Mean girls have become the problem-with-kids-these-days du jour in the popular imagination, spurred on by bookstore-ready titles like Queen Bees and Wannabes, and See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It. Author Nicole Landry asks whether relational aggression (meanness) in girls is a problem, or merely a media-driven problematization of normal and adaptive behavior.
The Mean Girl Motive appears to be a dissertation. Landry introduces the topic with a discussion of hierarchies in girl culture and the relationship between popularity and power. Drawing on the work of a plethora of feminist scholars and researchers in psychology, sociology, and criminology, Landry presents the idea that individuals who are both female and youth view themselves as the most powerless of people. Issues of class and race further impact the real or perceived power of girls, as do cultural imperatives around ideal versions of femininity.
Landry's own research involved focus-group discussions with girls aged eight to eleven. The girls watched videos that dramatized a variety of social situations to spark conversation and make them feel comfortable sharing their views with the researcher.
Some points made by Landry, via the girls:
· Popularity is the primary avenue to power available to girls
· Popularity (and therefore power) is highly correlated with "desirable" feminine traits, such as white skin, a thin body type, and long, smooth hair
· The ability to attract male attention is another primary status driver
· Girls use meanness to jockey for power and position in the hierarchy of girls, with behaviors such as shunning and humiliating serving to reduce another girl's power
· Popular girls were the most likely to be mean
· Lower status girls were more likely to use niceness to improve their standing in the group
· All girls are subject to constant policing of their femininity, in terms of behavior and appearance, by other girls as well as adults
While the popular literature on the subjects presents meanness as a state of being, Landry views it as a tool in the (rather small and limited) toolbox available to girls to help them navigate their social world. "With few positions available at the top, girls learn to negotiate their status carefully through such mechanisms as gossip, meanness, catfights and word fights. All these mechanisms endorse passive competition among girls for power and male approval without challenging the privileged status of male aggression and dominance."
The girls in the study also point out the double-binding, contradictory expectations placed on minority girls, who are simultaneously expected to suppress aggression to be appropriately female, and use aggression when required to protect themselves and their family members.
Landry concludes that girls' perceptions of issues and problems in girl culture differ markedly from that of adult "experts" who write books about it. She calls for additional research that utilizes the voices of actual girls to illuminate their real needs and provide an avenue for change.
The Mean Girl Motive is a short book but densely written and heavy on footnotes and academic jargon. One wishes the shelves of popular books stores held a more accessible book around a similar theme.
© 2009 Jodi Forschmiedt
Jodi Forschmiedt is a freelance writer and book reviewer in Seattle, Washington.