Rosalind Wiseman is the author of Queen Bees & Wannabes, the 2002 book that inspired the movie Mean Girls. A new edition comes out today—and pretty much scares the shit out of me.
High school was bad enough when I was a teenager. But reading Wiseman's new book—which expands on the original by discussing technology and why "Mean Girl" culture has filtered down to younger girls—I realized how much trickier being a teenager is today. When I was in high school, if I got in a fight with someone, maybe we'd exchange a couple of bitchy notes. There would definitely be some behind-the-back gossip. But I never had to worry that someone was going to set up a fake Facebook account in my name or trash me on MySpace or unearth naked photos of me on their cell phone.
Still, there are some things that seem to be universal. There will always be Queen Bees, the Regina Georges of the world, who are, as Wiseman so excellently puts it, "a combination of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and Barbie." For adult women, learning how to navigate the Queen Bee isn't just an exercise in nostalgia; unfortunately, many adult relationships still seem to hew all too closely to the lines drawn in high school (or earlier).
On her website, Wiseman answers questions from teenagers and parents every day. But she's agreed to answer questions from Jezebel readers who might need advice about how to deal with the bully at work, or the friend who's mad at them but won't say why. Leave your questions in the comments or email them to Doree if you want to stay anonymous. We'll publish her answers in a separate post next week.
Why did you feel like you needed to write a new edition of Queen Bees and Wannabees?
As soon as I'm done with something I always think of things I forgot to put in. I've done that already with the new book. But definitely, about two years ago, I realized that the only thing in the book about technology was email. That is just not acceptable. I started feeling guilty that girls and moms and dads were reading it, and I do feel a very strong sense of obligation to these people. I'm constantly trying to take the things that I see and put them forward and think, what can we do about it. Specifically the things I wanted to change the most about were about technology and some of the more leading questions that I get—people always say, everything that's happening is happening so much younger. I wanted to answer that question.
How do you answer that question?
Okay, yes, girls at younger ages are acting more "teenage-like" and exhibiting mean girl behavior. But it's because we're not teaching our kids to be more mature, we're teaching them to be older. Older meaning getting to sort of typical adolescent behavior earlier, like dressing as teenagers, having them listen to teen music, laughing when they're "precocious," going with moms to get a manicure and pedicure, when they go to dance recitals dressed in hip-hop outfits. All these things we think are "cute."
What do you see on the ground, in terms of how things have changed since you wrote the first edition?
Every day I teach kids between kindergarten and college. And then the kids reach out to me all the time. Every day I get emails from kids, boys and girls. There is no part of their lives that is not connected to technology. But I don't teach on cyberbullying. I think it's complete waste of time, because it's completely integrated into everything that they do. I started out doing stuff on cyberbullying and six months into it I was like, this is ridiculous. We need to integrate it into everything that they do. All this social aggression, dominance stuff. It's exactly why they come to me about it—they say, I have a problem with this person and part of it is how I'm being attacked online.
What do you tell kids to say in that case?
I have a whole sort of system of how you deal. For example—you are hooking up with, hanging out with, however you want to call it, a guy. He used to hang out with/hook up with another girl. You're like, a junior in high school. You start going to parties where every time she sees you, she will start screaming something. It's not your name, but everybody knows it's you. She's screaming firecrotch. Or slut, or whatever. You know it's directed at you. Your boyfriend won't do anything about it. Then you find out she's completely trashing you on Facebook. So how do you handle it? I was giving a talk in Houston, for high school kids. I gave them three options. One, you say nothing and hope it goes away. Two, you talk to your boyfriend and him have to talk to her. Or you start your own Facebook war. All the kids in Houston were yelling, "Three! Three!" And I said, "That's acting like you're 12." Instead, you send one email to this person. You say exactly what you don't like. You admit you cannot control her behavior, but the drama stops here. I always give kids scripts that they can start with, but then they can put it into their own words.
How are adult women affected by Mean Girl behavior?
Some of them have never let go of their being ruled-over personas, never being able to say that they're angry with people. Women need to know how to take seriously their own feelings of conflict and of anger, and then know how to communicate that to people—because what that is is an underlying belief that someone will not take you seriously. Forget the Queen Bees—that's a minority of women. It's just that they have disproportionate power. It's this issue of not being able to express your anger because you don't take yourself seriously. Women say, I can't be the complaining bitch. They don't want to be seen as uptight. You don't know which battles to choose and so you choose none of them. It's also women knowing how to give apologies and accept apologies. If that was addressed we would have substantially less work to do.
This is the reason I prefer working with adolescents. If they're saying sort of crappy stuff to me, I know it's a rationalization of crappy behavior. I can say to them you're full of it, you think I believe that? And they're going to laugh and say, yeah, I was just trying to see how stupid you were. But that's not the way it is with adults. They get really angry with you and get really self righteous. You can't have that really honest exchange.
Is it fair to say women undermine themselves in the workplace?
I wish so much that women would take the risk to take themselves and their feelings seriously. And that means acknowledging your feelings and taking them seriously, and taking the time to think strategically through how to express that to someone. That is a way of being an authentic person of integrity. Of course this relates to relationships. This relates to intimate relationships and relationships in the workplace.
Is that why women bully other women in workplace?
When you're in a position of power and authority, it's so comfortable to you that you don't often know where or what you're doing. I just sat in a meeting with a CEO—and she texted during the entire meeting. She was acting like she was 12. She was texting during the meeting and everyone was deferring to her. It was very much like a clique. That's not the only time I've seen that. It's why I work so much with girls and boys in positions of leadership. What does leadership really mean? It doesn't mean how you perceive yourself. It's how others perceive you. It's, I get to do this and you don't. I get to dismiss people's opinions but nobody else does. It's not just women—I've certainly seen that with men. I think it's an issue of power and authority and how one uses it. And it's exactly the same if you're a 12-year-old girl or a CEO.
How do parents deal with their kids' bullying or being bullied?
I'm a parent. So I can say true stories about my own mistakes. Even to my best of intentions, I find myself doing the things that I tell people not to do. Recently, in a video chat on my website, this parent says, I'm the parent of a fourth grader, and nobody wants to be friends with my daughter. The parent says, my daughter has no friends because she's imaginative, fun and creative. I say, you love your daughter so much but I doubt that people aren't hanging out with your kid because she's imaginative, fun and creative. We define the reason they're being rejected in positive ways. My job is to say to parents, in a way they can hear, you love your child and it's so difficult to hear negative social stuff. If we can do this step by step, we can get your kid to be in a better place. It's taken me a very long time to know how to talk to parents. I bombed when the Queen Bee moms book came out. It was just a disaster. I didn't know how to present the information in a way the parents can hear.
Do Queen Bee girls have Queen Bee moms?
I get that question all the time. But there are lots of kids who have Queen Bee moms who are the opposite. And I know why people say, I know why she's this way. But nobody says that about any other role. Nobody says, oh, she's a complete wannabe or rollover. There are lots of girls who look to their mothers as anti-mentors. Like women who try really hard with plastic surgery, who look like they're 18 when they're 45. Some of their daughters are like, that's awful. It's too easy of an answer for me, though certainly there are girls like that. I guess what you need [for a Queen Bee] is a girl who has a high degree of social skills and also ruminates a lot. She holds grudges and ruminates. Then, you have her mom showing role modeling, that the path to power is based on how you look, where you come from, fitting into that box you talk about so much—and the mom saying, I'm not going to hold you accountable for crappy behavior.
How do you advise people to deal with their Queen Bee daughters?
It's easy for me to get reactive. But it's my responsibility—I've chosen this as my path. I'm trying to get information to all different kinds of people. I've worked really hard to really reach out. I think they're hiding a lot. If you talk to them about being effortlessly perfect—everybody wants to be heard, including Queen Bee moms. There's a couple different variations on Queen Bee moms. They feel like they can really speak for other people. I'm speaking on behalf of all the mothers. The worst is when Queen Bee moms have gone after me—it's usually when a woman feels like she's not being taken seriously in other areas of her life. But it doesn't excuse the behavior. Really, you can see it. They don't feel taken seriously in other areas of their life.
What kind of mom are you?
The barely getting through mom. My boys are six and a half and eight and a half. I really try and aspire to be the person I write about—the loving hard-ass mom. But there are really moments when I'm so tired when I'm like, go ahead and do it. Right now, at this moment, my sister's staying with us. My sons went into her bedroom and opened her computer to try and get on computer games. So their punishment is, they're allowed to watch TV, but they have a trade-in system for good behavior, and they're not allowed to play a game on a phone. Also, I'm teaching them how to fold their own laundry. They drop it everywhere. Socks are like a calling card around the house. Now they're doing their own laundry, but it's tough. I want them to fold it, and instead they leave it in an enormous pile in their closet. It drives me crazy but I have to let it go. They are washing and drying and taking into their room, so the idea of having it in perfect stacks is ridiculous and I have to let it go.
Have you ever had to deal with a bullying situation with your own kids?
I had a really tough time with my older child. He was acting out in school and getting into trouble. I was freaked out. It was completely bad. It turns out he was being bullied really badly by five kids and I didn't see the signs. I didn't pay attention to anything I talked about. There was someone at the school who I had trained, just by happenstance. At the time I trained her my children weren't even attending that school. But she has just been a lifeline for him. Sometimes as a mother you really aren't the person who can fix the problem. Your anxiety is so high. You can't think straight. It was a pretty life changing moment for my family and for me. I was like, oh shit, I can't see the signs of my kids being bullied. There was a lot of social aggression. Boys saying they were going to beat him up at recess. It was quite similar to girl dynamics. My kids are getting in trouble all the time—it's not an infrequent experience.
Are you going to be doing any work at Millburn High School [the high school in New Jersey where the senior girls write a "slut list" of freshmen every year]?
I got an email from the head of the PTO there and I wrote her back and I haven't heard back.
What do you do about something like the Millburn High School slut list? The girls were defending it, saying that it was something that people wanted to be on. How do you teach them that it's actually not okay to make a "slut list"?
I think you talk about it very straightforwardly. You talk about the reasons why a ninth grade girl would want to be on the list. And just because you've done it forever doesn't make it right. Just because people have been treating each other like shit forever, doesn't make it right. You don't just get a pass. That's one of those tricky things about tradition. As soon as you say it's tradition you don't question it. But that should be when you do question it. When i talk to the girls about it, I'm really straight up about it. The senior girls are like, it's so pathetic, she wants to be on it. You really have to put a mirror up to the senior girls. They can be so cold and unforgiving about a position that they were in very shortly before. I do a lot of work when I work with high school kids about that dynamic. I say straight up, some girls will want to be on it desperately. Let's talk about why. There are girls who don't want to be on it. There are girls who will lie about being on it because they're so desperate for attention. I just talk really straight up with them about what's going on. I'm like, if I'm completely wrong, you think I'm insane, you need to back it up.
The principal's reaction to the list seemed, at first, to be very ambivalent—he didn't want to search for the perpetrators because he said no one would come forward and it wasn't fair to punish the whole class.
People feel like, oh, we have a policy about that stuff—but very few people know how to implement a policy in real life. They get co-opted by the system like everybody else. It takes a really gifted administrator to know how to deal with that. It takes a tremendous amount of thought in the midst of a tremendous amount of drama. It's always really disappointing. I was speaking at a conference of superintendents. I was like, look, here's the deal. You can continue to say, if it's done outside of school grounds then we have no jurisdiction. But there is no separation with technology between outside of school and school. Now, I think that administrators are going in that direction.
But what I think is more compelling in a way, is why would girls in a perfect, high achieving school want to do this. Girls haze for social power. In my experience, what I've seen with girls who do that, is those girls are not doing well. They're not excelling in other areas. You have to excel in a school like that in something. You take what you can get. Girls haze. They always haze to dominate socially. It also shows the lack of power that some girls have, if this is the only power they can get. Their capacity is limited in other areas. It sort of goes to the heart of everything we're talking about. In Chicago, girls completely beat the crap out of each other at a powder puff game. That was exactly the same thing.
You have a YA book coming out soon too—Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials.
I'm psyched about the YA book. I'm relieved about Queen Bees, but I'm so nervous about the YA book. I try to do my best to talk about these issues in a way that's more subtle and more graceful. But what's really cool is to look at these YA bloggers. I'm watching these young women write about this stuff and it's amazing to me to watch this. The book comes out in January. It would have been really easy to write something about a really rich kid—but I'm really hopeful that this just reflects all these issues that we're talking about. I just hope this gives people more answers.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I feel so strongly the reason why I'm successful is because of women supporting me, laughing with me, buying me a drink when I needed it, sometimes being hard on me, but working with me. For girls to not have that is just unacceptable. I want girls to have that. I want to be able to talk about the ugly stuff so we can get to the good stuff.
Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World
Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads: Dealing with the Parents, Teachers, Coaches and Counselors Who Can Make—or Break—Your Child's Future
Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials
Rosalind Wiseman: Creating Cultures of Dignity [Rosalind Wiseman]
A Rite of Hazing, Now Out in the Open [NYT]