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NYTimes.com Article: Girls Just Want to Be Mean

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  • talpianna@aol.com
    This article from NYTimes.com has been sent to you by talpianna@aol.com. I found this fascinating. talpianna@aol.com Girls Just Want to Be Mean February 24,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 2002
      This article from NYTimes.com
      has been sent to you by talpianna@....

      I found this fascinating.


      Girls Just Want to Be Mean

      February 24, 2002


      Today is Apologies Day in Rosalind Wiseman's class -- so,
      naturally, when class lets out, the girls are crying. Not
      all 12 of them, but a good half. They stand around in the
      corridor, snuffling quietly but persistently, interrogating
      one another. ''Why didn't you apologize to me?'' one girl
      demands. ''Are you stressed right now?'' says another. ''I
      am so stressed.'' Inside the classroom, which is at the
      National Cathedral School, a private girls' school in
      Washington, Wiseman is locked in conversation with one of
      the sixth graders who has stayed behind to discuss why her
      newly popular best friend is now scorning her.

      ''You've got to let her go through this,'' Wiseman
      instructs. ''You can't make someone be your best friend.
      And it's gonna be hard for her too, because if she doesn't
      do what they want her to do, the popular girls are gonna
      chuck her out, and they're gonna spread rumors about her or
      tell people stuff she told them.'' The girl's ponytail bobs
      as she nods and thanks Wiseman, but her expression is

      Wiseman's class is about gossip and cliques and ostracism
      and just plain meanness among girls. But perhaps the
      simplest way to describe its goals would be to say that it
      tries to make middle-school girls be nice to one another.
      This is a far trickier project than you might imagine, and
      Apologies Day is a case in point. The girls whom Wiseman
      variously calls the Alpha Girls, the R.M.G.'s (Really Mean
      Girls) or the Queen Bees are the ones who are supposed to
      own up to having back-stabbed or dumped a friend, but they
      are also the most resistant to the exercise and the most
      self-justifying. The girls who are their habitual victims
      or hangers-on -- the Wannabes and Messengers in Wiseman's
      lingo -- are always apologizing anyway.

      But Wiseman, who runs a nonprofit organization called the
      Empower Program, is a cheerfully unyielding presence. And
      in the end, her students usually do what she wants: they
      take out their gel pens or their glittery feather-topped
      pens and write something, fold it over and over again into
      origami and then hide behind their hair when it's read
      aloud. Often as not, it contains a hidden or a
      not-so-hidden barb. To wit: ''I used to be best friends
      with two girls. We weren't popular, we weren't that pretty,
      but we had fun together. When we came to this school, we
      were placed in different classes. I stopped being friends
      with them and left them to be popular. They despise me now,
      and I'm sorry for what I did. I haven't apologized because
      I don't really want to be friends any longer and am afraid
      if I apologize, then that's how it will result. We are now
      in completely different leagues.'' Or: ''Dear B. I'm sorry
      for excluding you and ignoring you. Also, I have said a
      bunch of bad things about you. I have also run away from
      you just because I didn't like you. A.'' Then there are the
      apologies that rehash the original offense in a way sure to
      embarrass the offended party all over again, as in: ''I'm
      sorry I told everybody you had an American Girl doll. It
      really burned your reputation.'' Or: ''Dear 'Friend,' I'm
      sorry that I talked about you behind your back. I once even
      compared your forehead/face to a minefield (only 2 1 person
      though.) I'm really sorry I said these things even though I
      might still believe them.''

      Wiseman, who is 32 and hip and girlish herself, has taught
      this class at many different schools, and it is fair to say
      that although she loves girls, she does not cling to
      sentimental notions about them. She is a feminist, but not
      the sort likely to ascribe greater inherent compassion to
      women or girls as a group than to men or boys. More her
      style is the analysis of the feminist historian Elizabeth
      Fox-Genovese, who has observed that ''those who have
      experienced dismissal by the junior-high-school girls'
      clique could hardly, with a straight face, claim generosity
      and nurture as a natural attribute of women.'' Together,
      Wiseman and I once watched the movie ''Heathers,'' the 1989
      black comedy about a triad of vicious Queen Bees who get
      their comeuppance, and she found it ''pretty true to
      life.'' The line uttered by Winona Ryder as Veronica, the
      disaffected non-Heather of the group, struck her as
      particularly apt: ''I don't really like my friends. It's
      just like they're people I work with and our job is being

      Wiseman's reaction to the crying girls is accordingly
      complex. ''I hate to make girls cry,'' she says. ''I really
      do hate it when their faces get all splotchy, and everyone
      in gym class or whatever knows they've been crying.'' At
      the same time, she notes: ''The tears are a funny thing.
      Because it's not usually the victims who cry; it's the
      aggressors, the girls who have something to apologize for.
      And sometimes, yes, it's relief on their part, but it's
      also somewhat manipulative, because if they've done
      something crappy, the person they've done it to can't get
      that mad at them if they're crying. Plus, a lot of the time
      they're using the apology to dump on somebody all over

      Is dumping on a friend really such a serious problem? Do
      mean girls wield that much power? Wiseman thinks so. In
      May, Crown will publish her book-length analysis of
      girl-on-girl nastiness, ''Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping
      Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and other
      Realities of Adolescence.'' And her seminars, which she
      teaches in schools around the country, are ambitious
      attempts to tame what some psychologists are now calling
      ''relational aggression'' -- by which they mean the
      constellation of ''Heathers''-like manipulations and
      exclusions and gossip-mongering that most of us remember
      from middle school and through which girls, more often than
      boys, tend to channel their hostilities.

      ''My life is full of these ridiculous little slips of
      paper,'' says Wiseman, pointing to the basket of apologies
      and questions at her feet. ''I have read thousands of these
      slips of paper. And 95 percent of them are the same. 'Why
      are these girls being mean to me?' 'Why am I being
      excluded?' 'I don't want to be part of this popular group
      anymore. I don't like what they're doing.' There are lots
      of girls out there who are getting this incredible lesson
      that they are not inherently worthy, and from someone -- a
      friend, another girl -- who was so intimately bonded with
      them. To a large extent, their definitions of intimacy are
      going to be based on the stuff they're going through in
      sixth and seventh grade. And that stuff isn't pretty.''

      This focus on the cruelty of girls is, of course, something
      new. For years, psychologists who studied aggression among
      schoolchildren looked only at its physical and overt
      manifestations and concluded that girls were less
      aggressive than boys. That consensus began to change in the
      early 90's, after a team of researchers led by a Finnish
      professor named Kaj Bjorkqvist started interviewing 11- and
      12-year-old girls about their behavior toward one another.
      The team's conclusion was that girls were, in fact, just as
      aggressive as boys, though in a different way. They were
      not as likely to engage in physical fights, for example,
      but their superior social intelligence enabled them to wage
      complicated battles with other girls aimed at damaging
      relationships or reputations -- leaving nasty messages by
      cellphone or spreading scurrilous rumors by e-mail, making
      friends with one girl as revenge against another, gossiping
      about someone just loudly enough to be overheard. Turning
      the notion of women's greater empathy on its head,
      Bjorkqvist focused on the destructive uses to which such
      emotional attunement could be put. ''Girls can better
      understand how other girls feel,'' as he puts it, ''so they
      know better how to harm them.''

      Researchers following in Bjorkqvist's footsteps noted that
      up to the age of 4 girls tend to be aggressive at the same
      rates and in the same ways as boys -- grabbing toys,
      pushing, hitting. Later on, however, social expectations
      force their hostilities underground, where their assaults
      on one another are more indirect, less physical and less
      visible to adults. Secrets they share in one context, for
      example, can sometimes be used against them in another. As
      Marion Underwood, a professor of psychology at the
      University of Texas at Dallas, puts it: ''Girls very much
      value intimacy, which makes them excellent friends and
      terrible enemies. They share so much information when they
      are friends that they never run out of ammunition if they
      turn on one another.''

      In the last few years, a group of young psychologists,
      including Underwood and Nicki Crick at the University of
      Minnesota, has pushed this work much further, observing
      girls in ''naturalistic'' settings, exploring the
      psychological foundations for nastiness and asking adults
      to take relational aggression -- especially in the sixth
      and seventh grades, when it tends to be worst -- as
      seriously as they do more familiar forms of bullying. While
      some of these researchers have emphasized bonding as a
      motivation, others have seen something closer to a hunger
      for power, even a Darwinian drive. One Australian
      researcher, Laurence Owens, found that the 15-year-old
      girls he interviewed about their girl-pack predation were
      bestirred primarily by its entertainment value. The girls
      treated their own lives like the soaps, hoarding drama,
      constantly rehashing trivia. Owens's studies contain some
      of the more vivid anecdotes in the earnest academic
      literature on relational aggression. His subjects tell him
      about ingenious tactics like leaving the following message
      on a girl's answering machine -- Hello, it's me. Have you
      gotten your pregnancy test back yet?'' -- knowing that her
      parents will be the first to hear it. They talk about
      standing in ''huddles'' and giving other girls ''deaths''
      -- stares of withering condescension -- and of calling one
      another ''dyke,'' ''slut'' and ''fat'' and of enlisting
      boys to do their dirty work.

      Relational aggression is finding its chroniclers among more
      popular writers, too. In addition to Wiseman's book, this
      spring will bring Rachel Simmons's ''Odd Girl Out: The
      Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,'' Emily White's
      ''Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut'' and
      Phyllis Chesler's ''Woman's Inhumanity to Woman.''

      In her book, the 27-year-old Simmons offers a plaintive
      definition of relational aggression: ''Unlike boys, who
      tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently
      attack within tightly knit friendship networks, making
      aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage
      to the victims. Within the hidden culture of aggression,
      girls fight with body language and relationships instead of
      fists and knives. In this world, friendship is a weapon,
      and the sting of a shout pales in comparison to a day of
      someone's silence. There is no gesture more devastating
      than the back turning away.'' Now, Simmons insists, is the
      time to pull up the rock and really look at this seething
      underside of American girlhood. ''Beneath a facade of
      female intimacy,'' she writes, ''lies a terrain traveled in
      secret, marked with anguish and nourished by silence.''

      Not so much silence, anymore, actually. For many school
      principals and counselors across the country, relational
      aggression is becoming a certified social problem and the
      need to curb it an accepted mandate. A small industry of
      interveners has grown up to meet the demand. In Austin,
      Tex., an organization called GENaustin now sends counselors
      into schools to teach a course on relational aggression
      called Girls as Friends, Girls as Foes. In Erie, Pa., the
      Ophelia Project offers a similar curriculum, taught by
      high-school-aged mentors, that explores ''how girls hurt
      each other'' and how they can stop. A private Catholic
      school in Akron, Ohio, and a public-school district near
      Portland, Ore., have introduced programs aimed at rooting
      out girl meanness. And Wiseman and her Empower Program
      colleagues have taught their Owning Up class at 60 schools.
      ''We are currently looking at relational aggression like
      domestic violence 20 years ago,'' says Holly Nishimura, the
      assistant director of the Ophelia Project. ''Though it's
      not on the same scale, we believe that with relational
      aggression, the trajectory of awareness, knowledge and
      demand for change will follow the same track.''

      Whether this new hypervigilance about a phenomenon that has
      existed for as long as most of us can remember will
      actually do anything to squelch it is, of course, another
      question. Should adults be paying as much attention to this
      stuff as kids do or will we just get hopelessly tangled up
      in it ourselves? Are we approaching frothy adolescent
      bitchery with undue gravity or just giving it its due in
      girls' lives? On the one hand, it is kind of satisfying to
      think that girls might be, after their own fashion, as
      aggressive as boys. It's an idea that offers some relief
      from the specter of the meek and mopey, ''silenced'' and
      self-loathing girl the popular psychology of girlhood has
      given us in recent years. But it is also true that the new
      attention to girls as relational aggressors may well take
      us into a different intellectual cul-de-sac, where it
      becomes too easy to assume that girls do not use their
      fists (some do), that all girls are covert in their
      cruelties, that all girls care deeply about the ways of the
      clique -- and that what they do in their ''relational''
      lives takes precedence over all other aspects of their
      emerging selves.

      After her class at the National Cathedral School, Wiseman
      and I chat for a while in her car. She has to turn down the
      India Arie CD that's blaring on her stereo so we can hear
      each other. The girl she had stayed to talk with after
      class is still on her mind, partly because she represents
      the social type for whom Wiseman seems to feel the
      profoundest sympathy: the girl left behind by a newly
      popular, newly dismissive friend. ''See, at a certain point
      it becomes cool to be boy crazy,'' she explains. ''That
      happens in sixth grade, and it gives you so much social
      status, particularly in an all-girls school, if you can go
      up and talk to boys.

      ''But often, an Alpha Girl has an old friend, the
      best-friend-forever elementary-school friend, who is left
      behind because she's not boy crazy yet,'' Wiseman goes on,
      pressing the accelerator with her red snakeskin boot. ''And
      what she can't figure out is: why does my old friend want
      to be better friends with a girl who talks behind her back
      and is mean to her than with me, who is a good friend and
      who wouldn't do that?''

      The subtlety of the maneuvers still amazes Wiseman, though
      she has seen them time and again. ''What happens,'' she
      goes on, ''is that the newly popular girl -- let's call her
      Darcy -- is hanging out with Molly and some other Alpha
      Girls in the back courtyard, and the old friend, let's call
      her Kristin, comes up to them. And what's going to happen
      is Molly's going to throw her arms around Darcy and talk
      about things that Kristin doesn't know anything about and
      be totally physically affectionate with Darcy so that she
      looks like the shining jewel. And Kristin is, like, I don't
      exist. She doesn't want to be friends with the new version
      of Darcy -- she wants the old one back, but it's too late
      for that.''

      So to whom, I ask Wiseman, does Kristin turn in her
      loneliness? Wiseman heaves a sigh as though she's sorry to
      be the one to tell me an obvious but unpleasant truth.
      ''The other girls can be like sharks -- it's like blood in
      the water, and they see it and they go, 'Now I can be
      closer to Kristin because she's being dumped by Darcy.'
      When I say stuff like this, I know I sound horrible, I know
      it. But it's what they do.''

      Hanging out with Wiseman, you get used to this kind of
      disquisition on the craftiness of middle-school girls, but
      I'll admit that when my mind balks at something she has
      told me, when I can't quite believe girls have thought up
      some scheme or another, I devise little tests for her -- I
      ask her to pick out seventh-grade Queen Bees in a crowd
      outside a school or to predict what the girls in the class
      will say about someone who isn't there that day or to guess
      which boys a preening group of girls is preening for. I
      have yet to catch her out.

      Once, Wiseman mentions a girl she knows whose clique of
      seven is governed by actual, enumerated rules and suggests
      I talk with this girl to get a sense of what reformers like
      her are up against. Jessica Travis, explains Wiseman,
      shaking her head in aggravated bemusement at the mere
      thought of her, is a junior at a suburban Maryland high
      school and a member of the Girls' Advisory Board that is
      part of Wiseman's organization. She is also, it occurs to
      me when I meet her, a curious but not atypical social type
      -- an amalgam of old-style Queen Bee-ism and new-style
      girl's empowerment, brimming over with righteous
      self-esteem and cheerful cattiness. Tall and strapping,
      with long russet hair and blue eye shadow, she's like a
      Powerpuff Girl come to life.

      When I ask Jessica to explain the rules her clique lives
      by, she doesn't hesitate. ''O.K.,'' she says happily. ''No
      1: clothes. You cannot wear jeans any day but Friday, and
      you cannot wear a ponytail or sneakers more than once a
      week. Monday is fancy day -- like black pants or maybe you
      bust out with a skirt. You want to remind people how cute
      you are in case they forgot over the weekend. O.K., 2:
      parties. Of course, we sit down together and discuss which
      ones we're going to go to, because there's no point in
      getting all dressed up for a party that's going to be lame.
      No getting smacked at a party, because how would it look
      for the rest of us if you're drunk and acting like a total
      fool? And if you do hook up with somebody at the party,
      please try to limit it to one. Otherwise you look like a
      slut and that reflects badly on all of us. Kids are not
      that smart; they're not going to make the distinctions
      between us. And the rules apply to all of us -- you can't
      be like, 'Oh, I'm having my period; I'm wearing jeans all

      She pauses for a millisecond. ''Like, we had a lot of
      problems with this one girl. She came to school on a Monday
      in jeans. So I asked her, 'Why you wearing jeans today?'
      She said, 'Because I felt like it.' 'Because you felt like
      it? Did you forget it was a Monday?' 'No.' She says she
      just doesn't like the confinement. She doesn't want to do
      this anymore. She's the rebel of the group, and we had to
      suspend her a couple of times; she wasn't allowed to sit
      with us at lunch. On that first Monday, she didn't even
      try; she didn't even catch my eye -- she knew better. But
      eventually she came back to us, and she was, like, 'I know,
      I deserved it.'''

      Each member of Jessica's group is allowed to invite an
      outside person to sit at their table in the lunch room
      several times a month, but they have to meet at the lockers
      to O.K. it with the other members first, and they cannot
      exceed their limit. ''We don't want other people at our
      table more than a couple of times a week because we want to
      bond, and the bonding is endless,'' Jessica says.
      ''Besides, let's say you want to tell your girls about some
      total fool thing you did, like locking your hair in the car
      door. I mean, my God, you're not going to tell some
      stranger that.''

      For all their policing of their borders, they are fiercely
      loyal to those who stay within them. If a boy treats one of
      them badly, they all snub him. And Jessica offers another
      example: ''One day, another friend came to school in this
      skirt from Express -- ugliest skirt I've ever seen -- red
      and brown plaid, O.K.? But she felt really fabulous. She
      was like, Isn't this skirt cute? And she's my friend, so of
      course I'm like, Damn straight, sister! Lookin' good! But
      then, this other girl who was in the group for a while
      comes up and she says to her: 'Oh, my God, you look so
      stupid! You look like a giant argyle sock!' I was like,
      'What is wrong with you?'''

      Jessica gets good grades, belongs to the B'nai B'rith Youth
      Organization and would like, for no particular reason, to
      go to Temple University. She plays polo and figure-skates,
      has a standing appointment for a once-a-month massage and
      ''cried from the beginning of 'Pearl Harbor' till I got
      home that night.'' She lives alone with her 52-year-old
      mother, who was until January a consultant for Oracle. She
      is lively and loquacious and she has, as she puts it, ''the
      highest self-esteem in the world.'' Maybe that's why she
      finds it so easy to issue dictums like: ''You cannot go out
      with an underclassman. You just cannot -- end of story.'' I
      keep thinking, when I listen to Jessica talk about her
      clique, that she must be doing some kind of self-conscious
      parody. But I'm fairly sure she's not.

      On a bleary December afternoon, I attend one of Wiseman's
      after-school classes in the Maryland suburbs. A public
      middle school called William H. Farquhar has requested the
      services of the Empower Program. Soon after joining the
      class, I ask the students about a practice Wiseman has told
      me about that I find a little hard to fathom or even to
      believe. She had mentioned it in passing -- You know how
      the girls use three-way calling'' -- and when I professed
      puzzlement, explained: ''O.K., so Alison and Kathy call up
      Mary, but only Kathy talks and Alison is just lurking there
      quietly so Mary doesn't know she's on the line. And Kathy
      says to Mary, 'So what do you think of Alison?' And of
      course there's some reason at the moment why Mary doesn't
      like Alison, and she says, Oh, my God, all these nasty
      things about Alison -- you know, 'I can't believe how she
      throws herself at guys, she thinks she's all that, blah,
      blah, blah.' And Alison hears all this.''

      Not for the first time with Wiseman, I came up with one of
      my lame comparisons with adult life: ''But under normal
      circumstances, repeating nasty gossip about one friend to
      another is not actually going to get you that far with your

      ''Yeah, but in Girl World, that's currency,'' Wiseman
      responded. ''It's like: Ooh, I have a dollar and now I'm
      more powerful and I can use this if I want to. I can
      further myself in the social hierarchy and bond with the
      girl being gossiped about by setting up the conference call
      so she can know about it, by telling her about the gossip
      and then delivering the proof.''

      In the classroom at Farquhar, eight girls are sitting in a
      circle, eating chips and drinking sodas. All of them have
      heard about the class and chosen to come. There's Jordi
      Kauffman, who is wearing glasses, a fleece vest and
      sneakers and who displays considerable scorn for socially
      ambitious girls acting ''all slutty in tight clothes or all
      snotty.'' Jordi is an honor student whose mother is a
      teacher and whose father is the P.T.A. president. She's the
      only one in the class with a moderately sarcastic take on
      the culture of American girlhood. ''You're in a bad mood
      one day, and you say you feel fat,'' she remarks, ''and
      adults are like, 'Oh-oh, she's got poor self-esteem, she's
      depressed, get her help!'''

      Next to Jordi is her friend Jackie, who is winsome and
      giggly and very pretty. Jackie seems more genuinely
      troubled by the loss of a onetime friend who has been
      twisting herself into an Alpha Girl. She will later tell us
      that when she wrote a heartfelt e-mail message to this
      former friend, asking her why she was ''locking her out,''
      the girl's response was to print it out and show it around
      at school.

      On the other side of the room are Lauren and Daniela,
      who've got boys on the brain, big time. They happily
      identify with Wiseman's negative portrayal of ''Fruit-Cup
      Girl,'' one who feigns helplessness -- in Wiseman's
      example, by pretending to need a guy to open her pull-top
      can of fruit cocktail -- to attract male attention. There's
      Courtney, who will later say, when asked to write a letter
      to herself about how she's doing socially, that she can't,
      because she ''never says anything to myself about myself.''
      And there's Kimberly, who will write such a letter
      professing admiration for her own ''natural beauty.''

      They have all heard of the kind of three-way call Wiseman
      had told me about; all but two have done it or had it done
      to them. I ask if they found the experience useful. ''Not
      always,'' Jordi says, ''because sometimes there's something
      you want to hear but you don't hear. You want to hear, 'Oh,
      she's such a good person' or whatever, but instead you
      hear, 'Oh, my God, she's such a bitch.'''

      I ask if boys ever put together three-way calls like that.
      ''Nah,'' Jackie says. ''I don't think they're smart

      Once the class gets going, the discussion turns, as it
      often does, to Jackie's former friend, the one who's been
      clawing her way into the Alpha Girl clique. In a strange
      twist, this girl has, as Daniela puts it, ''given up her
      religion'' and brought a witch's spell book to school.

      ''That's weird,'' Wiseman says, ''because usually what
      happens is that the girls who are attracted to that are
      more outside-the-box types -- you know, the depressed girls
      with the black fingernails who are always writing poetry --
      because it gives them some amount of power. The girl you're
      describing sounds unconfident; maybe she's looking for
      something that makes her seem mysterious and powerful. If
      you have enough social status, you can be a little bit
      different. And that's where she's trying to go with this --
      like, I am so in the box that I'm defining a new box.''

      Jackie interjects, blushing, with another memory of her
      lost friend. ''I used to tell her everything,'' she
      laments, ''and now she just blackmails me with my

      ''Sounds like she's a Banker,'' Wiseman says. ''That means
      that she collects information and uses it later to her

      ''Nobody really likes her,'' chimes in Jordi. ''She's like
      a shadow of her new best friend, a total Wannabe. Her new
      crowd's probably gonna be like, 'Take her back,

      ''What really hurts,'' Jackie persists, ''is that it's like
      you can't just drop a friend. You have to dump on them,

      ''Yeah, it's true,'' Jordi agrees matter-of-factly. ''You
      have to make them really miserable before you leave.''

      After class, when I concede that Wiseman was right about
      the three-way calling, she laughs. ''Haven't I told you
      girls are crafty?'' she asks. ''Haven't I told you girls
      are evil?''

      It may be that the people most likely to see such
      machinations clearly are the former masters of them.
      Wiseman's anthropological mapping of middle-school society
      -- the way she notices and describes the intricate rituals
      of exclusion and humiliation as if they were a Balinese
      cockfight -- seems to come naturally to her because she
      remembers more vividly than many people do what it was like
      to be an adolescent insider or, as she puts it, ''a
      pearls-and-tennis-skirt-wearing awful little snotty girl.''

      It was different for me. When I was in junior high in the
      70's -- a girl who was neither a picked-on girl nor an
      Alpha Girl, just someone in the vast more-or-less dorky
      middle at my big California public school -- the mean girls
      were like celebrities whose exploits my friends and I
      followed with interest but no savvy. I sort of figured that
      their caste was conferred at birth when they landed in
      Laurelwood -- the local hillside housing development
      peopled by dentists and plastic surgeons -- and were given
      names like Marcie and Tracie. I always noticed their pretty
      clothes and haircuts and the smell of their green-apple gum
      and cherry Lip Smackers and their absences from school for
      glamorous afflictions like tennis elbow or skiing-related
      sunburns. The real Queen Bees never spoke to you at all,
      but the Wannabes would sometimes insult you as a passport
      to popularity. There was a girl named Janine, for instance,
      who used to preface every offensive remark with the phrase
      ''No offense,'' as in ''No offense, but you look like a
      woofing dog.'' Sometimes it got her the nod from the Girl
      World authorities and sometimes it didn't, and I could
      never figure out why or why not.

      Which is all to say that to an outsider, the Girl World's
      hard-core social wars are fairly distant and opaque, and to
      somebody like Wiseman, they are not. As a seventh grader at
      a private school in Washington, she hooked up with ''a very
      powerful, very scary group of girls who were very fun to be
      with but who could turn on you like a dime.'' She became an
      Alpha Girl, but she soon found it alienating. ''You know
      you have these moments where you're like, 'I hate this
      person I've become; I'm about to vomit on myself'? Because
      I was really a piece of work. I was really snotty.''

      When I ask Wiseman to give me an example of something
      wicked that she did, she says: ''Whoa, I'm in such denial
      about this. But O.K., here's one. When I was in eighth
      grade, I spread around a lie about my best friend, Melissa.
      I told all the girls we knew that she had gotten together,
      made out or whatever, with this much older guy at a family
      party at our house. I must have been jealous -- she was
      pretty and getting all this attention from guys. And so I
      made up something that made her sound slutty. She
      confronted me about it, and I totally denied it.''

      Wiseman escaped Girl World only when she headed off to
      California for college and made friends with ''people who
      didn't care what neighborhood I came from or what my
      parents did for a living.'' After majoring in political
      science, she moved back to Washington, where she helped
      start an organization that taught self-defense to women and
      girls. ''I was working with girls and listening to them,
      and again and again, before it was stories about boys, it
      was stories about girls and what they'd done to them. I'd
      say talk to me about how you're controlling each other, and
      I wrote this curriculum on cliques and popularity. That's
      how it all got started.''

      Wiseman's aim was to teach classes that would, by analyzing
      the social hierarchy of school, help liberate girls from
      it. Girls would learn to ''take responsibility for how they
      treat each other,'' as Wiseman's handbook for the course
      puts it, ''and to develop strategies to interrupt the cycle
      of gossip, exclusivity and reputations.'' Instructors would
      not let comments like ''we have groups but we all get
      along'' stand; they would deconstruct them, using analytic
      tools familiar from the sociology of privilege and from
      academic discourse on racism. ''Most often, the 'popular'
      students make these comments while the students who are not
      as high in the social hierarchy disagree. The comments by
      the popular students reveal how those who have privilege
      are so accustomed to their power that they don't recognize
      when they are dominating and silencing others.'' Teachers
      would ''guide students to the realization that most girls
      don't maliciously compete or exclude each other, but within
      their social context, girls perceive that they must compete
      with each other for status and power, thus maintaining the
      status system that binds them all.''

      The theory was sober and sociological, but in the hands of
      Wiseman, the classes were dishy and confessional, enlivened
      by role-playing that got the girls giggling and by
      Wiseman's knowing references to Bebe jackets, Boardwalk
      Fries and 'N Sync. It was a combination that soon put
      Wiseman's services in high demand, especially at some of
      the tonier private schools in the Washington area.

      ''I was just enthralled by her,'' says Camilla Vitullo, who
      as a headmistress at the National Cathedral School in 1994
      was among the first to hire Wiseman. ''And the girls
      gobbled up everything she had to say.'' (Vitullo, who is
      now at the Spence School in Manhattan, plans to bring
      Wiseman there.) Soon Wiseman's Empower Program, which also
      teaches courses on subjects like date rape, was getting big
      grants from the Liz Claiborne Foundation and attracting the
      attention of Oprah Winfrey, who had Wiseman on her show
      last spring.

      Wiseman has been willing to immerse herself in Girl World,
      and it has paid off. (Out of professional necessity, she
      has watched ''every movie with Kirsten Dunst or Freddie
      Prinze Jr.'' and innumerable shows on the WB network.) But
      even if it weren't her job, you get the feeling she would
      still know more about all that than most adults do. She
      senses immediately, for example, that when the girls in her
      Farquhar class give her a bottle of lotion as a thank-you
      present, she is supposed to open it on the spot and pass it
      around and let everybody slather some on. (''Ooh, is it
      smelly? Smelly in a good way?'') When Wiseman catches sight
      of you approaching, she knows how to do a little
      side-to-side wave, with her elbow pressed to her hip, that
      is disarmingly girlish. She says ''totally'' and ''omigod''
      and ''don't stress'' and ''chill'' a lot and refers to
      people who are ''hotties'' or ''have it goin' on.'' And
      none of it sounds foolish on her yet, maybe because she
      still looks a little like a groovy high-schooler with her
      trim boyish build and her short, shiny black hair and her
      wardrobe -- picked out by her 17-year-old sister, Zoe --
      with its preponderance of boots and turtlenecks and flared

      Zoe. Ah, Zoe. Zoe is a bit of a problem for the whole
      Reform of Girl World project, a bit of a fly in the
      ointment. For years, Wiseman has been working on her, with
      scant results. Zoe, a beauty who is now a senior at
      Georgetown Day School, clearly adores her older sister but
      also remains skeptical of her enterprise. ''She's always
      telling me to look inside myself and be true to myself --
      things I can't do right now because I'm too shallow and
      superficial'' is how Zoe, in all her Zoe-ness, sums up
      their differences.

      Once I witnessed the two sisters conversing about a party
      Zoe had given, at which she was outraged by the appearance
      of freshman girls -- and not ugly, dorky ones, either!
      Pretty ones!''

      ''And what exactly was the problem with that?'' Wiseman

      ''If you're gonna be in high school,'' Zoe replied, with an
      attempt at patience, ''you have to stay in your place. A
      freshman girl cannot show up at a junior party; disgusting
      14-year-old girls with their boobs in the air cannot show
      up at your party going'' -- her voice turned breathy -- Uh,
      hi, where's the beer?''

      Wiseman wanted to know why Zoe couldn't show a little
      empathy for the younger girls.

      ''No matter what you say in your talks and your little
      motivational speeches, Ros, you are not going to change how
      I feel when little girls show up in their little outfits at
      my party. I mean, I don't always get mad. Usually I don't
      care enough about freshmen to even know their names.''

      Wiseman rolled her eyes.

      ''Why would I know their names?
      Would I go out of my way to help freshmen? Should I be
      saying, 'Hey, I just want you to know that I'm there for
      you'? Would that make ya happy, Ros? Maybe in some perfect
      Montessori-esque, P.C. world, we'd all get along. But there
      are certain rules of the school system that have been set
      forth from time immemorial or whatever.''

      ''This,'' said Wiseman, ''is definitely a source of tension
      between us.''

      A little over a month after the last class at Farquhar, I
      go back to the school to have lunch with Jordi and Jackie.
      I want to know what they've remembered from the class, how
      it might have affected their lives. Wiseman has told me
      that she will sometimes get e-mail messages from girls at
      schools where she has taught complaining of recidivism:
      ''Help, you have to come back! We're all being mean again''
      -- that kind of thing.

      The lunchroom at Farquhar is low-ceilinged, crowded and
      loud and smells like frying food and damp sweaters. The two
      teachers on duty are communicating through walkie-talkies.
      I join Jordi in line, where she selects for her lunch a
      small plate of fried potato discs and nothing to drink.
      Lunch lasts from 11:28 to 11:55, and Jordi always sits at
      the same table with Jackie (who bounds in late today,
      holding the little bag of popcorn that is her lunch) and
      several other girls.

      I ask Jackie what she remembers best about Wiseman's class,
      and she smiles fondly and says it was the ''in and out of
      the box thing -- who's cool and who's not and why.''

      I ask Jordi if she thought she would use a technique
      Wiseman had recommended for confronting a friend who had
      weaseled out of plans with her in favor of a more popular
      girl's invitation. Wiseman had suggested sitting the old
      friend down alone at some later date, ''affirming'' the
      friendship and telling her clearly what she wanted from
      her. Jordi had loved it when the class acted out the scene,
      everybody hooting and booing at the behavior of the
      diva-girl as she dissed her social inferiors in a showdown
      at the food court. But now, she tells me that she found the
      exercise ''kind of corny.'' She explains: ''Not many people
      at my school would do it that way. We'd be more likely just
      to battle it out on the Internet when we got home.'' (Most
      of her friends feverishly instant-message after school each
      afternoon.) Both girls agree that the class was fun,
      though, and had taught them a lot about popularity.

      Which, unfortunately, wasn't exactly the point. Wiseman
      told me once that one hazard of her trade is that girls
      will occasionally go home and tell their moms that they
      were in a class where they learned how to be popular. ''I
      think they're smarter than that, and they must just be
      telling their moms that,'' she said. ''But they're such
      concrete thinkers at this age that some could get

      I think Wiseman's right -- most girls do understand what
      she's getting at. But it is also true that in paying such
      close attention to the cliques, in taking Queen Bees so
      very seriously, the relational-aggression movement seems to
      grant them a legitimacy and a stature they did not have
      when they ruled a world that was beneath adult radar.

      Nowadays, adults, particularly in the upper middle classes,
      are less laissez-faire about children's social lives. They
      are more vigilant, more likely to have read books about
      surviving the popularity wars of middle school or dealing
      with cliques, more likely to have heard a talk or gone to a
      workshop on those topics. Not long ago, I found myself at a
      lecture by the best-selling author Michael Thompson on
      ''Understanding the Social Lives of our Children.'' It was
      held inside the National Cathedral on a chilly Tuesday
      evening in January, and there were hundreds of people in
      attendance -- attractive late-40's mothers in cashmere
      turtlenecks and interesting scarves and expensive haircuts,
      and graying but fit fathers -- all taking notes and lining
      up to ask eager, anxious questions about how best to ensure
      their children's social happiness. ''As long as education
      is mandatory,'' Thompson said from the pulpit, ''we have a
      huge obligation to make it socially safe,'' and heads
      nodded all around me. He made a list of ''the top three
      reasons for a fourth-grade girl to be popular,'' and
      parents in my pew wrote it down in handsome little leather
      notebooks or on the inside cover of Thompson's latest book,
      ''Best Friends, Worst Enemies.'' A red-haired woman with a
      fervent, tremulous voice and an elegant navy blue suit said
      that she worried our children were socially handicapped by
      ''a lack of opportunities for unstructured cooperative
      play'' and mentioned that she had her 2-year-old in a
      science class. A serious-looking woman took the microphone
      to say that she was troubled by the fact that her daughter
      liked a girl ''who is mean and controlling and once wrote
      the word murder on the bathroom mirror -- and this is in a
      private school!''

      I would never counsel blithe ignorance on such matters --
      some children are truly miserable at school for social
      reasons, truly persecuted and friendless and in need of
      adult help. But sometimes we do seem in danger of
      micromanaging children's social lives, peering a little too
      closely. Priding ourselves on honesty in our relationships,
      as baby-boomer parents often do, we expect to know
      everything about our children's friendships, to be hip to
      their social travails in a way our own parents, we thought,
      were not. But maybe this attention to the details can
      backfire, giving children the impression that the transient
      social anxieties and allegiances of middle school are
      weightier and more immutable than they really are. And if
      that is the result, it seems particularly unfortunate for
      girls, who are already more mired in the minutiae of
      relationships than boys are, who may already lack, as
      Christopher Lasch once put it, ''any sense of an impersonal
      order that exists independently of their wishes and
      anxieties'' and of the ''vicissitudes of relationships.''

      I think I would have found it dismaying if my middle school
      had offered a class that taught us about the wiles of
      Marcie and Tracie: if adults studied their folkways, maybe
      they were more important than I thought, or hoped. For me,
      the best antidote to the caste system of middle school was
      the premonition that adults did not usually play by the
      same rigid and peculiar rules -- and that someday,
      somewhere, I would find a whole different mattering map, a
      whole crowd of people who read the same books I did and
      wouldn't shun me if I didn't have a particular brand of
      shoes. When I went to college, I found it, and I have never
      really looked back.

      And the Queen Bees? Well, some grow out of their girly
      sense of entitlement on their own, surely; some channel it
      in more productive directions. Martha Stewart must have
      been a Q.B. Same with Madonna. At least one of the Q.B.'s
      from my youth -- albeit the nicest and smartest one -- has
      become a pediatrician on the faculty of a prominent medical
      school, I noticed when I looked her up the other day. And
      some Queen Bees have people who love them -- dare I say it?
      -- just as they are, a truth that would have astounded me
      in my own school days but that seems perfectly natural now.

      On a Sunday afternoon, I have lunch with Jessica Travis and
      her mother, Robin, who turns out to be an outgoing,
      transplanted New Yorker -- born in Brighton Beach, raised
      in Sheepshead Bay.'' Over white pizza, pasta, cannoli and
      Diet Cokes, I ask Robin what Jessica was like as a child.

      ''I was fabulous,'' Jessica says.

      ''She was,'' her mother
      agrees. ''She was blond, extremely happy, endlessly curious
      and always the leader of the pack. She didn't sleep because
      she didn't want to miss anything. She was just a bright,
      shiny kid. She's still a bright, shiny kid.''

      After Jessica takes a call on her pumpkin-colored
      cellphone, we talk for a while about Jessica's room, which
      they both describe as magnificent. ''I have lived in
      apartments smaller than her majesty's two-bedroom suite,''
      Robin snorts. ''Not many single parents can do for their
      children what I have done for this one. This is a child who
      asked for a pony and got two. I tell her this is the top of
      the food chain. The only place you can go from here is the
      royal family.''

      I ask if anything about Jessica's clique bothers her. She
      says no -- because what she calls ''Jess's band of merry
      men'' doesn't ''define itself by its opponents. They're not
      a threat to anyone. Besides, it's not like they're an
      A-list clique.''

      ''Uh, Mom,'' Jessica corrects. ''We are definitely an
      A-list clique. We are totally A-list. You are giving out
      incorrect information.''

      ''Soooorry,'' Robin says. ''I'd fire myself, but there's no
      one else lining up for the job of being your mom.''

      Jessica spends a little time bringing her mother and me up
      to date on the elaborate social structure at her high
      school. The cheerleaders' clique, it seems, is not the same
      as the pom-pom girls' clique, though both are A-list. All
      sports cliques are A-list, in fact, except -- of course''
      -- the swimmers. There is a separate A-list clique for cute
      preppy girls who ''could play sports but don't.'' There is
      ''the white people who pretend to be black clique'' and the
      drama clique, which would be ''C list,'' except that, as
      Jessica puts it, ''they're not even on the list.''

      ''So what you are saying is that your high school is
      littered with all these groups that have their own separate
      physical and mental space?'' Robin says, shaking her head
      in wonderment.

      When they think about it, Jessica and her mom agree that
      the business with the rules -- what you can wear on a given
      day of the week and all that -- comes from Jessica's
      fondness for structure. As a child, her mom says she made
      up games with ''such elaborate rules I'd be lost halfway
      through her explanation of them.'' Besides, there was a
      good deal of upheaval in her early life. Robin left her
      ''goofy artist husband'' when Jessica was 3, and after that
      they moved a lot. And when Robin went to work for Oracle,
      she ''was traveling all the time, getting home late. When I
      was on the road, I'd call her every night at 8 and say:
      'Sweet Dreams. I love you. Good Night.'''

      ''Always in that order,'' Jessica says. ''Always at 8. I
      don't like a lot of change.''

      Toward the end of our lunch, Jessica's mother -- who says
      she herself was more a nerd than a Queen Bee in school --
      returns to the subject of cliques. She wants, it seems, to
      put something to rest. ''You know I realize there are
      people who stay with the same friends, the same kind of
      people, all their life, who never look beyond that,'' she
      says. ''I wouldn't want that for my daughter. I want my
      daughter to be one of those people who lives in the world.
      I know she's got these kind of narrow rules in her personal
      life right now. But I still think, I really believe, that
      she will be a bigger person, a person who spends her life
      in the world.'' Jessica's mother smiles. Then she gives her
      daughter's hair an urgent little tug, as if it were the rip
      cord of a parachute and Jessica were about to float away
      from her.

      Margaret Talbot, a contributing writer for the magazine, is
      a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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