Survival of the meanest
by Marilyn Smulders - June 22, 2009
Whoever said “girls are sugar and spice and everything nice” has obviously never seen the movie Mean Girls.
In the 2004 movie, Lindsay Lohan plays a home-schooled kid raised in the African bush by zoologist parents who enters public high school for the first time. “Survival of the fittest” takes on a whole new meaning as she tries to find her place among the preps, jocks, nerds, desperate wannabes, burnouts, band geeks, and the meanest species of all – the “Plastics,” the most popular, prettiest, most fashionable girls at school.
There’s something to this scathing portrayal of high school which rings true for researcher Nicole Landry. While obviously satirical, its depiction of popularity, power and meanness is borne out by her research on adolescent girls and how they negotiate playground politics. Her findings, based on her master’s thesis, have just been published in the book, The Mean Girl Motive: Negotiating Power and Femininity (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing).
“Girls are not brought up to be assertive. They’re raised to be nice and pretty and have lots of friends,” says Ms. Landry, a research coordinator with the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine. “But they themselves recognize meanness as an integral part, even a normal part, of their growing up.”
As an undergraduate at Saint Mary’s University searching for a topic for her honour’s thesis, it struck her that girls were excluded from research on childhood aggression, presumably because aggression was thought to be almost exclusively a male phenomenon.
In a society where being rough and tumble is regarded as an important part of being a boy, it is different for girls, who are not taught to express aggression. Instead, hostility and anger are conveyed passively through meanness. As shown in movies, from Mean Girls to Bratz: The Movie and Disney’s Camp Rock, girls tend to bully by gossiping, backstabbing and excluding others from activities.
“Kids are like little adults, but they don’t have the things that we have to give them status and power: a good job, a nice house, wealth. They use meanness as a way of negotiating their place in the hierarchy,” she says.
“It’s what girls do to get by. They need to dress the part and look the part and gather their army of friends around them. Their capital is their friends, their hair, their name-brand clothing – that’s power for them.”
In conducting her research, Ms. Landry met with 24 tween girls, ages eight to 11, split into four focus groups. The majority of the girls, all members of a nonprofit youth organization, came from predominantly working-class families. The majority were white, while one-quarter of the girls were black or mixed race.
Through meetings held over several weeks, Ms. Landry initiated discussion by showing movie clips and pictures and asking questions. Each of the girls was also asked to record her thoughts and feelings in a “reflection journal.”
According to the girls, popularity is affected by class and race; popularity, which is equated with power, is awarded to rich, white girls who can afford the coveted labels but also to white girls from less-well-off families as long as they are pretty.
But one thing the participants stressed about popular girls is that they are always mean; that’s how they maintain their place at the top. At the same time, these popular girls are inundated with rules, about how they must look, behave and who they can associate with. According to the girls Ms. Landry talked to, some of rules for popular girls include: “Always sass everyone;” “Get boys to like you;” and “Whenever you have a chance to make fun of someone else, do it.”
“It was an amazing experience. I had forgotten what it was like to be nine, 10, 11 years old and it all came rushing back,” says Ms. Landry, 27, who grew up near Pictou. “It’s such a frustrating, confusing time for them when they’re really developing their identities. And on top of that, they’re concerned about how they look, their friends, getting a cute boyfriend … it’s all so important.”