Mean Girls

(originally published on The Broadside)

My niece’s daughter had a rough time this summer. A pack of girls she’d been hanging out with suddenly began to exclude her. No one bothered to tell her why.

“I don’t even know what I’ve done to make them act this way,” she announced. “It’s so unfair.”

“It is,” I agreed. “If it makes you feel any better, the same thing just happened to me.”

“To you?” my grandniece asked, astonished. “But you’re . . .”

“Old,” I replied helpfully. “And the women who turned their backs on me are even older than I am.” And, I might have added, liberal, university-educated feminists.

It took me a few months to recognize I’d been struck from mailing lists and excluded from social events by a group of women whose company I’d enjoyed for several years. No one bothered to tell me. By the time I’d traced my “crime” back to suggestions I’d made at a post-event meeting — suggestions I offered carefully but later realized no one wanted to hear— it was too late. I’d been cast out, rejected, shunned.

In retrospect, it should have been funny. Mature women rejecting mature dialogue in favor of middle school behavior? Please. Who needs friends like that anyway? But it stung.

“Mean Girl Syndrome” has always been a thing. It shouldn’t be a thing today, not when women still have real issues with which they’re struggling and over which they should be bonding. Yet too many of them are turning on each other, unable to rise above their own insecurity about a perceived slight or tantalized by the prospect of flaunting their power over someone else.

A mean girl can be ten or seventy, rich or poor, liberal or conservative. She might be a born-again evangelical or dyed-in-the-wool feminist. She might be a mother whose unkind criticisms diminish her daughter’s self-worth or a group of radical artists piling on a commenter on a chat board. The mean girls, individually or in packs, may be motivated by insecurity or jealousy or, increasingly these days, self-righteousness. They are convinced the individual they’re taunting, berating, bullying or shunning “deserves” her punishment. Maybe they don’t like her behavior, her looks or her attitude. Sometimes they take the moral high road; sometimes they don’t. The attacks, whether passive or aggressive, become about exerting a kind of dominance over the ostracized victims.

Of course men can behave horribly, too; so can anyone along the gender spectrum. After all, we live in an age where campus violence is on the rise and domestic abuse hasn’t been sufficiently reduced, never mind eliminated. Women still suffer in terms of pay equity and institutional representation proportionate to their numbers.

We’d like to imagine women as strong, smart, sensitive, independent and nurturing human beings. Most of my friends fit that description. But human beings are a prickly lot and some women fall prey to their worst impulses. It used to surprise me, maybe because I expected so much of our gender. It no longer does.

In a time when offense is so easily given and easily taken, mean girls thrive. Trolls, once imagined to be socially awkward teens or young men suffering from arrested development, are welcoming females to their ranks. Women are getting more aggressive with their bullying, combining the age-old tactic of verbal abuse with acts of physical violence against their victims. Arguments on public issues devolve into personal attacks. Everyone and everything about them is fair game.

My grandniece will survive being snubbed and so will I. I just hope women learn how to treat each other better. There are lots of ways to demonstrate passion, commitment and dedication. Being mean-spirited isn’t one of them.