The Death Of The Mean Girl

A writer who had a hand in creating the early-aughts hysteria over female bullying now says the era of the mean girl is over. But not everyone agrees.

Laura Sessions Stepp, who helped ignite the debate about hookup culture, also wrote an early piece of mean-girl-ology back in 2002. Now she's revisiting the topic with a long Washington Post piece about what happens when mean girls grow up. Stepp includes a swipe at this very blog (an example of "our" fascination with mean grown-ass women: "We laugh at Kim and Phaedra sparring on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" and forward the snarkiest blog posts on Jezebel to all our friends"), but her real thesis is this: "Imagine that Lindsay Lohan's generation of girls has grown up into decent human beings."

Stepp does more than imagine. She interviews a few reformed mean girls who are now nice young women, and one mean-girl victim who's now friends with some of those who victimized her. She also talks to a marketing company that wrote a report on collaborative "Gamma" women — based on Stepp's own 2002 article. And, in support of her assertion that "mean-girl stories seem to be almost exclusively about white, economically privileged girls and women," she interviews a young woman from Senegal who "doesn't have the time or inclination to play the mean games she heard about before arriving in this country." The picture she paints is of mean-girl behavior as largely a solved problem, something that girls grow out of — and that we, as a society, are growing out of too. She writes,

When the workplace was a man's world and leadership roles for women were few, it was tempting to consider other females the enemy. [...] But the landscape is changing. More than half of managers and professionals are women, according to the research group Catalyst. Women are graduating from medical and law schools in numbers equal to or greater than men. There is less need, even in a recession, to elbow other women out when there are more available seats and when corporations are moving away from competitive models of leadership and toward collaboration.

So is she right? We asked Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. She noted that "there's a tendency to hype up and overplay the mean girl phenomenon" and that "girls outgrow some of the behavior" immortalized in Mean Girls and the like. But she said that to conclude that mean-girl behaviors were a thing of the past was "a little bit of a rosy take on the situation."

Of the contention that mean girls are all rich and white, she said, "it's a complete myth that things like relational aggression are the province of rich white girls." She added that it "perpetuates racist stereotypes about girls of color to suggest that they're physically aggressive" and not capable of other, subtler kinds of aggression. Regarding Stepp's contentions about the workplace, she said,

This is still a world where leadership roles for women are few. [...] Power is still complicated for women, and a lot of power is claimed and negotiated under the radar, and because of the pressure women face not to openly claim power, we see a lot of indirect aggression.

In a way it's brave for Stepp to revisit a problem to which she helped draw attention, and to declare that problem (mostly) solved. But in another way, it's short-sighted. Stepp seems to have talked to a lot of people who tell the story she wants them to — the company that put her own ideas into practice, the immigrant woman who "doesn't have time" for meanness. But it's possible to acknowledge the strides women have made — and the journeys individuals make from mean girl to kind adult — without discounting the experiences of those who have been and continue to be bullied, both in school and at work. The systemic problems behind mean-girl behavior — limited opportunities for women, the stigma placed on healthy female assertiveness — are far from solved. And to ignore them does all of us — the bullies and the bullied — a disservice.

What Happens When Mean Girls Grow Up? [Washington Post]