Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls
by Rachel Simmons
Published by Harcourt Brace
320 pages, 2002
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Reviewed by Deborah Viets
According to 27-year-old New Yorker Rachel Simmons, little Sisters Are Doin' It to Themselves, not for themselves. What they're doing is bullying one another. In her first book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Simmons argues that our society refuses to give young females access to open conflict. They are socialized to be nice above all else, even honesty, she says. As a result their aggression is channeled into nonphysical, indirect, hidden forms. Simmons writes that girls "use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims"; they "fight with body language and relationships instead of fists and knives [as boys do]. In this world, friendship is a weapon, and the sting of a shout pales in comparison to a day of someone's silence." She calls this type of girl on girl bullying "relational aggression" and says it is so insidious that it often goes undetected by teachers and parents, with devastating psychological consequences for the victim.
Simmons claims her book is the first one "devoted to girls and nonphysical conflict." However, this is simply not so. Margaret Atwood explored similar territory in 1988's Cat's Eye. In this novel, Elaine Risley, an established 50-ish painter recalls how she was terrorized by her three best friends, "I consider telling my brother, asking for help," Elaine confesses. "But tell him what exactly? I have no black eyes, no bloody noses to report. ... Against girls and their indirectness, their whisperings, he would be helpless." Indeed, Elaine's observation that "little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized," might well have served as an epigraph for Odd Girl Out.
Although Simmons is certainly not the first to write about schoolgirl cruelty, she treats the subject in a thorough and illuminating manner. Over the course of a year, she spoke to 300 girls from 10 schools across the United States, some with middle-class white student populations, others with students of various races and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The girls ranged in age from 9 to 15. One of the reasons this book is so revealing has to do with the author's strengths as an interviewer. As she explains, her method of discussion involved moving from where the girls led and emphasizing their voices rather than her own. Instead of telling them not to bully and to be nice, like most adults would do, she assumed that many of them could be mean. In this way she was able to draw out not only the victims of bullying but also the aggressors.
In the course of speaking to Simmons about a friendship gone wrong, one bully, named Michelle, revealed the dangerous consequences of girls' repression of their anger. When Michelle first met Erin, she liked her. Erin was pretty and charismatic and, thanks to her popularity, Michelle was accepted into a powerful clique. However, Erin's awareness of her own attractiveness eventually began to annoy Michelle. When she announced that she was drawn to the same boy Michelle had confessed to liking, Michelle's anger grew. Erin soon began to date him. Michelle found herself unable to say anything, explaining that "if you were mad at [Erin] about something, she would turn it around so that it was your fault ... she was the scariest person to have mad at you." Erin then started to compete with Michelle over test scores. Michelle suppressed her resentment. But when she discovered that other girls had had similar conflicts with the popular girl, she mounted a campaign against her friend. The girls flooded Erin's e-mail account with angry messages and soon everyone in the class began to shun her. The warfare lasted for months, damaging Erin so badly that her parents sent her to a psychiatrist, whom she needed to see for two years.
Simmons contends that this incident of bullying and others like it could be avoided if girls were encouraged to acknowledge their aggression. She believes this would empower them to negotiate conflicts and to define relationships in "new and healthier ways." Parents, she says, should show their daughters that conflict-free relationships don't exist. Instead of thinking conflict ends relationships, girls would then learn that they can't survive without it and would not let fear control them. (Psychologist Sharon Lamb expresses similar views in her new book, The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do -- Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt.).
This is certainly sensible advice and a constructive way to end an expose of a dark phenomenon. But in light of the tragic deaths of Reena Virk and Dawn-Marie Wesley, there are other urgent issues about the hidden culture of aggression in girls that need to be addressed. For instance, how can we stop girl fights from escalating into physical violence that may have fatal consequences; what can we do to prevent suicides precipitated by bullying? Perhaps a Canadian writer will be moved to explore these questions. | June 2002
Deborah Viets is an editor/writer and book fiend who lives in Toronto. She served as literary editor of the CBC's former arts Web site, Infoculture, from 1999 to 2001.