Anatomy of the Mean Girl

Gossip. Spreading rumors. Name calling. Criticizing. Cruel teasing. Intentionally excluding someone. Breaking confidences. Eye-rolling. Manipulation.

These are all forms of relational aggression that the majority of women have been a recipient of and/or have engaged in at some point. As you read this, has an experience of relational aggression from your own life come to mind? Amazing how those instances stick with you, isn’t it? I still feel a pang of embarrassment and disappointment with myself over harshly criticizing a girl in the 6th grade! And, I can clearly remember every instance throughout my life when I found out that another girl or woman had been gossiping about me or purposely excluding me from their social circle.

Unfortunately, as a society we’ve normalized relational aggression among women and girls. More often than not, women are just plain mean to each other in the media. Portrayals of females engaging in indirect aggression and bullying are very prevalent in movies and television shows – from vicious gossip and name calling on shows like The Bachelor and Real Housewives, to rumor spreading and manipulation on programs like Gossip Girl, Revenge, or Pretty Little Liars. In the media, these scenes are often shown to be funny, commonplace, and even a rite of passage among girls.

The popular teen movie Mean Girls is the classic media example of relational aggression and indirect, covert bullying between women. The main character Cady Heron says about her plan to “destroy” fellow high school student Regina George, “In Girl World, all the fighting had to be sneaky.”

two mean girls

And yet, even though many of these media scenes ring true for a lot of women, there is a dangerous, unrealistic side to the portrayals. Media researchers have found that acts of relational aggression by women and girls are typically shown to be rewarded rather than punished (with things like popularity), justified, and committed by more attractive characters. This is a skewed projection of relational aggression between women. Gossip, bullying, and social exclusion can wound not only the victims but even the perpetrators of these aggressive actions. Stress, feelings of devastation, poor self-esteem, loneliness, and depression, among other things, have been reported by women and girls involved.

We have the potential to tear down or to build up other women through what we choose to say (or not say) about them and to them.

With a lot of the mean, covert aggression among females being shown in an attractive light in entertainment media, it is no wonder that scientific studies imply that watching them can actually make viewers more relationally aggressive and more accepting of these behaviors. One study on teenagers, for example, found that the more they watched relationally aggressive reality TV programs (e.g., Jersey Shore, Survivor, The Bachelor, Real Housewives, etc.) the more they engaged in it — like spreading rumors about people — in their own lives. Overall, these studies suggest that a diet of female meanness on the screen has the potential to make us meaner women.

So, where do we go from here?

  • Consider joining the Kind Campaign, which is “an internationally recognized movement, documentary and school program based upon the powerful belief in KINDness that brings awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl ‘crime’”. The women at the Kind Campaign are bravely using the media to build bridges among women and girls, to shine a light on the entertainment world’s frequent negative portrayals of women, and to heal female relationships broken by relational aggression.
  • Seek out a good book to help you deal with and learn to understand the “mean girls” in your life. There are books about relational aggression in the work place, among adolescent girls, and between adult women – for example, Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal and Frenemies: What to Do When Friends Turn Mean to name a couple.
  • Finally, let’s stop justifying our relationally aggressive actions against other women. Research has shown that women will often justify their rumor spreading, gossip or manipulative actions, acting like it’s expected of them because of their gender and reframing their behavior as simply venting. We will often blame the victim, her characteristics and behaviors for creating the need for our mean treatment of her. I think it’s probably safe to say that, at the minimum, most of us have unfairly “vented” about someone before — none of us are perfect. But, as Cady Heron wisely concluded in Mean Girls, “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier.”

In the end, even though our culture has normalized relational aggression among women and girls, we have to remember that words sting. We have the potential to tear down or to build up other women through what we choose to say (or not say) about them and to them. The old Hebrew proverb is indeed true “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit”.

What has your experience with “mean girls” been? 

Illustration via Britt Scott

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