Dear girls: I am here to tell you that you are not mean.
It’s not encoded in your DNA to be mean. Whatever it is in your body or soul that you feel makes you a girl or woman does not carry along with it some predisposition to treat other girls poorly. You are not inherently competitive with other girls. In fact, when you’re a 12- or 13- or even 19-year-old girl, you are not inherently anything. Everything about you is subject to change.
Of course, maybe you have actually done mean things. But I have to use this sweeping statement, because everywhere around me, sweeping statements tell you the opposite: Your girl-ness does not make you mean.
I vividly remember the first time an adult I respected told me I was mean, based on no actions of my own, but simply because of my gender and my age. I was in eighth grade at my small, private, Jewish day school, and my 30-person grade had enough social drama that the teachers had to get involved. And, though the details of the drama itself are fuzzy in my memory, I remember where my teacher was standing and how her voice sounded when she coldly told us, “I know what girls are like.”
I remember it because I was a teacher’s pet, and it had never occurred to me that a teacher whom until then I had loved and respected might look at me with such hardness. I remember it because I had seen the boys in my middle school instigate the very drama we were supposed to be addressing – not to mention bullying me in ways that still pain me now – but only the girls were called in at lunch to deal with it.
I saw this arbitrary division as such a great injustice, especially to my young, naive pseudo-feminism that positioned itself so tenuously on a belief in female superiority. And after the countless times throughout the intervening years that I have seen and heard my teacher’s attitude repeated, it angers me just as much now as it did then.
What my teacher was getting at was the popular notion that girls and young women are predisposed to be mean to each other. If you need evidence of this idea, you can Google any variation on “young girls are mean” — though I don’t recommend it. You can also think about the way the words “bitch,” “bitchy,” or “catty” are often used, or about the differences in how girls and boys are portrayed in movies and TV shows like Mean Girls, Heathers, Gossip Girl, or many other guilty favorites. Or ask any young girl or woman you know – they’ll have a story.
Of course, older women are also stereotyped as bitchy to each other, but for young women it exists at a particular and scary intersection of sexism and ageism. Women are denied credibility; so are children and teenagers. And the idea that young women are wired to be mean to each other diminishes the real struggles they face in their preteen and teen years as they navigate new social dynamics, changes in their bodies and minds, and the rest of society’s new ways of looking at them as they grow up.
I think back on my 13-year-old self, and my female classmates who I remember with such affection, and wonder: in the face of our teachers’ certainty that we were predisposed to form cliques and bully each other, what power did we have to defy that dynamic? I remember that we rallied together, building community and solidarity in order to prove our teachers wrong. But they would not be proven wrong, and in a position of such powerlessness, is it that shocking that some girls do turn to bullying to regain some control? It is not exactly news that the abused often become the abusers; we just don’t necessarily call this type of negative reinforcement “abuse.”
This isn’t to diminish the damage of bullying, or the importance of addressing it. But bullying does not have a gender until we assign it one, and when we teach young girls that they are inherently mean, and popular media shows them glorified images of what that meanness entails, we doom them to fulfill our anti-feminist prophecy. We may even rob them of important friendships and allyships that can carry them through confusing times.
And, perhaps worst of all, when we buy into this myth we obscure the reality that the society we live in oppresses girls daily: by policing their speech, sexualizing them even before they hit puberty, silencing them when they are assaulted, depriving them of reproductive agency, and so much more. When we chide girls and women for turning on each other and being competitive, we distract from the true systematic oppression that places women in positions of comparison and competition in the first place.
In the words of fabulous feminist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” So, dear girls and women: don’t believe this stereotype, and don’t pass it on. It’s just another way to keep you from harnessing your awesome and unique power. Question it, argue with it. Tell the rest of the story.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.