Why Are Some Girls Such Bullies?

CATHY WALKER, Education Consultant

Last weekend I watched Sali Hughes’ impassioned account of the internet bullying she has endured over the past few months. A group of women targeted her online, discrediting, criticising, ridiculing every area of her life.

She says: ‘“Everything was lie upon lie upon lie to the degree that I wouldn’t know who they were discussing for the most of it, had they not constantly used my name.’

The detail she gives is harrowing and appalling: criticisms of her mother, with whom Hughes had a difficult relationship, and who recently died of cancer. Accusations of professional misconduct. Insinuations about her cynical deployment of her children to develop her professional profile.

As Head of House and Head of Sixth Form, I dealt regularly with cases of cyber bullying which included: tagging a shy, slightly chubby teenage boy in a grotesque picture on Facebook of a naked, obese person rolling around on the floor; encouragements on Twitter to ostracise a girl for having a boyfriend; a poll on Instagram encouraging pupils to vote for the Year 9’s ugliest girl, from a shortlist drawn up by the author of the poll. Each case shocked me anew, despite my experience and knowledge of the casual unkindness that can be part of teenage behaviour and mindset.

As a mother of two girls, I have steeled myself since their respective first days of school for the particular girl-on-girl cruelty. It was upsetting, if not surprising, when it reared its ugly head. It wasn’t physical, or overt name-calling. I knew intuitively what it consisted of, having experienced it myself: impossible-to-pinpoint, subtle, undermining behaviour. Social exclusion, a mocking smile and a whisper, words carefully chosen for their double meaning. I don’t claim that my daughters are blameless, or indeed that their ‘adversaries’ were relentlessly cruel – playground banter is infamously nuanced; however, neither girl is swishy-haired, mean girl Regina George, and I would honestly always rather they were the bullied than the bullies.

This brings me back to a question that I contemplate at least once a week. Why are girls so horrible to girls? As a middle-aged woman, I am proud and happy to have a modest network of really lovely female friends. I have invested time to maintain and nurture my friendships and the circle of friends I have gathered from university / work / the school run, are unfailingly kind, supportive, funny, insightful…the kinds of friends who would not seek to undermine you, make you feel silly, divide and conquer, be unkind for the hell of it. When grown women tend to be such excellent friends, champions, fans and allies, how is it that girls can be so awful to each other?

Research carried out by Laurence Owens, Rosalyn Shute and Phillip Slee of Flinders University, Adelaide, found that whilst boys tended to resort to physical aggression, excused for their proclivity for rough and tumble play by virtue of their gender (‘boys will be boys’, after all), girls are more verbally and socially adept at an earlier age, and seek to inflict harm in more subtle ways. The reasons for this include a desire to bring about excitement and experience thrills through creating scandal and gossip. Girls also want to feel they belong to a given peer group, that they identify with others and enjoy the close relationships that inclusion brings. What better way to prove you belong by highlighting someone else who does not? And violence is not an option; Christia Brown of the University of Kentucky points out that since “physical aggression and violence are stereotypically considered masculine behaviours…the violent girl challenges normative gender constructions.” And who wants to stand out for the wrong reasons?

But why, again, do girls feel the need to do this? Could it be the early social conditioning  – still present in kids’ TV programmes,girls’ clothes manufacturers, books targeted at girls  –  to be kind, to be BFFs, to be pretty, and the subsequent frustration that comes with a. not living up to such expectations and b. the desire to break free of this norm? Girls can tend to pick on other girls’ perceived failings to detract from their own unrealistically negative self-image; moreover, another girl is an easy target who exists within the same social confines, making her a more equal match. Girls are less likely to bully boys after all.

Throwing the problems back to the bullying girls in question lies at the heart of what organisations like Girls on Board  and the Rap Project do. Owens, Shute and Slee’s research found that peer mediation was an effective strategy for countering the indirect aggressive behaviour typical of girl-on-girl bullying. This means, to an extent, using the same skills they use to bully. That is, identifying a problem and finding strategies to deal with it within the peer group. Indirect aggressive behaviour can be so subtle that teachers are hard-pressed to define exactly what has happened, and their involvement can serve to muddy the waters and aggravate existing social tensions. Additionally – and this may not come as a surprise – the researchers who observed victims and bullies engaging in peer mediation saw that girls were better able to compromise in resolving their conflicts, since this is “consistent with the social expectations that girls use peaceful, constructive means or resolving conflict. Girls use more listening and reasoning in the interests of preserving harmony within the group.”

I am fortunate enough to be so old that social media pre-dated my school days by a good twenty-five years. You often hear people wish wistfully to be back there, in the full bloom of youth, with your life still ahead of you. No thanks!

I have been 6-foot tall since the age of 14. I had a nasty perm and glasses a bit like Deirdre Barlow. No, I don’t know why either. If my schooldays pre-dated social media, my massive specs also pre-dated hipster chic. In short: the school bullies saw me coming, and actually, looking back at pics of me from that time, I can almost understand why they were as unkind as they were. To quote David Thewlis ruthlessly mocking Ewen Bremner’s tourettes in Mike Leigh’s Naked: ‘you’re practically giving it away!’

Nonetheless, I didn’t have to grapple with any of my gaucheness appearing on social media and for that I am truly thankful. I remember reading Judy Blume’s blueprint school bully story Blubber as a teen myself; I am still struck by how events play out – the cruelty displayed towards an obese girl, for being obese; the subsequent recruitment of her to the bully’s gang; her involvement in the taunting of a different girl; her sense of relief at being out of the line of fire for a short while.

Certainly, as I have grown older, (and, unrelatedly, my glasses have grown smaller), I experience peaceful, constructive behaviour in my peer group, which is also excellent at reasoning and listening – things did get easier and better, as my mum said they would. Shops, publishers, advertisers, TV executives are wising up to the need to stop portraying girls are princesses, BFFs and unicorns. I went to see the Dora (the Explorer) and The Lost City of Gold with my girls yesterday, and its unashamed challenging was excellent. For now, then, I am going to continue to steer my girls away from the BFF display in Claire’s Accessories and hope that the Polly the Peer Mediation Fairy book comes out soon.

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