For one year, a few decades ago, I was a very mean girl. I stopped speaking to my best friend, Sandy; I turned away when she approached, ridiculed her childish appearance, and effectively isolated her from the other girls in our sixth grade class. The next year a new girl named Annie became friends with both of us. Sandy accepted this development as if I hadn’t tortured her, but then she and Annie became closer friends and ostracized me. By the time they mellowed I had left for a new school, where I encountered a group of girls who were a different kind of mean. My own cruelty had been fueled by jealousy, sorrow and anger. The clique of mean girls in my new school, who were smart, rich, and sophisticated, had real power, expressed as contempt for most of their classmates.
At college there weren’t any cliques, and I found friends who had outgrown their mean phase, if they ever had one. My year of aggression had put me off cruelty for good, and my time as a target of the high school clique had made me allergic to groups. I wasn’t skilled at interpreting political situations, and was overly sensitive to the competition, conflict and gossip that can occur in a small community. Except for a couple of affiliations in the years since, I’ve maintained friendships in different spheres and cities, but have never joined a crowd.
While avoiding cliques in my own life, I’ve observed them with the intensity of a war veteran watching Patton. Studying literature, I was fascinated by fictional characters who were powerful social manipulators, from Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair to Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country. Edith Wharton, observing New York society, portrayed social vipers like Bertha Dorset, who ruined Lily Bart’s life in The House of Mirth (the film with Gillian Anderson, above), while Henry James created European women whose drawing room strategies crushed their American counterparts. It is probably not a coincidence that these American novels of manners were written in the Gilded Age.
I encountered real mean girls again when my daughters entered private school in New York in our own Gilded Age, the mid-1990s. But these were “capital M/capital G” Mean Girls, evolved since my era into a race of Amazons. The aggressive behavior that once began in middle school started in first or second grade, because childhood was moving much more quickly. As precocious city kids- sassy and smart-alecky, entitled and empowered-they were mascots of their families’ social status.
The year my older daughter was in first grade I was astonished to learn that a six-year-old girl could be taught to think like a co-op board. The women who accomplished this feat stood off to one side at school pick-up, displaying the lack of peripheral vision common to waiters in expensive restaurants, which enabled them not to see people standing beside them. They may have enjoyed other things in common, but the most obvious were affluence and an extraordinary sense of entitlement.
These mothers and their daughters bonded into a clique. By age eight the Mini-Mean girls knew enough to tease a child who was wearing leggings, not jeans, and knew where the jeans should be purchased. They deflated other children by criticizing their choices of clothes, food, books, games– anything they perceived as different. They knew enough to be nasty or dismissive at times when they were less closely supervised– at recess, gym class, or in the bathroom. If they ventured outside their circle for play dates, the child’s address had to meet parental criteria; the mothers ignored phone calls from parents who were not of interest. To reinforce the message, the families practiced exclusion. Invitations to a holiday party would leave out a couple of families in the class; a birthday party guest list might include all but one child.
For the first years of lower school I was asking: “Will the Real Mean Girls Please Stand Up?” The mothers of the socially aggressive girls countenanced and even orchestrated their behavior. While most people were observing traditional social norms (those that require us to balance selfishness and altruism to be part of the group) these mothers and their Mean Girls were re-writing the social rules. Another mother and I, concerned that our daughters were having a hard time getting through the day, approached the lower school head about the possibility of instituting a social and emotional learning program. We were told that structured classroom programs had not been successful. In retrospect, we realized that the administrator was being realistic about the school culture; it’s difficult to discipline the children of important donors or to suggest standards of behavior to a powerful and unreceptive population.
By fourth grade the Mean Girls expanded to online activity. The leaders waged an email campaign against another girl in the class, labeling her as “fat.” The teacher had ignored the group’s classroom antics, but when the victim’s mother appeared with printed emails, the middle school head called some of the mothers into his office. One of them insisted, “There is no clique. We just want our kids to be friendly with children from the nice families.” The Mean Girls’ activity ratcheted up through middle school. In one class the clique held weekly dinner parties; when one Mean Girl invited a girl outside of the group, her friends boycotted the evening. Later, the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations-who was invited or left out, which families were included-became the source of social dramas.
During those years psychologists and sociologists published many studies on the emotional fallout from cliques and bullying, and books about relational aggression among girls were bestsellers. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence and Rachel Simmons, with Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, wrote books that came from their work with girls in schools. Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese wrote eight books about middle school, including Cliques: Eight Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle.
When the Rachel Simmons book was on the best-seller list, one of the Mean Girls’ mothers held an author appearance at her home, inviting other mothers in the clique. It wasn’t clear if anyone recognized the irony of this exclusive salon, but the school administrators attended, demonstrating their endorsement. One of them, expressing a compassionate view of the Mean Girls, insisted that they were “not really mean, just under too much pressure to be perfect.” Her observation may have been true of many children in the school, but it seemed inadequate to explain the girls’ behavior.
Both of my daughters had difficulty with the clique activity, times when they couldn’t find a seat in the lunch room, and the experience of being the single child in a group of friends who was left out of a party. They also dished out their share of provocation and retaliation. They had teachers who made classroom life better by intervening, those who ignored bullying, and some who were partial to the Mean Girls. They took comfort in watching Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (above), which ended with triumph for girls who suffered at the hands of a high school clique. My daughters made friends outside of school, and later they went to very different high schools, where cliques were not so clearly defined, or where school policy addressed the issues more directly.
While many books counsel parents on how to help their children deal with the pain of this aggravated social scene, fictional accounts of cliques and Mean Girls often glamorize the behavior. The movie Mean Girls delivered a lesson about empathy, but the young adult novel series Gossip Girl, also a popular television show, glorifies the hyper-affluence, outrageous empowerment and meanness-not to mention risky behaviors like teenage substance use and sexual experimentation. The reality show NYC Prep may have illustrated an unintended point: many Mean Girls are starring in reality shows that their parents are producing about their own gorgeous lives.
The words “seventh grade” have long been synonymous with social misery. That misery is aggravated when the activity starts years earlier, when the party that excludes one child is a birthday jaunt on a private jet, when mockery is indelible online. We can appeal to schools to be proactive, and support our children until they get their bearings in the wider world. We can also hope that some of this generation’s Mean Girls reflect on their behavior. Many years after high school, I became friends with one of the leaders of the clique in my class. She is a middle school teacher, very attuned to social issues, and she admitted that she felt awful about how she had treated people, as I had about my sixth grade year. I wish the same sort of reconsideration for the Mean Girls today– they may turn out to be kinder people, and teach their own children to be the same.
Aimee Garn is a writer and designer and a publisher of children’s books (www.prettypleasepress.com). She is the chairman of NYC-Parents in Action, Inc., (www.parentsinaction.org), having served as president for the past four years.