Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Are Mean Girls Getting Meaner?

Why is it that every book that my 7th grade daughter picks up has a stereotypical mean girl as one of the main characters? I know that they exist; girls who target peers whom they can overpower and then feed off of their hurt feelings and insecurities. But are they really as prevalent as the Young Adult section of my library would lead me to believe? Aren't most teenage girls three dimensional? I'd like to see teen lit do a better job reflecting their inherent goodness rather than absolute meanness. I grow weary of the mean girl as the stock character in young adult books. She's become an over-used cliche much like the sidekick with a different ethnicity and the gay guy friend. It's played and it's lazy writing, as far as I'm concerned.

But, the audience seems to eat it up. And it's not just teens. Today's parents aren't as hands-off about their children's social lives as their parents used to be. They devour books that promise to help them teach their children how to survive the popularity wars of middle school. They attend lectures and workshops conducted by experts who give advice on how best to deal with cliques. And in the process they have earned the reputation as micromanagers of their children's social lives.

I wonder, is there a chance that all the attention they are investing is actually backfiring? By paying the mean girl so much attention, are parents giving the impression (to their impressionable teens) that these short-term social anxieties and fleeting allegiances to a queen bee are more significant and consequential than they actually are?

Some middle schools offer classes designed to help female students deal with mean girls. I don't know, a part of me thinks that my 12-year-old self would have found it a bit unnerving if my middle school offered a class on how to deal with relational aggression. Wait, that wouldn't have happened since the term "relational aggression" was coined in 1995, long after I graduated from college, much less middle school. I guess back then it was still called bullying. Actually, back then it was called "being a middle-schooler". But, even without any formal training or parental supervision, I think I knew that I wouldn't have to navigate through cliques my entire life. At 12 years old, I probably couldn't have put words to it, but I believe I was aware of the fact that adults didn't play by the same immutable and bizarre rules as teenagers.

And yes, I realize that there are children who truly have horrible social experiences in school and need all the adult help that they can get. It's been awhile since I roamed a middle school hallway, but I watch Glee, I know how it works. Kids can be vicious.

I was talking to my older sister about mean girls last week and she believes that things were different when she was in middle school; she believes everybody was accepted. I think she's rewriting history, but I'm glad she (thinks) she attended Shangri-La Middle School. I wonder if it's gotten worse, but I certainly don't think it's a new phenomena. Mean girls have been around since the first one-room schoolhouse - just ask Laura Ingalls and she'll tell you how Nelly Olson wreaked havoc in Walnut Grove.

So, is the mean girl thing really worse today or are we just more focused on it? I don't know. And since this is my blog and not a NY Times article, I can wonder all I want and not have to back anything up with facts. I was at the library today (getting some books for my daughter) and stumbled upon Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees & Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other Realities of Adolescence". Coincidence? Perhaps, but I felt like it was a sign and so I checked it out. Maybe after reading it, I'll actually have some facts to go along with my opinions (stay tuned).

The description on the book's dust jacket promises that it "will equip you with all the tools you need to build the right foundation to help your daughter make smarter choices and empower her during this baffling, tumultuous time of life." Baffling and tumultuous are big words. Big, dramatic words. It's a nonfiction book, but in 2003 Tina Fey wrote a screenplay based on the book. With a satirical spin, like only Fey can do, she turned it into the movie Mean Girls staring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. Loved the movie, so I'm going to give the book a try. For the next few days I'm going into "Girl World to analyze teasing, gossip, and reputations; beauty and fashion; alcohol and drugs; boys and sex; and more, and how cliques play a role in every situation."

And then I'm going to thank god that I'm 46 and made it out alive...

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