lead by example. Speak out against injustices girls and women incur in society. Use your power to empower girls. We need to encourage girls to be more discriminating in relationships, ridding ourselves of the fiction that girls should be friends with everyone and must win over or change those who are mean to them. It's also not enough to expect girls to work out their problems among themselves. Girls need active guidance in how to stay clear and centered in their anger and disagreement, and they need to be encouraged to bring their strong feelings into public life in constructive ways. They need support for not giving up their convictions to maintain a false harmony. This demands that we as adults speak the truth, and confront our own fears, anxieties and desires to be loved and included at all costs. We need to question the relentless mantra of female perfection and its relationship to narrow views of beauty, and we need to openly contest the commodification of girls' bodies. We can do this by bringing girls together to develop an alternative reality for them. We can help them practice critiquing a culture rife with stereotypes and damaging voices. We need to offer girls legitimate avenues to power so they don't take their rage out on other girls. We need to be engaging them in cross-generational sisterhood, a resistance for liberation. We shouldn't be selling out girls to old stereotypes. We should be joining them in creating a counter-public discourse about girls, about power and possibilities.

by Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2002

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