Lyn Mikel Brown's new book explores the forces that turn young girls against each other

By Gerry Boyle '78

Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls
Lyn Mikel Brown (education and women's, gender and sexuality studies)
The nasty, backbiting, manipulative adolescent girl,like most stereotypes,is widely accepted. Girls deride and undermine each other mercilessly, while boys,easygoing, uncomplicated, transparent,stand away from the fray.

So says the conventional wisdom, recast in countless popular books, movies, even kids' cartoons (Angelica on Rugrats comes to mind). But does the stereotype mirror reality? If it does, even in a few cases, then why do some girls sometimes behave this way?

Lyn Mikel Brown (education and women's, gender and sexuality studies) set out to answer these questions, interviewing hundreds of girls from various backgrounds and thoughtfully considering their experiences. While she resists the temptation of a single answer, Brown does find common themes in the story of girlfighting. "It's a story about containment and dismissal that gets acted out by girls on other girls because this is the safest and easiest outlet for girls' outrage and frustration," she writes in her third book, out this winter.

Why outrage and frustration? "Simply put, girls' treatment of other girls is too often a reflection of and a reaction to the way society sees and treats them," Brown says.

Her case is compelling, her evidence comprehensive and far reaching. From Barbie to Britney to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, girls are taught early and often what is expected from them: to be nice, thin and generally pleasing and pliant to boys, Brown says. When that mandate to please becomes a competition for boys' favor, it isn't the boys who are torn from their positions of dominance; it's the girls maneuvering to try to keep from being shunted aside.

Using gossip and exclusion, girls inflict on each other what Brown calls "relational violence." Consider the shunning ritual recounted by one mother: "This time last year, my happy, friendly seventh-grade daughter was voted off the island. The stars aligned, the dice rolled, the ballots were cast and she was ïit.' She went from being a member of the ïin crowd' to becoming its designated exile. She was talked about, hated, despised, not invited, ridiculed, but mostly, most cruelly, ignored."

It's a scenario that will ring regrettably true to many readers who have experienced firsthand the humiliation of being targeted, the relief of being part of the in crowd or even the short-lived pleasure of being on top of the clique. Consider Sarah, a college student who recalls her middle-school reign: "As the leader, I encouraged my friends to find fault in others. I didn't see any other way for us to maintain an image of perfection unless others were imperfect. In this way I wanted to ensure that I would remain the leader of our group. I'd seen others fall from the throne, finally seen for their conniving and hurtful ways, and I worked overtime to be sure that didn't happen to me."

It did, however, and by eighth grade a coup had toppled Sarah and exiled her to the remotest social fringe. Fear of the same fate keeps girls allied to those who are in positions of power and forces them to join in inflicting "relational violence" to keep from having it turned on them.

Brown does more than analyze the cultural forces that sustain girlfighting. She also offers an action plan, realistically recognizing that there is no quick and easy solution for adults to apply. "Even if we could detect and respond to the largely invisible dynamics of girls' relationships I doubt this would come close to solving everything," she writes. "Micromanaging will only make girls more adept at covering their tracks and protecting what power they have."

The solution is to begin to dismantle the culture that holds girls down and turns them against each other, Brown concludes. She urges readers to look closely at their children's schools and to question whether school cultures inadvertently denigrate certain girls and elevate others. She advocates consistency in school and at home, where adults demonstrate the role of women in the relationship and in society. Brown also warns against accepting the roles to which our culture assigns girls.

"Don't label or put down ïgirly girls' or buy into . . . adolescents' labels for ïother' girls; don't put down girls who want to be like boys or want male power; don't adopt or offer up mean girl-nice girl or good girl-bad girl language to teach, reward, punish or justify suffering and pain," Brown writes. "As we've seen, these terms are laden with judgment and they serve to divide and control girls."

The alternative, she concludes, is to unite girls and empower them. Her book is an important step.