George Lucas Educational Foundation
Character Education

Rejecting the ‘Mean Girl’ Framework

Ideas for guiding girls toward positive interactions with each other.
A girl looks lonely in class as two peers look angry behind her.
A girl looks lonely in class as two peers look angry behind her.
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Responding to our male students’ fights, sexual misbehavior, or general misconduct with the comment “boys will be boys” is widely recognized as unhealthy and unacceptable. But when faced with name calling, rumor spreading, exclusion, and social sabotage among female students, the phrase “it’s just girl drama—don’t worry about it” is so widely used that sometimes it’s replaced with just an eye roll, a shrug, or a sigh—the phrase itself doesn’t even need to be expressed in words.

Girls Will Be Girls—and Girls Will Be Mean

I wonder what would happen if we challenged the notion that “girls will be girls—and girls will be mean” in the same way that we currently challenge “boys will be boys.” What if attributing bad behavior to the “mean girl” phenomenon—which can be defined as “publicly humiliating and spreading nasty rumors about each other, pitting friend against friend, excluding or rejecting former friends, and even engaging in physical aggression”—is an easy way out of a complicated situation? What if what we’re really seeing and not understanding is girls learning about their own social power just as society finally allows them the space to do so? As researcher Lyn Mikel Brown says, “It’s no coincidence that just as girls were exercising their power and challenging gender roles we saw more concern about meanness and aggression among girls. While they’re feeling powerful and in control, girls are up against new pressure to act like traditional nice girls or risk being labeled mean. As a result, many take their strong feelings and competitive urges underground or at least out of sight of adults who might be watching.”

What if, instead of rolling our eyes and telling girls to “be nice,” or ignoring fraught situations altogether, we talked with girls early and often about power—their own and that of others—and helped them recognize that they have more power than they realize and that they can use it for good or to hurt? “Mean girls” are able to wield more than their share of power by co-opting the power of others. We need to help girls claim (or reclaim) their power.

A Few Ways We Can Help

  1. Name what we see when girls engage in “mean girl” behaviors. Take the time to process it. Encourage young women to pay attention to how they feel as they gain and lose power through their social-emotional experiences. What could be gained by recognizing the power in their words, their energy, and their relationships? Use what they see in the media, from the Disney Channel to Real Housewives, as case studies. What do they notice in the shift of power when sarcasm, put-downs, exclusion, and even physical aggression become part of the story?
  2. Use mindfulness techniques and self-compassion—defined by the three components of self-kindness, sensing oneself as part of a common humanity, and maintaining perspective in challenging circumstances—to help girls stay centered in the moment.
  3. Teach girls to use social power for good. Organizations like Fearlessly Girl, Because I Am a Girl, Girl Talk, and Girls Inc. are just a few of the many that can help girls find ways to be “sheroes” in their schools and communities.
  4. Encourage girls to claim academic autonomy by differentiating instruction based on interests and passions. “Voice and choice” is just one way to begin.
  5. Understand that “girl” isn’t a singular identity. When a girl is black, Latina, trans, lesbian, queer, disabled, autistic, poor, immigrant, etc.—or any combination of these—her relationship to power is different. Do the work to understand that and your role in supporting her.
  6. Take a look at our dress codes and the systemic oppression that lives within them. Dress codes that target girls as potential distractions and force them to adhere to arbitrary rules around knees, shoulders, and collar bones teach them that their physical selves are something to be ashamed of, disempowering them at a time when they are most vulnerable.
  7. Push back against traditional gender expectations that encourage girls to be nice at all costs. Pay attention to what we’re modeling for our girls in our language and our behavior—and the cost of what we’re teaching. Powerful, brave girls don’t always fit into traditional roles, and we have to be mindful of our responses when girls behave in unexpected ways. Make space for the full range of human emotions and the myriad ways that femininity is expressed.
  8. Help boys understand the roles they play. Emerging sexuality for heterosexual and bisexual girls can add a new dimension to power struggles between boys and girls, and between girls competing over boys. And slut shaming and sexual misbehavior change the power dynamic between girls no matter their sexual identities. By giving boys new ways of relating to the girls around them in terms of consent and bodily autonomy, we make room for them to generate new, healthier rules for relationships.
  9. Most importantly, however, we as educators must begin by refusing to accept that “girl drama” is unavoidable. This work begins with us, but it can serve all of the students in our care.

For more ideas on how to help girls, read “12 Ways to Prevent Girlfighting and Build Girl Allies.”

About the Author
  • Laura Thomas Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist @CriticalSkills1
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Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

Yes, girls (and boys, too) can be kind, empathetic and courteous. I would suggest adding teacher supervision and proximity during class activities, as well as appropriate supervision during passing periods and less structured activities. Students seldom do what you expect, but what you inspect. During classroom activities and informal evaluations have all students give positive input about each other, giving valuable status to each other. Make this a regular, systematic event so students can expect positive input from peers. The expectation of positive input through give and take will assist in nullifying the bullying culture of both boys and girls, possibly make the positive role attractive to the students seeking power through bullying.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Absolutely, Melanie. We can't help kids interrupt and understand the ways they manipulate power unless we're fully present as they try out new behaviors and ways of being together.

Lisa Mims's picture
Lisa Mims
5th grade teacher /Education blogger

The substitute teacher gave the girls in my class a project to work on together. They had a budget and had to decorate a house. They worked really hard on it and presented it to her. This project gave me a few weeks of peace.:) I appreciate this article!

Rosemary Schmid's picture
Rosemary Schmid
ESL teacher, academic program college level, Charlotte, NC

This article characterizes girls as "mean" and alludes to boys as "bullies." I'd like a different and more inclusive slant -- teaching and working with children, and adults, on a gender-neutral basis, to develop a heightened self-awareness of power itself. We have only to look at the various communities in which we live, work, play (and pray) to see the effects of the uses and abuses of power. As educators, we need to reflect on the meaning of the word "empowerment."

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Rosemary! You raise a really good point- that we have to really aware of and reflective about the ways that our evolving understanding of "empowerment" can play out in different contexts. I also agree totally, that we need to "work with children, and adults, on a gender-neutral basis, to develop a heightened self-awareness of power itself." In fact, that was what I was going for with this piece. :-) The "mean girls' language was a reference to Rosalind Wiseman's work as described in her book "Queen Bees and Wannabes" as well as the film adaptation of the book, "Mean Girls." Personally, I think all destructive behavior is a result of fear and a misguided use of power as a means to manage fear, so helping students (and adults) work through both their own fears and their understanding of power is so important. Thanks for joining the conversation!

Kalil's picture

This article is so important! Thank you for this clear, thoughtful, and impassioned analysis about why we are seeing "mean girls" and how we can intervene as educators. One tiny little edit, which is your use of "cisgender" in point #8 under Ways We Can Help. In this case you are talking about girls who are attracted to boys, which does not have to do with their gender identities, but with their sexual identities. You could say it as "heterosexual and bisexual girls" or simply "girls who are attracted to boys". Thank you for this important contribution to the conversation, and for providing concrete steps we can take as educators to help girls with many different identities navigate the challenges they face in growing into their power in holistic and healthy ways.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks for pointing that out, Kalil. I'll make that correction right now!

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