Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

‘Mean girls’ really do exist

An op-ed in today’s NYT says that the idea that “mean girls” exist in high schools is a myth. Excerpt:

However, many of the news reports and inflamed commentaries have gone beyond expressing outrage at the teenagers involved and instead invoked such cases as evidence of a modern epidemic of “mean girls” that adults simply fail to comprehend. Elizabeth Scheibel, the district attorney in the South Hadley case, declined to charge school officials who she said were aware of the bullying because of their “lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships.” A People magazine article headlined “Mean Girls” suggested that a similar case two years ago raised “troubling questions” about “teen violence” and “cyberspace wars.” Again and again, we hear of girls hitting, brawling and harassing.
But this panic is a hoax. We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years. Major offenses like murder and robbery by girls are at their lowest levels in four decades. Fights, weapons possession, assaults and violent injuries by and toward girls have been plunging for at least a decade.


This is ridiculous. The entire analysis is built around an examination of crime statistics. The kind of emotional violence mean girls (and mean boys) visit on their victims in high schools does not get reported to police. Almost nothing that was done to me in my high school would have counted as a crime, and I would never have considered calling the police. I’m glad that the crime stats on “mean girl” violence have been going down, but to claim that this means there are no such things as mean girls, or that the school bullying problem more generally is overblown, is not only absurd, it’s potentially dangerous. Phoebe Prince wasn’t murdered by the hands of mean girls. She killed herself, driven to it by the relentless emotional cruelty of mean girls.
I know someone in therapy because of his abusive childhood. He told me once that he kept saying to his therapist that his childhood couldn’t have been abusive, because his father had never hit him. His therapist finally made him see that the relentless emotional cruelty he endured — the yelling, the humiliation, and so forth — had been genuinely abusive. It completely changed his life, what he went through, and he still struggles with it mightily today. And nothing that man’s father did would have shown up on a crime statistics report.

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B. Minich

posted April 2, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Doesn’t the NYT champion crimes that are underreported in other areas? Prime example: domestic violence. They always point out that domestic violence is underreported – which is completely understandable and accurate! Much domestic violence goes unreported, because of fear and other reasons. But you wouldn’t see them write a story that says “well, the crime reports say that domestic violence has been decreasing for years – thus, it it a hoax.” Even if that stat is accurate, it doesn’t tell the whole story! Crime reports may present an interesting data point, and should be taken seriously, but they never tell the whole story.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:00 pm

The kind of emotional violence mean girls (and mean boys) visit on their victims in high schools does not get reported to police.
I’ve often wondered if the total absence of the threat of physical violence may make some kinds of bullying worse among girls. To be sure, boys can be cruel, but there’s a limit to what one young man can say to another without punches being thrown.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I agree the article is nonsense – I went to high school in the late 60’s and there were mean girls then. It seems to me – based on my own high school experiences and my girls and my nieces – that you have these cliques and if any girl somehow exceeds the accomplishments of the group or if any girl decides to take a different path than the group – that girl will be taught a lesson. Brutal enforcement of the herd mentality.
I guess this reporter at the NYT never went to an American high school.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I was the designated target for several “mean girls” in fifth grade. The same year I was also terrorized for a few months by a group of 3rd grade boys (no kidding) one of whom eventually punched me in the stomach in front of the rest of the group. On the front lawn of a house on a block full of at-home moms. I took to taking different routes home and leaving the school through a different door every day to avoid them.
In 1965.
Has something changed?

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I’ll just note how one of the authors of the op-ed piece describes herself:
Meda-Chesney Lind, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, is the co-editor of the forthcoming “Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence.”

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Spot on, Rod. Hard to figure how such a specious analysis made it into the NYT.

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Your Name

posted April 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm

“We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years…”
As soon as you start reading that paragraph, you have to realized these guys are clueless. They seem not to even know what the “mean girls” phenomenon and label is referring to. It’s pretty unbelievable this article was actually published.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Oh, that op-ed is garbage. Get away from the stats and get into the schools and talk to some girls and they would easily discover that girl on girl bullying is alive and well. My daughter suffered from it — picked on by other girls because she was pretty — preyed on by boys because she was pretty — to the point where she felt completely alienated and friendless on some occasions. It turned her high school experience into something horrific and she shudders about it. We pulled her from regular high school midway thru her junior year and I think it was the only thing that saved her.

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Mac S

posted April 2, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Ugh, they missed it by a mile.
A bit of context (perhaps), Meda C-L’s prior work in criminology focused on woman’s issues & female juveniles including the “myth” popular about 10-15 years back about the new breed of female violent offender. Roaming packs of girl gangs were deemed the new REAL crime problem after the “super criminal” myth fizzled out. Some social scientists looked to examine that narrative through actual data on female crime, and found some blips of increased incidence but nothing majorly significant. In most cases, data trumps crime hysteria – think stranger abduction of children.
The argument followed that girls were being demonized/criminalized for not fitting into what society thinks a “proper young lady” should look like. Now, I am just giving some background into her POV, not looking to debate it. She is not a what I consider a hard-core feminist social scientist but she has looked at many female issues/trends regarding the justice system. So, I get what they are reaching for with the whole labeling stigma versus the data but wow, they totally missed the actual issue.
That said, this is an interesting emerging topic for study: non physical bullying, mental terrorism so to speak, and how/if it should be criminalized.

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Anonymous for the moment

posted April 3, 2010 at 12:11 am

Can the term “mean girls” apply to girls who victimize boys? As a bookish, chubby and weak elementary schoolkid, I got tortured by pretty much everybody, and I got it worst from girls. There were some in particular who literally would not allow me to walk away from them — making me cry was their hobby. It wasn’t until they wound up spraying kitchen cleaner in my eyes that finally somebody got involved enough to tell them, unequivocally, stay away from me.
The year? 1987.
And as far as the “abusive” term goes… I dunno. I have an argument going on with one parent over something similar, and I suppose the question is, where is the line between somebody being “abusive” and that person just being the same jackass to you that they are to everybody else, you just happen to be their kid?

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posted April 3, 2010 at 12:39 am

If anything, the problem of mean girls is starting earlier. I was coaching a group of 8 year old soccer players the other day and their cruelty to each other was unbelievable. It reminded me of something I hear Naomi Wolf say once: “Men dominate by aggressing; women dominate by excluding.”

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posted April 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm

If one hits another with a fist, the structure of an arm moves, and pushes against a body. The reaction within the body of one hit results in the mind being aware of pain from the senses.
If one speaks hurtful words, the words travel through the air as vibrations. The ear vibrates from the air, and the mind interprets the words said. Based upon the knowledge of the mind, and the understanding of the words, woe may be felt.
What pain is worse? By the tree of knowledge, and understanding, they can be equal. Cast aside harm, and do good. Nourish those around you. Hate given for hate, arises hate. Discipline is love for those bent on hate.

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posted April 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Great post, Rod. I agree that it is possible that adults, including teachers and school administrators, cannot really have any idea of what is going on “under the radar” in their schools, however, there appear to be plenty of ways for adults to keep better watch on the symptoms that a student is being bullied.
I wasn’t bullied badly in comparison with some, but when I was in 7th grade, I was very small for my age, and some girls in my junior high school thought it was funny to mock my small size. Once, I confessed to my parents in tears that I wasn’t popular.
I thought they might be able to do something about that, but I think it just brought out their own insecurities, and they seemed helpless to do anything or provide any kind of helpful advice. I think that is the problem for many children who are bullied. How many adults are really prepared to cope with information of that sort? For me, the situation was resolved because we moved to another city after that year, and I didn’t have to go back to that school again. I was lucky, and there was no internet to follow me.

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