THE HIDDEN CULTURE OF AGGRESSION IN GIRLS
The Linden School campus is nestled behind a web of sports fields that seem to hold at bay the bustling city in which it resides. On Monday morning in the Upper School building, students congregated languidly, catching up on the weekend, while others sat knees-to-chest on the floor, flipping through three-ring binders, cramming for tests. The students were dressed in styles that ran the gamut from trendy to what can only be described, at this age, as defiant. Watching them, it is easy to forget this school is one of the best in the region, its students anything but superficial. This is what I came to love about Linden: it celebrates academic rigor and the diversity of its students in equal parts. Over the course of a day with eight groups of ninth graders, I began each meeting with the same question: "What are some of the differences between the ways guys and girls are mean?"
From periods one through eight, I heard the same responses. "Girls can turn on you for anything," said one. "Girls whisper," said another. "They glare at you." With growing certainty, they fired out answers:
"Girls are secretive."
"They destroy you from the inside."
"Girls are manipulative."
"There's an aspect of evil in girls that there isn't in boys."
"Girls target you where they know you're weakest."
"Girls do a lot behind each other's backs."
"Girls plan and premeditate."
"With guys you know where you stand."
"I feel a lot safer with guys."
In bold, matter-of-fact voices, girls described themselves to me as disloyal, untrustworthy, and sneaky. They claimed girls use intimacy to manipulate and overpower others. They said girls are fake, using each other to move up the social hierarchy. They described girls as unforgiving and crafty, lying in wait for a moment of revenge that will catch the unwitting victim off guard and, with an almost savage eye-for-an-eye mentality, "make her feel the way I felt."
The girls' stories about their conflicts were casual and at times filled with self-hatred. In almost every group session I held, someone volunteered her wish to have been born a boy because boys can "fight and have it be over with."
Girls tell stories of their anger in a culture that does not define their behaviors as aggression. As a result, their narratives are filled with destructive myths about the inherent duplicity of females. As poet and essayist Adrienne Rich notes,2 "We have been depicted as generally whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating."
Since the dawn of time, women and girls have been portrayed as jealous and underhanded, prone to betrayal, disobedience, and secrecy. Lacking a public identity or language, girls' nonphysical aggression is called "catty," "crafty," "evil," and "cunning." Rarely the object of research or critical thought, this behavior is seen as a natural phase in girls' development. As a result, schools write off girls' conflicts as a rite of passage, as simply "what girls do."
What would it mean to name girls' aggression? Why have myths and stereotypes served us so well and so long?
Aggression is a powerful barometer of our social values. According to sociologist Anne Campbell, attitudes toward aggression crystallize sex roles, or the idea that we expect certain responsibilities to be assumed by males and females because of their sex.3 Riot grrls and women's soccer notwithstanding, Western society still expects boys to become family providers and protectors, and girls to be nurturers and mothers. Aggression is the hallmark of masculinity; it enables men to control their environment and livelihoods. For better or for worse, boys enjoy total access to the rough and tumble. The link begins early: the popularity of boys is in large part determined by their willingness to play rough. They get peers' respect for athletic prowess, resisting authority, and acting tough, troublesome, dominating, cool, and confident.
On the other side of the aisle, females are expected to mature into caregivers, a role deeply at odds with aggression. Consider the ideal of the "good mother": She provides unconditional love and care for her family, whose health and daily supervision are her primary objectives. Her daughters are expected to be "sugar and spice and everything nice." They are to be sweet, caring, precious, and tender.
"Good girls" have friends, and lots of them. As nine-year-old Noura told psychologists Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, perfect girls have "perfect relationships."4 These girls are caretakers in training. They "never have any fights...and they are always together....Like never arguing, like 'Oh yeah, I totally agree with you.'" In depressing relationships, Noura added, "someone is really jealous and starts being really mean....[It's] where two really good friends break up."
A "good girl," journalist Peggy Orenstein observes in Schoolgirls, is "nice before she is anything else-before she is vigorous, bright, even before she is honest." She described the "perfect girl" as
the girl who has no bad thoughts or feelings, the kind of person everyone wants to be with....[She is] the girl who speaks quietly, calmly, who is always nice and kind, never mean or bossy....She reminds young women to silence themselves rather than speak their true feelings, which they come to consider "stupid," "selfish," "rude," or just plain irrelevant.5
"Good girls," then, are expected not to experience anger. Aggression endangers relationships, imperiling a girl's ability to be caring and "nice." Aggression undermines who girls have been raised to become.
Calling the anger of girls by its name would therefore challenge the most basic assumptions we make about "good girls." It would also reveal what the culture does not entitle them to by defining what nice really means: Not aggressive. Not angry. Not in conflict.
Research confirms that parents and teachers discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls early on while the skirmishing of boys is either encouraged or shrugged off.6 In one example, a 1999 University of Michigan study found that girls were told to be quiet, speak softly, or use a "nicer" voice about three times more often than boys, even though the boys were louder. By the time they are of school age, peers solidify the fault lines on the playground, creating social groups that value niceness in girls and toughness in boys.
The culture derides aggression in girls as unfeminine, a trend explored in chapter four. "Bitch,""lesbian," "frigid," and "manly" are just a few of the names an assertive girl hears. Each epithet points out the violation of her prescribed role as a caregiver: the bitch likes and is liked by no one; the lesbian loves not a man or children but another woman; the frigid woman is cold, unable to respond sexually; and the manly woman is too hard to love or be loved.
Girls, meanwhile, are acutely aware of the culture's double standard. They are not fooled into believing this is the so-called post-feminist age, the girl power victory lap. The rules are different for boys, and girls know it. Flagrant displays of aggression are punished with social rejection.
At Sackler Day School, I was eating lunch with sixth graders during recess, talking about how teachers expected them to behave at school. Ashley, silver-rimmed glasses snug on her tiny nose, looked very serious as she raised her hand.
"They expect us to act like girls back in the 1800s!" she said indignantly. Everyone cracked up.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, sometimes they're like, you have to respect each other, and treat other people how you want to be treated. But that's not how life is. Everyone can be mean sometimes and they're not even realizing it. The...