The Girl Wars Must End

It’s time we make girl-on-girl cruelty as socially unacceptable as assault

II was 14, maybe 15, babysitting for my friend Eric’s younger sister, Karen. We were watching TV when the phone rang and I heard a man’s voice — not a boy’s, but a man’s, deep and gravelly — say, “Summit Avenue? We know where you are, and we’re coming up to get you.”

Karen looked up from the TV. “Who was that?”

I didn’t want to frighten her, but I wasn’t yet adept at lying to a child, pretending to be confident when I wasn’t. “I don’t know,” I said, then started hurrying around her parents’ house, making sure every window and door was locked. Karen’s father was an architect and her family owned the largest, most contemporary house in town, a sprawling one-story structure made mostly of glass, so even the walls seemed vulnerable.

I had barely completed a circuit of every room, Karen trailing me and demanding to know what I was doing, when the phone rang again, and a man’s voice — not the same man, maybe his accomplice? — repeated: “Summit Avenue? We know where you are, and we’re coming up to get you.”

That was when I realized if even one man showed up and tried to harm us, I could do nothing to prevent him. I picked up the phone and called Karen’s parents at the party they were attending. The next thing I knew, a police car pulled up, lights flashing, with Karen’s parents not far behind.

Once, they pretended to invite me to a party that didn’t exist so they could hide behind the bushes and observe my confusion at finding no other guests.

An hour later, I was safely home in bed. The traumatic part came the next day at school, when my friends taunted me for calling the police in response to what turned out to be their prank phone-call. Apparently, they had persuaded two older boys with deep voices to call Karen’s house and threaten to come up and get us. “But they only called you once,” my girlfriends scoffed. “You lied! You so overreacted! You called the cops!”

The men, in fact, had called us twice. What would have prevented them from walking down Main Street, finding another phone, and prolonging the joke for their own amusement? In what way had I overreacted? Who wouldn’t have been terrified, alone in an all-glass house with an even-younger girl, if two men called and threatened them?

I didn’t rat on my so-called friends — that would have only provoked them to ostracize me more. They had been bullying me for the past two years, making fun of me for carrying my books at my hip, like a boy, instead of across my chest, like a girl, for raising my hand too often in class, for scoring too high on our exams, for wearing my jeans too short, with white socks and loafers instead of dark socks and shit-kickers. They invented an entire secret language to mock my phoniness (well, maybe I was a phony, twisting myself into whatever shape they wanted me to conform to). They played tricks on me at sleepover parties, unless they neglected to invite me at all. Once, they pretended to invite me to a party that didn’t exist so they could hide behind the bushes and observe my confusion at finding no other guests.

I had no grown-ups to advise me. On my own, I wasn’t wise enough to pretend I didn’t care or to seek out other girls who would have made better friends. The best I could do was remove the perpetrators’ photos from my paisley-covered album, flip them to reveal the avowals of eternal love penned across the backs, and scrawl TRAITOR across every one.

Why am I bringing this up now, when I am 62 years old, happy and successful, with a dozen female friends so genuinely devoted to my well-being they would risk their lives to save mine, as I would risk my life to save theirs? Why, at 62, am I still going on and on about that junior high bullying to my therapist?

I’ll tell you why. Because every time one of those female friends calls or emails me, I’m convinced she is about to tell me that she has despised me all along, or confide that one of our mutual friends is dropping me. I’m bringing up the bullying I endured in junior high because even today, no matter how stylishly I dress, no matter how thin or fit I am, no matter how much money I have spent to get my hair colored and styled, I feel like that gawky seventh-grader whose jeans were too short, whose shag haircut was not the right kind of shag haircut, who carried her books like a boy, who was despicably phony, who got caught laughing at jokes whose punchlines turned out to be nonsensical, who opened the door to a party that wasn’t an actual party, at which she turned out to be the only guest.

Girls aren’t inherently mean. They strike out at others to protect their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

I fully support the #MeToo movement. I’ve been hit upon by men I didn’t want to touch me, sexually assaulted by a fellow boarder, held back and undervalued in my attempt to become a physicist and, later, a writer and a professor. But in junior high and high school, the boys were far kinder to me than the girls. They didn’t actively gang up on me or make complicated plans to treat me cruelly. One boy imitated the way I danced — and then apologized. The most popular boys wouldn’t date me. But more than a few were happy to be my friend.

Girls don’t grow up expecting boys to be their allies. But when the girls who have been your closest friends since kindergarten suddenly betray you, when no one in your group seems willing to stand up and protest the bullying, when your parents and teachers can’t seem to help (“girls will be girls,” “even grown-up women act catty to one another, you had better get used to that behavior now”), it can be difficult to maintain your faith in womankind. The distorted reflection of who you are — too fat, too thin, too stupid, too smart, too bosomy, too flat-chested, too much of a prude or too eager to give a blow job — remains captured in the mirror for the remainder of your life, no matter what image you layer over it.

I can barely imagine how much more confident I would be today if my female friends, instead of making me hate everything about myself, had loved and supported me, as I would have loved and supported them.

The insults, the pranks, can even bounce back to scar the bullies. Maybe not the ringleaders. Randy, one of the two girls who goaded my friends to turn against me, ended up putting her skills to good use by opening a trendy restaurant in Los Angeles and deciding who might or might not be famous enough to be admitted. But several of my former classmates deeply regret having taken part in all that bullying. One friend beats herself up so badly I wish I could convince her that I long ago absolved her of any guilt.

Besides, I am ashamed of how I ignored or condescended to the kids who no doubt felt excluded from the clique that was tormenting me — the poor kids, the gay kids, the black kids, the disabled kids, the Hispanic and Asian kids, of whom there were very few. And because of all that bullying, I ended up a far kinder, more empathetic person than I otherwise would have been.

But at what cost? Couldn’t I have learned to be a better person without programming myself to rehearse everything I said and did before I said or did it? I consider myself a radical feminist, and yet I was thrilled when I gave birth to a son because I couldn’t bear to watch a daughter endure what I endured in junior high school.

The problem remains pervasive: 23% of girls report being bullied by their peers, as compared to 19% for boys. If anything, girl-on-girl bullying seems more pernicious now than it did in the 1970s. With the advent of social media, insults and rumors can be broadcast to a far wider, nastier, and more anonymous audience. I was punished for earning good grades, but girls today are supposed to do well in school — without appearing to be too nerdy. They are urged to be outstanding athletes, to succeed in traditionally male occupations, to be ambitious and assertive, all while hiding any sign of anger or aggression. My friends and I were rebelling against our mothers, which meant we didn’t wear makeup and slouched around in jeans and T-shirts; today, a girl needs to be as sexy and fashionable as a pop star.

Girls find themselves experiencing powerful new emotions — jealousy, desire, loneliness, fear, and hatred of their changing bodies — while receiving crazily conflicting messages about what a girl should or shouldn’t do to become popular, successful, beautiful, or desired. Not only are girls still raised to think they need to compete for boys, they can now also watch reality TV shows on which women vie for the favors of men in far more manipulative ways than the characters on the soap operas my grandmother watched.

The causes of female bullying are complicated, with added complexities due to race, religion, social class, and gender preference. But researchers such as Charisse Nixon, Cheryl Dellasega, and Rachel Simmons have demonstrated that the harms of “relational aggression” — when bullies damage a victim’s social status or relationships — are lasting and significant. Girls aren’t inherently mean. They strike out at others to protect their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, or because they are being bullied at home, or because they are terrified of losing what little power or popularity they have managed to attain. Maybe girls who are bullied won’t come back with an AK-47 and mow down their tormentors. But they will turn their hatred against themselves and feel the reverberations of those insults, those pranks, those weeks and months of enforced silence and isolation, for the remainder of their lives.

We need to enlist girls themselves in turning cruelty toward other girls into an activity as uncool as smoking a cigarette or contributing to global warming.

We need to educate girls about the harmful effects of relational aggression and alternatives for working out their differences. We need to convince girls who are neither ringleaders nor victims to refuse to take part in shunning. As with most forms of abuse, we need to help victims overcome their instinct to blame themselves, to think they are the only ones who have been the targets of cruelty or betrayal. We need to train parents, teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, and principals to recognize girl-on-girl bullying and intervene without sparking reprisals or making the victim feel she has done something to provoke her attackers (“if only you would lose a few pounds,” “if only you wouldn’t be so bossy”). We need to help mothers respond to their daughters’ pain without being overwhelmed by their flashbacks to seventh grade or refusing to believe their own daughters might be the bullies. We need to boycott television shows that portray women as lying, manipulative harridans who are always in competition with one another and will do anything to win the affections of a bachelor who might or might not marry them.

Most of all, we need to enlist girls themselves in turning cruelty toward other girls into an activity as uncool as smoking a cigarette or contributing to global warming. The power of a recent video comes not from some expert lecturing about the deleterious effects of relational aggression, but from girls of every shape and shade speaking about the need for young women to be kind to each other, to lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. No one has done more for female friendship than Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, whose characters on Broad City make female friendship seem sexier and more important than hooking up with a guy (ditto Aidy Bryant and Lolly Adefope in the recent Hulu series Shrill).

The protagonist of this summer’s hit movie Booksmart doesn’t realize until the very last day of senior year that she shouldn’t talk smack about other girls. But her nothing-shall-come-between-us bond with her best friend, Amy — their codeword for complete and utter loyalty is “Malala” — would have been as unimaginable to my high-school self as gay marriage, an African-American president, or the internet.

For all that, the movement has barely started. I want to see a day when a clique of girls ganging up on another girl will be as socially unacceptable as a guy snapping a classmate’s bra, a male teacher demanding a female student kiss him, straight kids tormenting gay kids, or one kid calling another kid the N-word. I want one girl cutting another girl with a cruel remark to be viewed with as much horror as that same girl cutting her victim with a knife — whose wound might heal more quickly and leave fewer scars.

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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