Character Education

Rejecting the ‘Mean Girl’ Framework

Ideas for guiding girls toward positive interactions with each other.
July 11, 2017
A girl looks lonely in class as two peers look angry behind her.
©Shutterstock.com/Syda Productions

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.”