‘Most women suffer from regret and unresolved feelings about relationships with their female peers. Who doesn’t have a coming-of-age friendship that you lost because you could not fit in or were ostracized because you didn’t go along with the clique? Women can be saccharinely sweet and mean at the same time. A smiling face can be a mask that hides true feelings of spite, hatred, and envy. The stories are many, and the experiences are similar and different, but the emotional scars are the same and can remain unresolved into adulthood, affecting interpersonal relationships with other women. According to Chesler, ‘The routine but unacknowledged betrayals are so traumatic because women rely mainly upon one another for intimate emotional support ‘(pg.54).‘
The culture of girl fighting is how girls behave with each other regarding associations and friendship. A groundbreaking book, Girl fighting: Betrayal and Rejection among Girls, written by Lyn Brown in the early 2000s, spoke to the sociological reasons for it and how a female’s age makes a difference in the development of this culture. The need for acceptance from each other, the fighting, the backstabbing and betrayal, and rejection that goes on among girls within their friendships and the competition that occurs in relationships with the opposite sex. Girls need and want the approval of other girls; as Brown stated, you cannot experience a genuine connection when you are not allowed to have or express familiar human feelings (53).
By the age of six and seven, girls know the need to be a part of a group with friends. The one girl aware of this power will be the leader. The areas where young girls feel the most pressure to act in specific ways to be valued, included, and desired become where they begin to police and fight with other girls (50). Even though the other girls might detest her, she would remain in the group for protection and the desire to belong and feel important.
From later childhood to preadolescence, something miraculous happens between girls. The world of friendship deepens and ripens in genuinely expansive ways ( 68). Harry Stack Sullivan, a psychiatrist, compares this relationship between girls to that of a close intimate relationship with a same-sex friend at this age; it is akin to the first experience of genuine love. At this age, friendship is vital, and young girls have someone to relate to who they share something in common with. They are afraid to be excluded from their friends and would do anything to keep good relations with them. Brown suggests that it could be that girls at this age develop a strong sense of self to cope with the emotional abuse from their friends. Even though they don’t succumb to policing, girls do not want to be excluded intentionally from group activities. Here she says that the type of home the child comes from is very important.
There is the story of Dominique, who was sent to a white school because it was the only choice her mother, Renee, had. Renee said her daughter would do anything to fit in after being excluded from her peers. But Dominique was also banned from her same-race peers because of her fair skin color and long straight hair. The teacher suggested that Dominique and her peers of the same race sit at lunch together, hoping to encourage friendship between the girls, but her mother, Renee, refused, stating that it was much more profound than not getting along. She told the teacher it was the deep-rooted problem black people have had within the race; dark-skinned versus light-skinned girls. Eventually, Dominque and the girls went in the same class; they still did not like her or talk to her, but her mother said she was alright with it, and Dominque understood what the root of the problem was; and seemed okay with not being friends with them (70-72). Observing the situation from another angle makes things better.
‘Middle and high school are young women’s most challenging and emotionally trying times. They not only have to deal with being accepted or ostracized from their group, but they also have to deal with being accepted for their physical appearance and body size. They have to deal with the issue of males, regarding boyfriends and their sexual orientation. In the teen years, girls and boys try to identify with their peers and find themselves. It can be an emotional roller coaster for girls in the ‘girl culture ‘ ‘At this stage, girls want to be identified with popular peers and be in a clique. Girls police each other on hairstyles, dress, body weight, and girl companions; popularity counts. They would make fun of and ridicule ”the others” to maintain power and create fear. Some girls would change their whole persona to fit in and be accepted by those they deem as the ”in a crowd,’ but it comes with a price.’
Sara, a twenty-year-old college student, recounts her story of how when she was in the fourth grade, she discovered that popularity meant friend security and the envy of peers (11). She began to associate with the popular girls, worked her way slowly and quietly, and took a back seat to the ‘leaders’ of the group. She dressed, walked, and talked like them; she was popular by the fifth grade. She referred to it as being ‘there’ and made sacrifices along the way, taking her allowance to buy designer clothes and refusing to do anything that was not ‘cool.’ Sara went as far as to sleep at her friend’s house, whom she called strangers, and was uncomfortable because of the status difference.
‘She put down others to ensure her place at the top, talking behind her friends’ backs. She became hated by girls within her group, who didn’t show it, and girls in their class. Eventually, she took the role of leader and became meaner to maintain her leadership role. ” After two years of practice at being just the right amount of nasty,; I convinced everyone that my life was perfect. Winning the group, I picked one target to put down, seeing in her the goodness and the ability to reveal to the others the type of person I was. She was from a home where her mother had a mental illness, and her father was an alcoholic. Although such things were out of her control, the others followed my lead and teased her as often and harshly as I did. I was successful; she finally left the group’ (12).
When Sara was in the sixth grade, one of her teachers falsely accused her of a misdeed. Because of the type of person she was known to be in the school, everybody believed she did it. Finding this out floored Sara. The jig was up; unbeknownst to her, others had seen and judged. Sara slowly realized her peers despised her; they wanted to be her but hated her. She soon realized they all treated her with respect because they tried to gain popularity by associating with her, but they were all talking about her behind her back. Sara was quickly replaced and became the target, leaving the group. The girls she had once led came back for her with a vengeance. They were still powerful and could convince the entire school to hate her. They ruined her, causing her to miss nineteen school days in the eighth grade. Sara felt she deserved every minute of it. (13).
Girls will shred friends if suspected of stealing or coming on to their boyfriends. They would call each other sluts, and bitches and spread rumors to destroy each other’s character as a form of revenge. Bullying and aggression were once thought only to be known as boys’ issues. But those behaviors, with bickering, deceit, and backstabbing, were everyday aspects of growing up female. Nevertheless, it was considered unworthy of serious scholarly attention (13,14). According to Brown, a few years have made a difference, and studies have advanced on girls and their culture and why fighting, backstabbing, and bullying occur.
Getting girls and young women to speak about and recount their experiences on this issue is one thing, but finding the reasons and ways to change this phenomenon is needed. Our culture encourages women to be competitive in looks, dress, and relationships for men’s affection. One wonders why the culture among girls is any different. Even though they are in the same clique, women would backstab, devalue, and undermine each other to be the most desired. Despising and being vindictive to those considered a threat can also occur in jobs and social organizations. The toxicity of cliques among women is legendary.
In her book Women’s Inhumanity to Women, Phyllis Chesler implores, ‘I would like women to treat each other in good ways.’ Treating each other in good ways is the best solution. It could be significant in changing the behavior among girls in their formative years and healing relationships between adult females. This phrase is overused, but women need to be kind to each other’s feelings and hold each other up instead of wounding their sisters emotionally and tearing them down. Some of this results from the media and cultural perceptions of the female body ideal. Impressionable young girls and women define themselves by what is seen on television and in magazines, highlighting the rightness of white privilege. Others who can’t meet those standards fall short and are ostracized. Class, race, colorism, and money play into this cycle of abuse amongst women. Almira Dalangin, in her article, The Psychology of Mean Girls Cliques, refers to the complicated relationships among women to the psychological term relational aggression. One example is the science among women to cut down and destroy each other with smiles intact.
‘Does acquiring a sense of self’ help in walking away from the toxicity of cliques?’
A sense of self is not the only thing needed to break away from the clique culture. As affirmed by Brown, girls use this as a benefit to avoid policing or to seize leadership of the group. The power of control supersedes losing their identity to the clique they are associated with. Therefore, I believe self-esteem, learned emotional intelligence, and an instilled moral code would help change the harmful and destructive side of the girl culture. Parents should empower their daughters to accept who they are and be comfortable with aspects of their physical characteristics that they cannot change. And be aware that one cannot control how others treat you, but as a person, you can control how you treat others. Bullying, ostracizing, and ill-treatment during primary and high school are never forgotten and wreak havoc on a person’s emotional and mental health.
Brown’s book, from my analysis, is full of strengths in its argument from a sociological perspective. Her study on girls’ fighting culture is groundbreaking, and the call for action in resolving the vindictive behaviors and the issues arising from these behaviors is the right way forward. Addressing society’s perception of defining the female is essential in dealing with right and wrong fighting and affirming positive or negative behaviors amongst girls.
Ladies, what do you think; do you think women will change these behaviors and encourage their daughters to do likewise?
Lyn Brown, (2005). Girl fighting: Betrayal and Rejection among Girls, New York University Press.
Harry Stack Sullivan, (2006). Interpersonal Theory and Psychotherapy. Taylor and Francis.
Phyllis Chesler, (2009). Woman’s Inhumanity to Women, Chicago Review Press.
Dalangin, Presto Almira (2022, October 18). The Psychology of Mean Girls Cliques. Soapboxie.com. https://soapboxie.com/social-issues/The-Psychology-of-Mean-Girl-Cliques