I've long been interested in the subject of female aggression, or, put simply, why women and girls are so damn mean to each other. This interest is largely personal, as I've been on the end of a quite a bit of female-to-female bullying, both as a child and as an adult, and I've been on the bully side more often than I'd care to admit as well. It's partially theoretical or academic, though, as the more involved I've become in feminist academic and social circles, the more sure I am that the biggest barricade in the way of real feminist change is, in fact, women's attitudes towards each other.
Which is a fairly controversial statement, really. A lot of feminists do not see it that way, and many are even insulted by the idea, as they think it implies that it's women’s own fault they are oppressed. Which isn't at all what I mean. I believe that the ways in which women abuse each other are highly patriarchally conditioned.
A lot of scholars on the subject of female bullying agree. There are several good books about this, the most famous and easily accessible of which is probably Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (others worth checking out are Phyllis Chesler's groundbreaking Woman's Inhumanity to Woman and Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight: Rivalries Among Women--from Diets to Dating, from the Boardroom to the Delivery Room, which focuses on the competitive aspects of conflicts between girls and women). In her search for an explanation for the way she was treated and the way she treated others as a girl, Simmons interviews girls of various ages, races, classes, and backgrounds, as well as does significant secondary source research. She comes to the conclusion that the best explanation for the passive-aggressive nastiness young girls show each other (behavior including spreading rumors, exclusion, trying to turn others against someone, etc.) is that girls aren't taught any other way to express disagreement. In short, girls don't know how to fight in a healthy way, so they fight in a supremely unhealthy one.
Simmons and her theory make a guest appearance on the most recent piece I saw on this subject, the CBC/National Film Board of Canada Production It's a Girl's World. This short film alternates between interviews with and footage of a clique of 10 year-old girls in Montreal and their families and interviews with the family, friends, and tormentors of 14 year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley, a British Columbia girl who committed suicide after being bullied. Filmmaker Lynn Glazier simultaneously explores the most serious possible consequences of bullying, telling the story of the Wesley case, and the sources of bullying behavior and how it plays out, observing the Montreal girls.
The most interesting part of the film for me was Glazier's footage of the Montreal girls' parents (mostly their mothers, as (tellingly?) only one father seemed to be involved). Their reactions went from taking the situation very seriously to completely avoiding reality and brushing everything off with "they'll outgrow it." Especially interesting were the very different reactions of the parents of the two biggest bullies in the group. One set of parents was very pro-active, talking at length with their daughter about her behavior, keeping her home from activities if she did not socialize nicely, etc. The other mother denied that her daughter would have anything to do with bullying behavior until very late in the game.
The parents of all of the girls in the group got together on several occasions to discuss the issue, at one point bringing Simmons in as an "expert." In what I found to be the film's most telling scene, the girls' parents sit around a table, watching footage of the group of girls having a discussion about bullying with Simmons. In the discussion, the girls display typical behavior--one whispers to another behind her hand, several gang up on another and tell her she should be talking, one belittles another for not speaking up. Then the mothers display very similar behavior, one brushing off another's concerns, a second drilling a clearly upset woman about her parenting tactics, and several sitting quietly, looking as if they wished they were anywhere else.
To me, it was that scene, more than anything else in the film, which really drove the point home. Not only is bullying a dangerous, extremely harmful force in childhood, but we don't necessarily outgrow it. This is bad for us, individually and collectively, and bad for our kids. How can we expect a group of 10 year-olds to learn to disagree constructively and treat each other with respect when their mothers can't do it either? And who polices the mommies? Where does it end?
The same thought entered my mind watching an interview with one Dawn-Marie Wesley's bullies and her grandmother. Both the teenage girl and her grandmother did little but make excuses, saying that Dawn-Marie engaged in the same behavior, it was normal, doing everything but calling her suicide an overreaction to a completely average situation. With an attitude like that coming from the adult in her life (her grandmother), how could the teenage bully ever expect to be any different?
I don't completely agree with Simmons' bullying theories. Or, I agree with them, but think they are only part of a very complicated picture. I can certainly see her argument for girls' passive-aggressive behavior being largely due to not being socially able to be out-and-out aggressive, but even if girls were to be more "masculine" in their behavior towards each other, to bully with fists and punches more than glares and whispered rumors, we'd still have a problem, you know? And I believe a lot of that problem comes from the massive unresolved anger many woman and girls carry around with them. We're right to be angry--we live in a world that systematically devalues us at ever turn. The problem is that we turn that anger on each other, because we're too afraid to band together and turn it on those who really deserve it. The boys. We spend so much energy attacking each other, standing in our own and each other's way, and it's time and energy we could spend attacking them. But keeping us at each other's throats is all part of the plan, isn't it? It's much easier to dominate a population hell-bent on dominating each other.
The answers the film suggested were ultimately unsatisfying, at least to me. While I was glad to see the Montreal girls' parents taking bullying seriously and talking to their children about it, I don't much think it's going to help, even in their specific cases, much less overall. Forcing a girl to apologize for her past behavior, or encouraging her to make other friends if the ones she has are mean to her, don't really address the issue. I never heard any mother tell her daughter she was right to be mad, or offer to help her figure out who she was really mad at. And I'm not surprised. I've spent a good deal of time thinking about this stuff-more than most, probably-and I still can't figure out who to be mad at most of the time. I only pray that if I ever have a daughter, she and I can both learn.