Why Are Little Girls So Creepy?

Perfectly happy pre-teen girls often have morbid, dark imaginations. Is something wrong?

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Art by Acacia Sears, who is not a pre-teen girl but does draw custom ponies

At a family reunion in November, a few of my younger cousins and I went for a walk up a snowy hill. I hung back with my eleven-year-old cousin Janey (I’ve changed all the names and a few identifying details of the girls in this story), who wore a pink puffer coat and whose cheeks were bright red. The air was cold — we were in the Smokey Mountains — and the snow was fluffy and slippery. Suddenly we heard a noise like a dog whimpering.

“Is that Hunter?” Janey asked. Hunter was her beloved golden retriever, a sweet dog with big eyes and a tendency to nuzzle.

“It might be,” I said, shrugging. I’m not one for dogs, even nice ones.

“Do you think he’s caught in the fence? He could be stuck on barbed wire!” Janey looked panicked, her eyes wide.

I looked down. We were halfway up the hill, at least, and the top still seemed miles away. “Oh, I’m sure he’s not,” I said. It was true that there were some patches of random barbed wire, rusted remnants from the former owners of this patch of the mountain. But they were mostly buried under fallen limbs and leaves. “Let’s keep going,” I urged Janey. I really didn’t want to turn around.

“Okay,” Janey said, turning around. We walked a few steps. “But if we get down there and Hunter is dead, I’m going to kill you.”

“Kill me?!” I said.

“Yes. I will wait until you have your baby, and then I’ll kill you,” Janey replied.

Minutes before, she had promised to hang back with me because I was pregnant.

“So Janey,” I said, “you’re going to let me live for eight months, and then you’re going to kill me?”

“Yup,” she said, nodding. “And,” she added, “it’s only because I care about this family and want it to go on that I’ll let you live that long.”

Pre-teen girls are totally creepy. Not all of them, and not all the time, but frequently enough that once you start to notice, you see it everywhere. On Tumblr recently, someone shared a story of a girl who lined up miniature horses on her school desk and cut off all their heads, one by one. Another told about a girl who stared at her classmates and whispered eerily. I remember creepiness from my own pre-teen girlhood; I used to play a game with my friend Tina called the Gross Family. The Gross Family, a family of Barbie dolls, was gross in their punishments of children and also gross in how they looked. They had deformities like dinosaur tails. One punishment for the invisibly abnormal Barbies was to walk around naked so that the world would see her tail.

The image of the angelic little girl — pretty, obedient daughters like Mary Ingalls and Sara Crewe — has been challenged before, but usually by her opposite: a malicious, conniving mean girl who will slowly but surely wreck innocent lives. Nasty little girls will twist the invisible pen knife of words into other little girls’ backs, taunting and teasing about clothing, family, or knock-off Silly Bandz until tears flow. In fiction, they are the shiny-faced evil dolls, the Anabelles and Regina Georges who make villainy seem like a refreshing alternative to simpering goodness. In real life, they are bullies.

But evil girls are just the inverted image of saintly little Sara Crewes. Most of the time, they’re not more complex or interesting characters; they’re just foils for the angelic protagonist. Normal girls, though, can be both deeply creepy and very sweet. Literature gives us a glimpse of this with the somewhat rebellious Laura Ingalls, who doesn’t always listen to Pa, Mary Lennox, who keeps the garden secret mostly for her own thrills, and Anne Shirley, who strives mightily to shake up life with her elderly caretakers at Green Gables. Like these characters, my little cousin is a paragon of normalcy, for the most part. Janey will spend hours playing happily with her brother and stepsisters, and listen patiently to a grandparent telling her a story. She’s just a normal, occasionally very violent and morbid child. In this, she’s unlike most fictional characters, but very much like other girls her age.

I had a quiet friend named Lauren who, in fifth grade, was so shy that she was embarrassed to tell me when we first met that she went by “Laurie.” She faithfully responded to “Lauren” even though I was the only one who called her that.

Sitting in the back of music class in our tiny local public school in subdued suburban New Jersey, Lauren drew a picture of the least-loved teacher of the fifth grade. In Lauren’s picture, the teacher had hay for hair. A man stood in it with a pitchfork, setting her hair on fire. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Our music teacher heard us laughing and came back to see what the commotion was. He picked up the piece of paper, and rather than reprimanding Lauren, looked at her in amazement. “I’ve seen things like this before,” he said. “But not usually…” And here he hesitated. “But usually from a boy.” Lauren looked proud and terrified. I laughed.

Around the ages of 9–11, girls’ brains grow at a rapid clip. According to an NIH study, they amass large quantities of grey matter brain cells quickly, brain cells that are whittled away throughout adolescence as the girl becomes an adult. As researcher Dr. Jay Giedd explains, it’s as though the brain were a block of granite, and the extra or unused portions were being chipped off to help it reach its final form. That block of granite forms right around the age that girls seem to be preternaturally creepy.

At the same time, the pre-teen or early tween years are periods of external change. Girls go to middle school, which is more complicated than elementary school in content and form (switching classes, carrying around books). In Beyond the Myths, her book about mother-daughter relationships, Shelley Phillips writes that in school, boys learn to reject femininity, while girls learn to embody it. But at the same time that girls are being trained to police themselves and others for insufficient femininity, they’re encountering metrics of success that don’t allow for “girly” behavior. Nancy Snyderman writes in Girl in the Mirror that girls feel a “conflict” between the way they’re supposed to be — kind, quiet, obedient — and the qualities that are associated with success, like assertiveness and independence.

So while their brains literally explode in production, girls are also grappling with mixed messages about who they are and who they should be. For the first time, perhaps, in their lives, they have the brainspace to play around with these roles. And that is where the creepiness comes in.

A fourth-grader I work with after school named Dana likes to draw pictures of horses. At a recent meeting, after we finished going over a quiz, I peeked over her shoulder at her latest work. “Who’s that?” I asked.

“Feather,” she said. The horse’s fur had a pattern that looked remarkably like feathers. Dana bent back over her work and wrote sentences around the picture. “What are you writing?” I asked, curious.

“It’s Feather’s backstory.” Dana seemed proud — she was just this side of smiling sheepishly — so I could tell she wanted to share it.

“Ooh,” I said. “Can I hear it?”

“Sure!” Dana replied, with a shrug to show that it was no big deal. She began to read, giggling intermittently. “Feather was born in the woods. Her mother died when she was a baby, and on that day, Feather vowed revenge.” Dana looked up at me and I tried to push down my raised eyebrows. “Feather said that she would kill every animal or human who crossed her path.” I laughed and Dana giggled but kept going. “One day, Feather found a piece of fur in the woods, and she braided it into her mane. Then, whenever she killed an animal or a human, she added its teeth to her hairpiece.”

I gaped at her. Dana is sweet and unfailingly polite, the type of student who says she missed me when we skip a week. “Wow,” I said, at a loss.

“That’s Feather!” Dana said, beaming.

Drawing and writing are creative and healthy ways to express feelings. For a long time, there was a heartbreaking display of pictures drawn by children of refugees up in my university’s student union. Pictures of moms and dads holding hands with their children littered the wall, families depicted in front of boats, water, beaches, and guns. Art therapy is used with children with many different emotional issues, and with healthy kids, too. I credit my psychological health to my mother, who always told me to “draw a picture of my feelings” when I was mad. I remember drawing a big man with angry eyes after my brother messed up my craft project. I felt a little better with the monster on paper instead of in my head.

These types of subject — disturbing images that represent what happened to us or how we felt about it — are normal and easy to understand. An angry boogeyman of rage seems like a healthy response to an annoying little brother. Lauren’s burning teacher seems like a slightly outsized version of this — who hasn’t had a teacher whose hair they secretly wish would burn? But Dana’s Feather isn’t in response to anyone or anything. Dana lives in a very healthy, happy home, and she draws Feather and Feather’s friends constantly. She loves them. She even drew me one (there are no errant teeth in its mane).

But these seemingly troubling flights of fancy are actually very explicable. Little girls, just gaining enough grey cells to process their emotions and identities and place in the world, are learning to play with reality in their brains. Just as adults do, they are imagining alternate universes. And, just like adults, their imagination doesn’t always conform to reality. In fact, it’s important for imagination to push the boundaries; as Gerard Jones writes in Killing Monsters (a fascinating read on children and fantasy): “Exploring… what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden… is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality.” Imagining things that aren’t possible is essential to figuring out what is possible.

When Dana and my cousin told me their strange stories, I was totally flabbergasted. I had forgotten my own creepy Barbie games and my friend Lauren’s cartoon. But afterwards, I hoped that I had not seemed too shocked. (I’m sure I did.) When little boys draw violent pictures or tell macabre stories, we don’t find it particularly shocking. In fact, little boys are encouraged to be messy, dirty, even destructive. If you look for “boy’s bedroom” on Pinterest, you will find dozens of word-art canvases and printable posters that say things like “Boy [verb]: noise with some dirt on it,” or that encourage him to “be a little wild,” “turn green (a la Hulk) and smash things,” and “play pirates.” Gerard Jones writes that his mother called him an “adorable barbarian.”

Look up “girl’s room” and you get the female counterpart. “She leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.” “A true princess cleans her room, is nice to her friends, shares her toys, says please and thank you, listens to her parents, dances, is kind and loving, twirls, dreams, says her prayers, sees the good in everything, is quick to say sorry.”

The cultural image we have of boys is a victor, waiting to do great things, and getting his hands dirty along the way. The image we have of girls is of a harmless, sparkly fairy.

Maybe it isn’t that girls are creepy. Maybe it’s that we — adults — are creeped out by their distinctly un-girly actions, the gulf between how we think an ideal girl should behave and how girls really are. Like any children, these girls are still figuring out the limits of reality, and they have not yet learned self-consciousness and self-censorship. They are drawing and saying exactly what they want to draw and say. We expect them to have figured out by now that girls are dainty and nice, but they haven’t cottoned on, or if they have, they don’t care to go along with it.

We don’t fault boys for playing with their counter-factual daydreams. The little-boy versions of creepy actions are so common that we don’t even think about how strange and disturbing they are anymore. We readily give little boys plastic guns to hold each other up in backyard Wild West reenactments, Nerf guns to pretend to kill each other in imitation modern warfare, and black eye patches to pretend they have lost an eye as a pillaging pirate. This is stunningly violent “pretend.” Try imagining it played by a crowd of little girls.

We simply don’t know what to do when we see girls creating their own violent imaginary worlds. These worlds are unfamiliar to us because they are continually seen as fringe behavior, outside the norm. That’s why creepy girls horrify us, confuse us, and make us wonder what is wrong with American pop culture. But the fact that girls don’t conform to our image of them isn’t their problem. It’s ours.

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