Are girls each other's worst enemies?

Carol Gilligan—influential feminist psychologist and author—is worried. Gilligan's 1982 book In Another Voice (called "the little book that started a revolution" by Harvard University Press) electrified the pundit class with its premise that girls were fundamentally misread and oppressed by American society. The advocacy programs promoting equality for girls that resulted from Gilligan's call-to-arms have had an impact few would deny. In fact, they may have worked too well, as schools generally acknowledge that girls now outshine boys in grades and high level-course enrollment (even in math and science, says the National Center for Education Statistics) and outnumber them in formerly male bastions such as honor societies, debating clubs and student government. Colleges today are scrambling to increase male enrollment.

girl crying next to locker at school with two girls in background pointing a finger at her
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Is the "mean girls" phenomenon a media smokescreen?

So, given these bragging points, why is Gilligan worried? In her view, a backlash against girls is taking place, led by scholars and authors who are sometimes critical of Gilligan's research methods and conclusions. "At a point when people have started to look at girls and see their strength, suddenly this comes up," she has said.

By "this," Gilligan means the explosion of "mean girl" books and movies, portraying girls as equally as—if not more—aggressive than boys, in their own conniving and manipulative way.

"I don't know if I'd call it a backlash," says Marnina Gonick, Penn State education and women's studies professor, "but I would agree that the mean girl idea is troubling. I'm especially critical of the way these problematic relationships between girls are represented in the media."

But what is it about the concept that has galvanized people's interest right now?

"I think, in part, it's a reflection of social anxiety about girls' success," Gonick tells me. "Girls and boys both endure a lot of pressure in the times we're living in. There are fewer social programs to support kids and the cost of failing is so high. Young people are expected to maintain the same class status as their parents, and that's getting harder to achieve."

Are girls the scapegoats for a public frustrated by intensifying resource competition? "Yes, I think so," says Gonick. "Anxiety about changes in the social system of the culture may be driving the "mean girl" phenomenon. The basic fallacy of so many of the books and movies on this topic is that there's something inherent in femaleness that creates these kinds of (abusive) behaviors."

"The other problem with the way "mean girls" are represented in the media," Gonick argues, "is it's all about middle and upper class white girls, living in suburbs, attending well-funded public schools or private schools. They've got expensive clothes, cell phones, cars. How representative of most girls is this picture?"

Consumerism is another big influence on girls' behavior, Gonick notes. "They buy into the messages of the marketplace about the requirements for success as a female and start comparing and competing. The way I look at it, this is a sociological rather than psychological problem, yet few books on the topic look at the structural elements that make this behavior emerge."

"Ultimately," Gonick says, "the whole mean girls concept is a smokescreen. Why are we focusing on girls attacking girls—as if that's the biggest issue they face—when we know there are many more serious dangers for girls, such as rape and incest? Frankly, the media is spinning a message about girls as each other's worst enemies, when they are much more likely to be in danger from the men in their lives than from their female friends."

"The bottom line is that abuse by men, not other girls, should be the big story."

Marnina Gonick, Ph.D., is assistant professor of education and women's studies; mgonick@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 03, 2005