Mean Girls: Adolescent Girls and High School Bullying

Writing in response to the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince at a Massachusetts high school this past January, an opinion piece was published in the New York Times this past week about the “myth” of adolescent female violence.

Mike Males, a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and Meda Chesney Lind, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, collaborated on an article that condemns the perpetual myths of young female violence and bullying.

Popular responses to cases about teenage bullying at schools as well as online perpetuate a false mythology of girlhood violence, according to Males and Lind. The culture of adolescent girl-on-girl harassment, fueled by media and entertainment industries, emphasize an “epidemic” of schoolyard bullying that infects the ways parents, educators, and legislators think about female adolescents. The trope of bullying is further pushed in to the popular imagination, according to Lind and Males, via the pop industry of television shows, music, and movies (i.e. Mean Girls) that use the theme of adolescent violence as a regular component of the American high school experience.

When examining the numbers, as Males and Lind have, the reality of teenage violence stands in stark contrast to its representations in news media and pop culture.

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.

In their research they have found that the number of violent cases reported annually about girl-on-girl violence has dramatically decreased in the past few decades.

Rates of murders of and by adolescent girls are now at their lowest levels since 1968 — 48 percent below rates in 1990 and 45 percent lower than in 1975.

Furthermore, it is not just murder rates, but general rates of harassment:

Virtually without exception, surveys show major drops in fights and other violence, particularly relationship violence, involving girls over the last 15 to 20 years. Surveys also indicate that girls are no more likely to report being in fights, being threatened or injured with a weapon, or violently victimizing others today than in the first surveys in the 1970s.

While the violent bullying and subsequent suicide of Phoebe Prince is certainly tragic, it would be disappointing if her experience was misunderstood as just another effect of a rising trend in unchecked teenage female aggression towards one another.

The researchers ask why we are using such isolated incidents to incriminate and police teenage girls, imposing the “myth of mean girls” upon all young women.

The unfortunate result is more punitive treatment of girls, including arrests and incarceration for lesser offenses like minor assaults that were treated informally in the past.

To what extent do we allow either the numbers or incidents of  bullying in schools dictate how we educate and police the youth? As much as bullying and harassment is considered to be a fairly normal part of growing up, Males and Lind show how, in popular fetishizing of singular events or popular representations of teenage girls, our society may be ultimately bullying adolescent girls into a stereotype that is wholly untrue.

Why, in an era when slandering a group of people based on the misdeeds of a few has rightly become taboo, does it remain acceptable to use isolated incidents to berate modern teenagers, particularly girls, as “mean” and “violent” and “bullies”? That is, why are we bullying girls?

Adolescence is a fragile time, to be sure. How we chose to indoctrinate young women into society, in the popular representations of them that we all participate in creating or in how we teach young women to respect each other, clearly has significant effects on the population of women that will be defining the world in the near future. So where do we draw the line between myth and reality of young female cruelty? Or, moreover, how do we teach our daughters and ourselves on the crucial differences between the two?

All quoted material is taken from the article “The Myth of Mean Girls” from The New York Times, publish on April 02, 2010.

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2 comments

  1. tess · December 5, 2010

    You’re nuts if you think this is a myth! I’m both a mother and a teacher. I watched helplessly as my daughter was a victim of “mean girl” behavior and I see it in front of me all the time in my classroom (because I trained myself to be aware of it). I don’t care what your stupid statistics say—IT IS REAL AND IT IS HAPPENING NOW!!

  2. Teacher S · April 11, 2011

    I’m with tess. Not only have I had to deal with the mean girl behavior toward my own daughter. I’ve seen it up close and personal in my classroom on a regular basis. It is very real and very prevalent. With the exception of the three years that I taught in an all-boys school, I have see the female violence and verbal abuse year after year. These girls have no conscience and no regard with who they try to mistreat.

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