For some reason, bullying is associated with boys in American culture. Worse than dismissing boys’ bullying as “boys will be boys,” girls’ bullying is simply not acknowledged. Sometimes it’s even celebrated. When conforming to gender norms, girls’ bullying behaviors are different from those exhibited by boys. It’s different, but it’s not “better.” It’s certainly no less bullying, neither is it less harmful to the victim or to the bully.
What does “girls will be girls” mean? Girls gossip. They talk about other people behind their backs—what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, how they look, how they speak, and who they’re dating and why. Girls travel in cliques. They go to the bathroom together and walk down the halls together. They talk on the telephone, sometimes when they’re standing right next to each other in the halls.
Girls put others down over the silliest of things. Some girls do this so reflexively they’re not even aware that they’ve done it. When girls are being girls, anyone can end up with the sharp point of a girl’s tongue sticking in their ear. One day you’re putting down your best friend for doing something that is socially unacceptable, the next day it’s the girl who sits next to you in math. It’s not nice, but it is ‘girls being girls.’ However unfortunate these behaviors may be, it is not bullying.
Bullying is pervasive, usually against people perceived as inferior in some way. Girls bully by badgering and intimidating others. It’s a means of controlling situations through force of self—and, in the case of girls, physical dominance rarely has anything to do with it. In my experience, a girl who is a bully often disguises herself as the friend of her victim(s). This may involve a twisted, heightened form of peer-pressure from the queen of a clique; or it may be between two playmates.
The girl bully that is prominent in my childhood was an example of the latter. You see, one of the hardest things about not going to summer camp as a child was that there were long stretches of the summer when all my regular friends were gone—often to the same camp together, which left me feeling even more excluded. For one or two agonizing weeks I had to stretch myself socially just to have anyone to play with. This was always difficult; making friends was hard enough without having to do so as the one left behind.
One summer I played with an older girl who was visiting her grandparents. She was mean. She was bossy. She was also the only one around for me to play with. All my ideas were stupid. But when she put my ideas into her own words they became brilliant games we could play. She was always the leader, always the princess or whatever plumb role our game might happen to have. And the worst part of it all was how she was able to manipulate me into feeling privileged because she was willing to play with me.
This is bullying. It’s about dominance; but emotional dominance is the stock and trade of girls, not physical dominance. But, don’t let that dissuade you; it’s still bullying.
When girls’ bullying escalates into harassment, it takes on a more cutting, more heavily targeted tone. Consider for a moment that girls, when conforming to neurological and gender norms, gossip about others. Now imagine for a moment that all that gossip, backbiting, and meanness is targeted on a single individual. Imagine that the victim is targeted not by one girl, but by a clique of girls who travel together and try to one-up each other as they tear apart their victim emotionally. That is harassment, and it happens a lot.
As a child, I was never very popular. I didn’t travel in the popular circles. But I usually had one friend in those circles who saw me as quirky instead of weird. Such a small thing can make a really big difference. That one friend acted as something of a barrier between me and constant, female-style harassment. But being on the outside, I witnessed that harassment of others and felt powerless to stop it. However much I stood up for or validated the victim, I couldn’t stop the harassment itself. Like the gossiping and the bullying, girls’ harassment tends to be primarily emotional, but nonetheless devastating.
Finally, girls can be just as abusive as boys. The physical violence is often less obvious. Girls, when conforming to gender norms, do not roll around on the ground and pull each other’s hair as is sometimes portrayed in movies. Cat fights tend to be prevalent in certain sub-cultures, but it is not the mainstream. This does not mean girls cannot or are not abusive. The violence, as I said, is subtler, but can often be more dangerous because of that subtlety. The violence girls inflict on each other can range from “poisoning” with non-lethal (but still dangerous) chemicals—like slipping an overdose of laxatives in a girl’s drink—to reckless endangerment, where a girl chased another girl (who was on foot) in a car, driving on the sidewalk to better make her point. It can also include manipulating the guys in the girls’ clique to sexually harass their victim, which is often with the intent of setting the girl up for public humiliation when it’s revealed the guy(s) didn’t even want her to begin with. (I’ve seen guys try to do this on their own, too, but it never seems to work as effectively.)
This violence is rarely one on one. It’s often done in a collective manner. The girls who are daring enough to perform these acts are often well-thought-of by the adults in their lives, and feel sufficiently secure in their reputations that, even if their victim were foolish enough to tell she wouldn’t be believed by anyone with the authority to act. (If you’ve seen Cruel Intentions, then you’ve seen a dramatized version of this—most girls that try it, however, are not quite that successful or resourceful.) To further isolate themselves from repercussions, the bully-girls work diligently to maintain their reputation with adults, while performing acts that are attributed to their victim in such a way that puts their victim’s reputation in jeopardy, further eroding the possibility that one “trouble-maker’s” word would trump their collective word as to what happened.
The bullying girls inflict on other girls is insidious and subtle, but it is no less brutal, no less tragic for that. In some ways, it is more so. Girls often cannot show off their bruises or their scars. It’s all internal. Even when their life is endangered with abuse, there is rarely any visible evidence to attest to the danger they were placed in by their peers. Girls will be girls. But girls should not be allowed to inflict others with their cruelty. And yet it goes on, because, after all, girls aren’t really bullies. That’s just boy-stuff and it’s all good.
[Coming Next: “You’ve Got to Wonder Why?”]