Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friends and Frenemies Forever: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons

...It is time to end another silence. There is a hidden culture of girls' aggression in which bullying is epidemic, distinctive, and destructive. It is not marked by the direct physical and verbal behavior that is primarily the province of boys. Our culture refines girls' access to open conflict, and it forces their aggression into non-physical, indirect, and covert forms. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on victimized targets. Unlike boys, girls attack within tightly-knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the targets.

We've all heard the lay version of this description of girls. "Girls are catty, sneakier than boys." "Girls are mean." "Girls are two-faced, nice to your face around grown-ups, and behind your back they turn everyone against you." Almost every woman has at least one story to tell. Veteran teachers sigh, and in weary voices will describe countless hours given to mediating these labyrinthine problems with girls and their parents year after year. "Girls will be girls," say some laid-back moms; "they just have to learn to deal with it like we all do," they add.

But as Rachel Simmons' original Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, (Houghton Mifflin) pointed out in its best-selling 2002 edition, these girl problems are not just kid stuff. Girls seem to be hardwired to fear and avoid isolation at all costs, and the hurt from this "shunning," however below adult radar it may be, affects its victims deeply, sometimes for life.

Together with Rachel Wiseman's similarly themed Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World and the earlier Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, this book became required reading for teachers, guidance counselors, youth workers of all kinds, and parents because of its extensive personal anecdotes and succinct analysis of the current cultural overlays from which these behaviors arise--that girls must be "nice," and "good," never overtly aggressive--which drive their fights underground into possibly more nefarious means, what Simmons terms "alternative aggression,"or "a pervasive game of Twister."

Simmons' just published paperback edition of Odd Girl Out, Revised and Updated: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Mariner, Houghton Mifflin, 2011) adds extensive discussion of the changes in Girl World which have radically altered the means, if not the basis, of girls' aggression which did not exist when the 2002 edition was written--ubiquitous cell phones, texting, sexting, and social media such as Facebook (and other, potentially more harmful sites) which add a whole other dimension to alternative aggression. Simmons describes and analyzes how these media have taken rumor-mongering, social scheming, and cyber-harassment to entirely new levels, some leading to teen suicides and overt school violence. Parents with children about to enter this vulnerable demographic, which now begins around third grade, will find it well worth while to read this section and with her suggestions formulate family policy before the need arises.

Simmons' thesis, her "remedy" for girls' secret aggression, is easy to accept but hard to implement, requiring considerable psychological insight and skill in inculcating it in children from early on:

Over the course of a few years, as girls become conscious of the culture around them, they are forced into abrupt disconnection with themselves. Their truthful voices, their fearless capacity to speak their minds, their fierce appetite for food and play and truth, will no longer be tolerated. To be successful and socially accepted, girls must adopt feminine postures of sexual, social, verbal, and physical restraint.... To avoid rejection, they must enter whitewashed relationships, eschewing open conflict.

Teach girls to be aggressive? Well, yes. I return again to a major symptom of girls' loss of self-esteem, idealized or conflict-free, relationships. If we can guide girls into comfort with "messy feelings," such as jealousy, competition, and anger, they will be less likely to take them out of their relationships with others, less likely to repress the feelings that over time simmer into rageful acts of cruelty.

Such rage-sparked acts are familiar, repetitively paraded across our screen and print pages in a media frenzy of attention to victim suicide and frenemy murder. Simmons at least points to what needs to be done, the teaching of civil and honest means of conflict resolution among young girls. As she points out near the end of her book, "social ordering" is as ancient as humankind and will endure as an element of group life. Girls have to acquire the inner confidence and strength to work their way through it, to come of age intact, and Odd Girl Out, Revised and Updated: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girlsis must reading for those who want to help.

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