Fighting to be Somebody
Research on girls' relational aggression shows the need for activism
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
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
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
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
So if girls' friendships are so important, why are we seeing
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
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
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.