Girl Cliques are Getting Younger

'I have faith my daughter and her beautiful buddies will do the same.  But I hurt when they hurt.'

'I have faith my daughter and her beautiful buddies will do the same. But I hurt when they hurt.' Photo: Getty

Ten years ago when I saw Mean Girls I thought Lindsay Lohan was charming and the movie hilarious. How things change.  

Then I was relaxed in the view that it was a purely American depiction of female friendship (with ‘Preps, Varsity jocks, Desperate wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks and Plastics’). Then I watched from afar; my adolescence far behind me. 

Then I had a daughter. 

Now I’m reading the book on which the film is based Queen Bees and Wannabees (newly updated for the internet age). And I’m seeing it in an entirely different light. 

While I still believe the book and film depict a very American and rather narrow idea of female friendship, it does offer some eerily familiar insights into the worst of girl behaviour.  As do many books written since.  Most note the ‘mean girls’ issue is not just about toxic teenagers - it can begin in late primary or even earlier. I’ve seen kindy kids crying about being rejected by a girl who was their BFF the day before. All note that nastiness has reached an entire new level thanks to social media with the likes of ‘We hate Jane’ and ‘Why Kate is a slut’ Facebook pages.

I have a male friend who calls his daughter's 'friends' emotional terrorists. When his child was 9-years-old she was the target of cruel smears and gossip for a year. This culminated in the day she came home and said 'Dad, I wish I was a boy like you, 'cos then they'd punch me and move on. But girls leave a mark on your soul.'

They changed schools.

My ten year old daughter is in a gang. As she nears the end of primary school her friendships are becoming increasingly important. And more clique-like. Her group has a band, each member has special powers (fairy skills slowly being replaced by ESP), they have their own dramatic adventures (spying on the school janitor who they suspect has a bomb) and they have their own language.

All fine.   

And all familiar.  I remember being part of a band that did ABBA concerts in the toilet block. Our special powers involved being Charlie’s Bionic Angels (I was Sabrina with Six Million Dollar Man legs). I wasn’t smart enough for secret languages. 

My daughter and her mates are not high status girls. They’re actually kind of the kooky ones who still play with dolls. They are all strong personalities and none of them are doormats. Yet they can be terrible to each other and have lots of dramatic blow-ups. Sound familiar? 

In some ways I want to see their troubles as just normal power struggles and throw the Queen Bees and Wannabees book away. Yet I can’t help noticing in some ways they do follow author Rosalind Wiseman’s identified roles. There’s one who seems to have the most power, a Sidekick, a Banker, a Messenger and sometimes a Victim, although the roles often change. I worry that they whip each other up into dramatic frenzies and fights. It’s as if to stay strong and cohesive one often needs to be on the outer. 

I had a high school gang but I can’t remember roles, a hierarchy or a destructive dynamic. But if I’m honest with myself and look back at sixth grade I can identify myself as the sidekick to a pretty Queen Bee. I don’t remember us being mean. I like to think we weren’t, but I did recently reconnect with an old schoolmate who shocked me when she said she felt rejected by me at that age.

Gulp. 

Rosaline Wiseman says girl groups are like a platoon of soldiers banded together to survive the battle that is adolescence. Yet they engage in ‘relational aggression’ – warfare of information. Some educators believe this is because girls can’t express anger and aggression so it’s buried, only to erupt in different ways. Australian Psychologist Michael Carr-Greg calls this and the rejection and rudeness towards parents the ‘Princess Bitchface Syndrome’. To which I say ouch - we think girls are mean! Michael was probably pitching for book sales with that title but it rankles me. I feel it's unhelpful to make public the private words parents may hiss between teeth. We have to be careful about the language and labels about girls. 

Perhaps it’s all about group dynamics and not much about gender. Men have huge blow ups too. In the last season of Survivor a woman humiliated another by goading her to take her false teeth out on TV. Cringe. But one of the men became abusive and scary. I’d rather reveal a tooth gap than be violently intimidated. Just look at the worst of male group bonding dynamics on display in the media. Defence staff sprung for emailing each other sex videos, some footy players in gang bangs without clear consent. And as I watched Jesus Christ Superstar last week, I was reminded that, hell, even Jesus’s twelve disciples had jealousy issues. Nobody called them bitches. 

It seems to me that most girls grow out of the pack mentality, brutality and hierarchy. They become fearless fabulous friends that make the world a better place. Female friendship is one of the bedrocks of my life. Without it my mental health would be in danger. I rely on my mates for love, affection, warmth, support and sanctuaries to vent, laugh and cry. 

Perhaps the ‘mean years’ of primary and high school are a training ground or a learning phase where women test out who we want to be and how we want to behave. Where we learn to handle group dynamics. Where we learn to become better friends. Where we grow the strength and knowledge to be able to choose mates who don’t wield their friendship as a weapon and will instead defend us from some of the world’s brutalities. School is a baptism of fire and hopefully we emerge like a phoenix to rise out of the ashes and fly into better friendships that support and sustain us. 

I have faith my daughter and her beautiful buddies will do the same. But I hurt when they hurt. I’m now nervous about the teenage years ahead. So tell me are the Queen Bees, Princess Bitchfaces fact or fiction and is identification helpful or harmful? 

 

37 comments

  • Interesting article and timely for me, as the mother of 3 (two girls and a boy) - my first girl is 9 and the sidekick since the first day of Kindergarten to a Queen Bee, who has tossed her aside several times for a new friend only to "generously" take her back when she tires of the newbie - it exasperates me. She's finally learning to stand up for herself, though, which is encouraging, and so her father and I agree that perhaps it is just a learning curve she needed to go through. All signs point to our youngest BEING a Queen Bee and that scares us more to be honest ;-) Our first born is the boy, and frankly they can be just as bad from what we've seen so far at age 15, with squabbles and gossip and who isn't talking to whom (even before an interest in dating kicks in which we'd expected to be dealing with by this stage). We are bracing ourselves for the day when we have two teen girls at the same time (husband has threatened to take an overseas sabbatical!). Good luck to all fellow parents!

    Commenter
    Mum Of Three
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 8:43AM
    • I enjoyed reading your comment. As the parent of one (girl) it's difficult to differentiate between innate qualities and those we have control over. How different would a second child have been?

      We moved our daughter after four frustrating years. I put quite a bit of time and effort into establishing that her stories were not just isolated examples, or sandwiched between her inflicting the same on others. In a large primary school (<600) with two teachers on duty at lunchtime it was impossible for them to monitor what was going on, and we can't expect them to do any more unpaid work than they already do. The school made all of the right noises about bullying, but didn't have people on the ground at the time when it was happening.

      The next school (girls only) had a policy of breaking up little cliques if they happened, by being heavily involved in the playground - esp at the outbreak of any difficulties, which worked wonders (what money can buy!).

      Some kids change over time, too. Our daughter went from having occasional friendships, to good friendships in early secondary, to being friendly with everyone by year 12. Hard now to keep up with the 21st invitations. We'll never know if the intervention is what led to the changes, or if they would have happened of their own accord.

      Good luck!

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 9:51AM
  • "School is a baptism of fire and hopefully we emerge like a phoenix to rise out of the ashes and fly into better friendships that support and sustain us."

    Completely agree with this. I'm not quite sure what is worse, being a parent and watching your child work their way through the school yard jungle or being the child.

    I can remember numerous times where I was the ostracised or made of fun and I wanted to curl up in a ball and forget the world. But I can also remember being the taunter and making some of my friends feel like outcasts. It's a good time to learn lessons and build character. To understand what is acceptable and what is not. For a parent, it's a time where we loosen the reins and let them to begin to find their own path. I have a 6 year old daughter and I'm struggling to deal with the fact she no longer likes playschool or the wiggles.

    Commenter
    syoki
    Location
    canberra
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:01AM
    • Agree with the 'baptism of fire' point of view. I too was a Queen Bee's sidekick and basked vicariously in her glory throughout primary school. When I was summarily 'dumped' at age 12 I was so scarred I still had nightmare about it a decade later. No relationship break up from a boyfriend has ever been as painful as the experience of not only losing your friends but being relagated to the 'bottom of the heap' to be sneered at and bullied for the rest of high school.
      However I evetually emerged a resiliant and confident woman during my uni days and remain a sunny extrovert to this day.
      Margaret Attwood wrote a brillinat novel on the topic of toxic female friendships ("Cat's Eyes") - I think reading this in my early 20s helped me get over the trauma.

      Commenter
      sparky
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 11:52AM
    • Totally agree.

      I also remember being both a victim and perpetrator of such behaviour. Now I'm watching my kids go through the jungle of primary school and encounter the same things.

      It's part of growing up; primary school playgrounds are harsh and as a parent I view my role as being to help my kids cope with what happens as best as they can.

      Commenter
      Bottom Line
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 2:48PM
  • "Emotional terrorist" I like that, it is so true.
    I am a teacher and as much as we try to teach them to be responsible for their action (and words) there is so much happening outside of school which we have no control over. Parents turn to us to make it all better, but often cannot accept the fact that they too need to act in a positive way to help teach they children the right way to deal with others and how to respond to negative influences in their lives. A lot of this is from leading by example, time to be a parent and stop trying to be a friend.

    Commenter
    Sarskate
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:07AM
    • Well said Sarskate. I am single but at an age where I meet single Mum's and this friendship thing is all to clear to see. Continually asking the child what they want, what do they want to do etc and then wondering why they seem to have no control over the child. It's natural for a child to push and push to see how far they can get. They are trying to see who is in charge and guess what if you are not in charge they think they are.

      Commenter
      2shoes
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 9:39AM
    • Well said Sarskate.
      I am also a teacher, and see that girls need mothers who lead by example.
      If you treat girls as princesses, then it may not be good for them long term.

      Commenter
      Robyn
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 9:50AM
    • t"hey too need to act in a positive way to help teach they children the right way to deal with others and how to respond to negative influences in their lives." - Well said Sarskate.
      @2shoes, I am not sure how single parenting is relevant or the subject of blame? If anything, parents judging families who are single or blended or homosexual or whatever is only going to raise children with equal prejudices which they will then act out in the schoolyard.

      Commenter
      Sam
      Date and time
      June 19, 2013, 10:27PM
  • I have two young boys and its not much different for the 8 year old who is in a year full of high achieving, spiteful boys. They have a pack mentality based on sporting or academic achievements, appearance (usually semi long, blonde hair and a tan will get you in) and possessions and jealousy is rife so they can be horrid to each other within the packs. My son knows already knows that he is a "nerd". Maybe we shouldn't view it as a "girl thing" or "boy thing" but a generational thing?

    Commenter
    Annie
    Date and time
    June 19, 2013, 9:30AM

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