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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 451-453 ( 16 October )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/simmons.html
Sugar and Spice and… Nastiness?
Nanelle R. Barash
A review of Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons.
296 pp, Harcourt, 2002.
For many people, “middle school” conjures up images of sweaty gyms, pimples, first kisses, conflict with parents, and a growing division between the cool (“popular”) kids on the one hand, and the nerds, geeks, dorks, overweight, badly dressed, clumsy, disabled, or just generally socially awkward on the other. Exclusion from the popular social clique leaves scars that do not readily disappear, often causing painful, sometimes irrevocable breaks between friends, and making the middle school environment a social hell.
In the aftermath of the Columbine massacre in Colorado, boy-boy bullying began to receive the attention it has long warranted. Its girl-girl counterpart, on the other hand, remained largely in the shadows. This is particularly regrettable because every girl (or anyone who was once a girl) knows that nastiness isn’t uniquely located on the Y chromosome. Both boys and girls experience painful patterns of social mistreatment, but recent research shows that the mechanisms for bullying and tormenting the less popular differ substantially between the sexes. Although boys might physically intimidate each other, girls are more likely to pass derogatory notes and shoot scornful looks; physical fights are relatively common with boys, whereas girls more often resort to the “silent treatment.” Yet both of these differing methods of aggression – physical and passive – are harmful to the victim. In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons explores “the hidden culture of aggression in girls,” using interviews with current young girls as well as older victims of childhood bullying to shed light on the new field of girl-girl aggression.
And new it is. Not only in popular culture, but even in modern evolutionary psychology, the prevailing myth has long been that boys will be boys and girls will be, well, good. Thus, thirty years ago, Robert L. Trivers, then a graduate student, published a now-classic article in which he developed the concept of “parental investment,” whereby males and females are distinguished. The mantra has since become canonical: males produce a large number of small gametes, investing very little in each one, whereas females produce a small number of large gametes, and invest heavily in each. As a consequence, females – the sex typically investing more – become a limiting resource for the reproductive success of males, promoting them to compete with each other for access to females in an attempt to maximize their reproductive opportunities. Females, in turn, are more likely to achieve reproductive success by investing heavily in a few high-quality offspring. So, in conventional evolutionary wisdom, males fight whereas females are fought over. Males are more prone to be pushy, aggressive, nasty, competitive and even violent, whereas females are passive, nurturant, kindly, cooperative and nice.
From early childhood, girls are indeed encouraged to be nice. “Good girls” must be caring, gentle, and well-liked, with multiple, stable friendships and no outward signs of aggression. These “caretakers in training,” as Simmons aptly puts it, are discouraged from getting into fights or violent play, whereas their male counterparts quickly become proficient in confrontation and self-defense; rough and tumble play is the “hallmark of masculinity.” Thus far, the conventional biological wisdom is correct.
But there has been something of a revolution in evolutionary psychology of late, with the recognition that females, too, can be competitive. Belatedly, but with growing certainty, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are coming to recognize that females also compete. In most species – including Homo sapiens – they are simply more subtle about it.
What happens, for example, when girls are frustrated or upset at their friends? Socially prohibited from open conflict, their built-up anger and frustration emerges via “back-biting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling, and manipulation,” which Simmons catagorizes as “alternative aggression.” Alternative it may be, but the effects can nonetheless be devastating to girls’ self-esteem and happiness, often affecting women well into adulthood.
Simmons, herself a Rhodes Scholar, relies heavily on the work of Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown; lacking her own hard data, she relies upon copious, detailed, and often heart-rending interviews. The book is not written from an evolutionary perspective: much on “fear” and “femininity,” but nothing on “fitness,” and so forth. In a curious sense, however, these omissions may constitute a strength. Because Odd Girl Out was not written as an explicit response to the received wisdom of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, it can serve as a valuable urban ethnography, compiled without a scientific axe to grind.
Odd Girl Out combines and compiles recent thoughts about the strange, often subtle and manipulative but clearly agonizing world of girl bullying clearly and concisely enough for teenagers and parents, with enough fodder to satisfy scientists as well. Simmons conducts and records her interviews with respect and care; she consciously chooses to interview girls from large schools and small, public and private, predominately Caucasian as well as African-American. She draws striking conclusions about the nature of popularity – “a mean and merciless competition for relationships” – and, perhaps most interestingly, talks with girls who admit to have bullied others, often sacrificing previous friendships for membership in a popular clique.
To those lucky few who have not felt the wrath of a clique or been abandoned by a friend, Odd Girl Out might be a harsh look at an unpleasant reality. It provides a truly bleak view of girl-girl relationships. At the same time, let us acknowledge that not all friendships are plagued by manipulation and alternative aggression: friendships occupy a special place in most women’s hearts, simply because they are so intense. Books like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and the later movie of the same title, beautifully explore the depths of relationships between “girlfriends.” Simmons, in her attempt to clearly demonstrate the presence of nastiness in girl-girl relationships, typically understates these friendships, though she makes a token gesture, almost a “disclaimer,” in the introduction.
After reading Odd Girl Out, no one can deny the impact of these ten-year-old bullies, cruelly destroying each other silently but purposefully; they are well represented, it appears, in every school, activity or group. Those who have been the victims of bullying, or have been shocked at their own behavior toward a friend, will see Simmons’ work as liberating and long over-due. Aliens notwithstanding, teens, and those concerned about them, will finally be able to say, “we are not alone.”
As an in-depth discussion of teenage girls’ psychology and relationships, as well as a consoling resource for victims of bullying, Odd Girl Out can be useful therapy for girls (and their parents) currently struggling to navigate the minefields of adolescence. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of girl-girl bullying and “alternative aggression” is its silence, as society has long swept the victims under the carpet. Simmons’ research and interviews empower girls to make positive changes in their situations by explicitly discussing bullying in its entirety, averting the psychological trauma so clearly evident in abusive relationships. Parents and educators will find Simmons’ suggestions for helping teenage girls cogent and insightful. For example, she suggests that concerned adults share their own experiences with bullying, to avert the growing sense of alienation felt by so many victims. She also strongly recommends avoiding the now-cliché “it’s just a phase,” arguing that such statements belittle the girl’s indisputably tormenting emotions and in so doing, cause more harm than good.
Recognition of girl-girl aggression has been enjoying a renaissance of late, with a blossoming of books on the subject as well as high-profile articles in The New York Times Magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other venues. Other books include Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut (Emily White, Scribner, 2002) and Queen Bees and Wannabes: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence (Rosalind Wiseman, Crown, 2002).
With such attention, so long overdue, it seems likely that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, too, will accelerate their re-thinking of female-female aggression. I conclude this review, therefore, with the following Fearless Prediction: the study of woman-woman and girl-girl aggression is about to become a growth industry, for scientists no less than for trade writers. And the result will be those twin, longed-for Nirvanas: liberation and empowerment, not only of scientific thought, but also of many suffering girls.
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© Nanelle Barash.
Nellie Barash is a student at The Overlake School, in Redmond, Washington, where she has experienced and survived her share of girl-girl aggression.
Barash, N. R. (2002). Sugar and Spice and… Nastiness? Human Nature Review. 2: 451-453.