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Bullying in the Female World

The Hidden Aggression Behind the Innocent Smile

"Kick him where it hurts" - "Punch him harder" - "Pin him down till he yells uncle". These are some of the sounds associated with male aggression. In fact, the word aggression was only applied to the males of our species, expressed in physical action and captured in words like hitting, pushing, punching, beating and ganging-up. Included in any description was anger that seemed to be the force behind the aggressive act. Until fairly recently, there were no sounds associated with female aggression -- as if it didn't exist.

It's only in the last decade or so that aggression by the female -- in the form of social or relational aggression -- has been recognized.

What made me think of this was watching the film The Help based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett, now a popular new movie. It is the story of life in Mississippi in the early 1960's and how a group of affluent White women relate to the Black maids who care for them and their children and how, in turn, the maids feel about how they are being treated. It dramatically captures the distance between the two groups and the underlying racial biases of that time.

What struck me as I was watching the film is how it also dramatically and effectively captures the emotional and psychological violence of social aggression, including the sting and cruelty of the verbal "weapons" women use. The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social "undesirable". The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a "girl thing". The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression. The film captures a number of these "weapons" as well as a pattern found in the interactions of males; the justification for the use of the same kind of aggression -- physical or social -- by the "good guy" in response to the original aggression by the "bad guy".

Comparison between male and female aggression shows strong and obvious similarities. Motivation for both groups usually includes: a desire for power, for control, for achieving greater social status and popularity, jealousy, fear and derailing competition. Aggressive behavior for both male and female children can be found as early as preschool age, is most prevalent in adolescence and can, as the movie so clearly illustrates, continue well into adulthood. Both sexes form social structures that lead different members to assume specific roles and characteristics. For example, in a female group (as seen in the movie) the one with the power is like the "Queen Bee" with a contingent of followers. Her friends do what she wants, she is charming when she wants to be, she's manipulatively affectionate, she takes no responsibility for hurting another's feelings, and defines right and wrong by the loyalty or disloyalty shown to her. She is usually the one who decides who should be the victim. The film also captures the dilemma of those who feel helpless to help the victim because of their need to not stir the anger of the Queen Bee and become alienated from the group.

What the film doesn't show is that the effects of social aggression can be longer lasting and more damaging than physical aggression. Since the "weapons" have a stealth nature to them, there is less possibility of anticipating the specifics of an attack and fewer actions to defend against an attack. This negative effect is particularly damaging during adolescence when the importance of acceptance in a peer group is maximized. Adding to the pain inflicted on the victim is the lack of support by teachers and other adults who view the bully -- often a popular and charismatic young woman -- as innocent of such negative behavior. Thus the strong positive reputation of the bully makes it difficult for a victim to get validation of the bullying and causes a victim to suffer the additional pain of not being believed and not getting any support.

Relational aggression negatively impacts "mirroring" - a peer group's reflected reaction to an individual. Caught in the web of punishing aggression by peers, a young person's internal sense of self becomes diminished and felt as being "a loser" - "a reject" and "not as good". Self-esteem is low and feelings of insecurity may persist throughout life. What is also affected is the ability to trust as an adult and to be free to be open to close relationships.

A recent development in social aggression is cyber bullying, acted out by both sexes. In this type of aggression, the perpetrator uses social networking tools - email, Facebook, Twitter - to inflict damage, particularly the spreading of socially harmful rumors of others. Recent reports of several suicides by young adolescents who were targeted speak to the damaging power of this kind of aggression. I'll write more extensively about the increasing prevalence and deadly effects of cyber bullying in my next blog.

I was also aware, watching this film, of how new technologies have changed our world. In the 1960's the nature and power of relational aggression was more muted because these new stealth weapons did not yet exist. The Help ends on a positive note, in some ways mirroring the positive changes in race relationships since the 1960's and the civil rights movement. It may be time, with the power of the internet being used as a powerful weapon of covert aggression, to start a movement to change the nature of human relationships as they relate to both physical and social aggression.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including offering more information on relational aggression, a greater understanding of why someone becomes a bully and strategies that can play a part in lessening its power. Hope you'll continue to join me on this journey. And hope your interactions are free of both social and physical aggression.

More from Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.
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