It's time we stopped this (growing!) 'Mean Girls' phenomenon. Here's how we do it.
Despite the nationwide anti-bullying campaign that has been in full swing for the past few years, so-called “mean girls” aren’t going away. In fact (cue horror movie music) they’re getting YOUNGER.
According to Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabees” (you might be a little more familiar with its book-to-film adaptation “Mean Girls”) mean girls are becoming mean girls at younger and younger ages, striking terror into the hearts of elementary school classrooms everywhere. According to Wiseman, part of the problem is biological (girls are going through puberty as early as 9), and part of the problem is the media giving girls role models off of whom they model their behavior.
“Mainstream media is portraying girls at younger ages who are mimicking the worst of obnoxious, stereotypical girl behavior . . . rolling eyes, moving the hips around, being catty,” Wiseman explains. “So what girls are getting is that by 8 or 9, this is sort of a ‘normal’ way to act.”
Wiseman’s got some research to back up this theory. A study conducted by Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications at The Media School at Indiana University, found that 92% of 150 shows popular with elementary school children included some form of relational or social aggression. And here’s the kicker: that aggressive behavior was often carried out by the physically attractive female characters. Here’s a kicker to add to that first kicker: when these children were interviewed about the programs they watched and how it affected their behavior at school, the research results “show a positive relationship between the likelihood of watching socially-aggressive television shows and the use of social aggression in school, but only for girls and not for boys.”
In other words, it looks like the media is the Dr. Frankenstein mass producing this phenomenon. So what do we do to stop it?
We stop glamorizing the “mean girl.” We stop rewarding a female character’s hurtful behavior on screen. We start creating female leads that are engaging because they are smart and strong and kind and generous and complicated- not because they’re rude, manipulative, and just flat-out mean. We celebrate female friendship, not girl-on-girl warfare. We tell stories about girls building each other up, swooping in to save one another, sticking by each other through tough times, and yes, figuring out conflicts in their relationship. But you can fight without being sneaky, underhanded, and backstabbing. We can teach girls how to work problems out amongst themselves with integrity, by demonstrating how to fight in a healthy way on screen.
If all we had to do is rewrite the rules for kids programming, this whole problem would be a lot easier to solve. Unfortunately, we also have to rewrite the rules for ourselves. Whether we’re moms or big sisters, friends of moms, babysitters, neighbors, or what have you, if you are a woman in a little girl’s life, you are also an influence. You’re also teaching girls what being a woman looks like.
“We talk about role modeling but very rarely do adults look at their own behavior and say ‘What am I doing?’ ” said Wiseman.
She adds that if a little girl “. . . walks in the house and sees that’s what you entertain yourself with is watching other women be mean to each other or be ridiculed or dismissed. You are showing that that’s entertaining to you and then it normalizes it.”
So yes (cough cough Nickelodeon and Disney more coughing) you have some work to do, but you’re not alone. We are all responsible for making sure cool girls grow up to be cool women. We have to role model for girls and teach them what it is to be kind, and we can’t put mean girl behavior up on a pedestal and undo all our good work.