Over drinks with some friends last night, I brought up the topic of the Girl Code, a concept that, in pop culture at least, tends to be overlooked and receives far less attention than its better known counterpart, Bro Code.
At its core, Bro Code is a code of ethics that demands ultimate loyalty to bros, or male friends, above all else. All else may include parents, significant others, law enforcement, maybe even God himself—you name it, there is nobody or nothing above a fellow blessed bro. The term typically conjures up images of drunken fraternity brothers pledging allegiance to themselves, but every group of guy friends probably follows a version of the code.
Which brings us to Girl Code. It’s less known in the ether of the mainstream, but aren’t women as obligated to follow certain rules to preserve their own friendships? I turned to my friends, who all agreed, Of course! At some point in our lives, we had all been deeply and painfully affected by Girl Code, even if we hadn’t known it by name—and more importantly, we now put in serious effort to avoid breaking its many, many rules. A number that my friend Krista estimates at around 15,000 or so—each of them nuanced and personalized for every distinct group of girlfriends.
The Rules and Repercussions of Girl Code
As the wine and the confessions started to pour, we compiled a list of the strictest laws of Girl Code. Below are a few that stood out:
As rule breakers know, the punishments for not abiding these rules are swift and severe.
Krista learned this harsh lesson while playing Spin the Bottle with a group of friends during middle school. On her spin, the bottle pointed to a boy who happened to be the object of another one of her girlfriend’s affection. Their innocent kiss ultimately signaled the kiss of death for her friendship with the girl, who immediately accused Krista of betraying her. Not satisfied by her apologies, the girl, who was also the most popular girl in school, quickly phone-treed the rest of the middle school girls to carry out her sentence: complete exile. For weeks, Krista was ostracized at lunches, after school activities and during weekends—she was miserable and humiliated.
Then out of nowhere, the popular girl returned to Krista’s locker and welcomed her back into the group, as if nothing had happened. It turned out that another girl had broken yet another cardinal rule and became Girl Code’s latest vicim.
In a piece for Thought Catalog, Heather Thompson Day, a writer and lecturer at Southwestern Michigan College, recalls a similar experience. During high school, she and her friends publicly shunned another friend who had slept with her ex-boyfriend. The girl begged for forgiveness, but all attempts at reconciliation were ignored. The humiliation and heartbreak was so painful for her, she ended up moving away to live with her father. Years later as a remorseful adult, Heather realizes the girl’s actions weren’t rooted in cruel intentions, but rather, a very human desire to feel wanted. “At 16, when a popular, handsome, teenage boy says all the right things, girls often do what they think they have to, to make sure they don’t stop,” she writes. This recognition hints at another realization, that she and that girl, “probably aren’t that different.”
Neither the cattiness nor the exclusion stops after graduation. If you’ve ever flipped through your social media feeds and come across evidence of a fun group outing that you never received an invite to, then you know—and you also know that being left out is excruciating at any age.
Evolutionary psychologists believe relational aggression in females evolved out of biological necessity—women don’t fight with their firsts, because they must conserve energy for reproduction and childrearing. In contrast to males, they show their strength by threatening other females with social exclusion, a surprisingly effective weapon, given how low the chances of survival or mating are for social animals in exile.
According to psychologist and author of Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, this tendency for women to punish one another through shame and exile emerges in childhood. Girls and boys form friendships differently, she says. While girls will gather in smaller friendship groups of two or three, bonding through conversation and emotional intimacy, boys will hang out in larger groups and connect primarily through activities or sports. These behaviors support the long-held belief that girls place more importance on developing interpersonal relationships than boys.
So, when conflicts inevitably arise, girls will lash out through relational aggression, such as “gossiping and excluding each other,” whereas boys will often turn to physical violence. That is not all that surprising, considering gossip is a girl's primary mode of communication. In one study at Duke University, researchers found 15-minute conversations among fourth grade girls contained, on average, 36 instances of gossip involving 25 different people. They found the majority of the gossip was not mean-spirited nor aggressive, but instead strengthened the bonds of friendship. By trading intimate secrets and jointly evaluating their peers, girls establish trust and find common ground in their friendships. Still, what the above anecdotes demonstrate all too well is that as much as gossip might bring girls closer together, it can just as easily tear them apart.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Though the tenets of Girl Code may vary from group to group, there is one rule that is universal: Mates are off limits. Whether you were born a thousand years ago or yesterday, this law ranks supreme among all others—unfortunately, it is also the law that is broken the most often.
According to a recent paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: “For the most part, young women's competition is, directly or indirectly, about men and the resources they can provide. Hence it is perhaps unsurprising that women compete about those qualities that are highly valued by men: youth and attractiveness.”
A closer look at the rules compiled earlier reveals that nearly all deal with mating or appearing more attractive to the opposite sex. This is not to say only women fight over mates. Hardly. Throughout history, men have always and continued to compete for only three things: territory, resources, and, most importantly—sexual partners. Much of the time, the two prior conquests are a means to securing the latter.
For millennia, love has been regarded by artists, warriors and philosophers as humanity’s raison d’etre. Messy love triangles involving two best friends are a staple of books, film, and television, as well as real life. In fact, many relationships are formed through the practice of mate poaching, or "stealing" a significant other from someone else. One study by the American Psychological Association estimates that 63 percent of men and 54 percent of women in long-term relationships were poached from another partner. These numbers suggest women are more likely to poach…but is it true?
According to some researchers, the answer is yes. A study at Oklahoma State University found single women were more interested in pursuing men who were attached to someone else, while single men preferred unattached partners. Why women are attracted to unavailable men could be explained by the “wedding ring effect,” a theory that suggests a man is considered more attractive because he has already been vetted and endorsed by another woman. In the rest of the animal kingdom, this behavior is called “mate choice copying,” and is common among female bird and fish species.
There is a catch however. Another layer to this research finds that a woman’s desire for a taken male is directly related to how desirable his existing female partner is. In other words, women are only attracted to men who are attached to attractive women. You may have seen this familiar trope depicted in films like, Can’t Buy Me Love and She’s All That, where a geek suddenly earns social cache for dating a popular, attractive person.
Therefore it’s not all that surprising why some women may develop a crush on the same person or be attracted to their friends’ significant others—after all, good pals tend to share many characteristics and have similar tastes. They likely think highly of each other, too, so if he’s good enough for her, perhaps he’s good enough for me. In fact, evolutionary psychology suggests women befriend gay men as to avoid this type of mate competition.
Even if women are hard-wired to poach, be assured that many of us don’t—especially those with conscientious or agreeable personalities—AKA the types of people we want to be friends with.
The Ultimate Power Couple: Female BFFs
Like any body of laws, the rules of Girl Code are designed not only to protect friendships but to also maintain law and order. That's not to say everyone enjoys being governed by them. All of my dinner companions have had our share of complaints and PTSD moments about how the rules have hurt or harmed us.
It’s easy to see how these rules can also pose a threat to these relationships, says Nicole Zangara, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Too many rules can cause unnecessary “cattiness and insecurity” among women. Even our tendency to keep tabs on our frenemies, a term that describes former friends or people you dislike but may be superficially friendly with, is an indirect form of Girl Code enforcement.
But upon further examination, I can understand why women are so hard on each other. We rely on each other so much. Certainly men value their friendships as well, but women reap far more benefits from their buds—both emotional and physical. One University of California study found that female cancer patients who had ten or more friends were four times as likely to recover than those who had no one. (What’s more, having a spouse did not affect a patient’s survival rate.) Other studies show that women who have strong friendships live longer and better. In fact, researchers at Harvard Medical School believe, “that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as toking or carrying extra weight.” For women, at least, friendships are essential. Therefore, it’s only natural that we want to invest in and be supported by the best possible people.
As the evening started to wind down, a thought occurred to me—so many of our Girl Code horror stories were one-time violations. One punishment, it seemed, was enough to set every friendship straight. There were no recidivists in this group, which made me realize that these rules, while sometimes absurd and occasionally traumatizing—have, in fact, helped us become better friends to each other, and better people in general. Which makes me wonder, perhaps having 15,000 rules in a friendship isn't so crazy after all.