Mean Girls Turns 15: The Perpetuation of Mean Girl Culture
Why girls' friendship patterns can be toxic and what parents can do about it.
Posted Jun 14, 2019
It's hard to believe, but it has been 15 years since the release of the movie Mean Girls. I have viewed the movie several times over the years, and last week I attended (and enjoyed) the Broadway version of Mean Girls with my husband and 14-year old daughter.
It is shocking how the show seems as relevant as ever. It seems that nothing has changed in "mean girl culture" during the past 15 years, and in some ways it has only intensified with the rapid proliferation of social media.
As an example, recently a well-seasoned male therapist colleague said to me, “I would rather work all day with my male clients who are hardened criminals than lead a one-hour group with teenage girls!” He went on to complain about the never-ending drama he sees with girls in his treatment setting.
I laughed at the time, but upon reflection I wondered, why do girls have such a notorious reputation for drama, betrayal, and back-stabbing? And for being mean to one another—especially to their friends? Does it have to be the case that nothing ever improves with girl culture? That the Mean Girls movie will continue to represent current friendship patterns?
As parents, can we help our daughters to resist these limiting stereotypes and behaviors? As I suggest in my book Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, I believe the answer is yes[i].
Socialization, Expressing Anger, and Relational Aggression
To start changing the climate for girls, we need to understand how girls are socialized. Girls learn from a very early age that they are expected to be emotionally expressive—for every emotion, that is, except anger. Our daughters learn the importance of relationships and the risks associated with expressing anger—if she makes someone mad, another girl might not want to be her friend any longer. So she learns to keep her opinions to herself instead of taking a risk that might cause a rift in the relationship. As a result, many girls never lean the skills they need for open, assertive communication or for effective conflict resolution.
But girls do get mad and they do have strong opinions about things. So if a girl doesn’t usually go directly to a friend to tell her she doesn’t like what she said or did, what does she do instead? For example, if Catelyn believes she can’t tell Hannah she is mad at her or doesn’t like what she said, how does she express her anger?
Some things she might try…Talk about Hannah behind her back. Tell her friends to start ignoring her. Spread a rumor about her that she is a slut. Send her a mean, anonymous text. Make Hannah’s life miserable without ever saying a word to her about the conflict. Catelyn can retaliate most effectively by harming what is likely most important to Hannah: Her relationships. Professionals call this behavior Relational Aggression (RA), typically defined as the act of hurting others by manipulating or harming their relationships[ii].
Girls learn to use RA for a variety of reasons, but they keep using it primarily because it works so well to get girls what they want (popularity, status), and it continues because girls who are not in the inner circle of popularity are fearful to challenge the RA perpetrators out of fear that they too will become the next victims[iii].
And even if a girl is in the “popular” clique at her school, she may believe she needs to use RA to maintain her status in a popular social circle. She may spread rumors or gossip about her closest friends as “currency” to please the girls in her clique. That’s why research shows that girls tend to use RA most often within their own friendship circles. It is no wonder that the term frenemies is used to describe girls’ friendships and that the distinction between friend and enemy has become blurred. How confusing to our daughters when a BFF today becomes an enemy overnight, and she isn’t sure how or why.
What’s the Harm? Won’t “Girls Just Be Girls”?
Relational aggression may have become mainstream among today’s girls, but this doesn’t mean that we should dismiss it as expected or harmless. Girls are indeed harmed by these behaviors— and it does not just affect the victims of the aggression. The girls who use RA against others learn manipulative ways to get their needs met, which can harm their own social and emotional development. Other girls live in dread that they will say or do something that will land them in the outsider role. So we do need to pay attention and we do need to help our daughters figure out their role in being authentic friends while also staying true to themselves.
You might be thinking this sounds a bit insurmountable. Rather than throwing up your hands in defeat, however, consider some of the following strategies you can use to decrease the chances that your daughter will become entrenched in a web of relationally aggressive relationships:
What to Do: Resilience Strategies for Parents
- Do your part and stay aware. Do seek to understand your daughter’s position in the social hierarchy at her school. Does she aspire to be popular? Why is it important to her? Without overly intruding on her life, be involved enough so that you know what she is doing with her friends and the kinds of things she does online. You can have a great influence on how she interacts in her relationships.
- Educate. She is probably informed about the topic of bullying, but she might not know what Relational Aggression in particular looks like and how damaging it can be. Make sure she knows that it is actually a harmful form of bullying and is not an expected part of friendships. When you see her acting in relationally aggressive ways, point it out to her and to her friends. In this way she can start to become more aware of what it is and what she can do differently.
- Help her evaluate her friendships. Help her examine her current friendships. Does this particular person have the qualities that she is looking for in a friend? If not, what draws her to the friendship? Can she tell this person no? Can she be her true self around this person? Should this person be trusted as a friend or is she possibly just an acquaintance?
- Diversify. When things are not going well in her friendships at school, it makes it easier for her to have friendship groups outside of the school setting. Without overscheduling her, make sure your daughter is involved in a variety of activities—both sports and extracurricular activities outside of school—that help her stay balanced and not overly focused on the approval of a particular friendship group.
- Encourage her to speak up. Help her know that while it feels risky, it is important to express her opinion clearly and directly. She doesn’t have to couch her sentences in “I am not sure, but…” or to always speak in questions. Encourage her instead to speak up with no hedging. I like how Rachel Simmons distinguishes between a “nice” girl and a “real” girl: A real girl is someone who can stay connected to her strong inner core of thoughts, feelings, and desires and is able to act from this core. A real girl is able to stand up for her own needs while also considering the needs of others[iv].
- Help her become a GIM. This is Rosalind Wiseman’s acronym for Girl in the Middle, a girl who is free to float in and out of several friendship circles and who is not overly concerned with fitting into one particular group just because it will help her appear popular. Wiseman reports that it is the GIMs who feel most empowered to voice their own opinions and needs in relationships. According to Wiseman, they are the ones who are most likely to choose to intervene on behalf of victims by standing up to girls who bully. Because they are not trying to please a particular clique, they do not fear what might happen if they challenge the leader’s treatment of others[v].
- Grow a leader. I am often amazed at the energy and creativity that many girls put into their relationally aggressive behaviors. I am also impressed with the leadership abilities that some girls can exert in rallying their troops into action when it is needed. If a girl tends to be a leader within her circle, instead of putting her skills into devising schemes to maintain her power, help her pour her energy into a broader social issue that captures her interest. This will help her spend her time on something that has meaning and purpose, and she can rechannel her anger into a cause that will have a productive outcome. According to Ana Homayoun[vi], if your daughter is actively engaged and feeling purposeful, she won’t feel it is necessary to compromise herself for a quick fix of self-satisfaction that comes from meanness.
These strategies will not create an overnight fix, particularly if your daughter is enmeshed in a toxic friendship circle in which meanness has become the norm. However, over time, encourage her to examine her friendships in a new light. Help her begin to prioritize relationships that are life-enhancing—and to slowly turn away from those that have become life-depleting. With enough effort, hopefully when the Mean Girls movie turns 20, it will have become dated and only a laughable relic of the past.
[i] Choate, L. H. (2015). Swimming upstream: Parenting girls for resilience in a toxic culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
[ii] Crick, N. & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development 66, 710-722.
[iii] Simmons, R. (2002). Odd girl out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[iv] Simmons, R. (2009). The curse of the good girl: Raising authentic girls with courage and confidence. New York: Penguin Press.
[v] Wiseman, R. (2003) Queen bees and wannabes. New York: Three Rivers Press.
[vi] Homayoun, A. (2013) The myth of the perfect girl. New York: Penguin Press.