When I first saw Mean Girls, I thought Lindsay Lohan was charming and the movie hilarious. How things change.
Then I was relaxed in the view that it was a purely American depiction of female friendship (with ‘Preps, Varsity jocks, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks and Plastics’). Next I watched from afar, my adolescence far behind me.
Then I had a daughter.
And now I’m reading the book on which the film is based: Queen Bees and Wannabees (newly updated for the internet age). And I’m seeing it in an entirely different light.
While I still believe the book and film depict a very American and rather narrow idea of female friendship, it does offer some eerily familiar insights into the worst of girl behaviour - as do many books written since. Most note the ‘mean girls’ issue is not just about toxic teenagers; it can begin in late primary or even earlier. After all, I’ve seen kindy kids crying about being rejected by a girl who was their BFF the day before. And of course that nastiness has reached an entire new level thanks to social media, with the likes of ‘We hate Jane’ and ‘Why Kate is a slut’ Facebook pages.
I have a male friend who calls his daughter's 'friends' emotional terrorists. When his child was nine she was the target of cruel smears and gossip for a year. This culminated in the day she came home and said, "Dad, I wish I was a boy like you, 'cos then they'd punch me and move on. But girls leave a mark on your soul."
They changed schools.
My 10-year-old is in a gang. As she nears the end of primary school her friendships are becoming increasingly important ... and more clique-like. Her group has a band, each member has special powers (fairy skills slowly being replaced by ESP), they have their own dramatic adventures (spying on the school janitor, who they suspect has a bomb), and they have their own language.
And all familiar, too. I remember being part of a band that did ABBA concerts in the toilet block. Our special powers involved being Charlie’s Bionic Angels (I was Sabrina with Six Million Dollar Man legs). I wasn’t smart enough for secret languages.
My daughter and her mates are not high status girls. They’re actually kind of the kooky ones who still play with dolls. They are all strong personalities and none of them are doormats. Yet they can be terrible to each other and have lots of dramatic blow-ups. Sound familiar?
In some ways I want to see their troubles as just normal power struggles, and to throw the Queen Bees and Wannabees book away. Yet I can’t help noticing in some ways they do follow author Rosalind Wiseman’s identified roles. There’s one who seems to have the most power, a Sidekick, a Banker, a Messenger and sometimes a Victim, although the roles often change. I worry that they whip each other up into dramatic frenzies and fights. It’s as if to stay strong and cohesive, one often needs to be on the outer.
Rosaline Wiseman says girl groups are like a platoon of soldiers banded together to survive the battle that is adolescence. Yet they engage in ‘relational aggression’ – warfare of information. Some educators believe this is because girls can’t express anger and aggression, so it’s buried, only to erupt in different ways. Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Greg calls this - and the rejection and rudeness towards parents - the ‘Princess Bitchface Syndrome’. To which I say: ouch - and we think girls are mean! Michael was probably pitching for book sales with that title, but it rankles me. I feel it's unhelpful to make public the private words parents may hiss between teeth. We have to be careful about the language and labels about girls.
Perhaps it’s all about group dynamics and not much about gender. Men have huge blow ups too. And just look at the worst of male group bonding dynamics on display in the media: defence staff sprung for emailing each other sex videos, some footy players in gang bangs without clear consent. And as I watched Jesus Christ Superstar last week, I was reminded that even Jesus’s disciples had jealousy issues (and nobody called them bitches!).
It seems to me that most girls grow out of the pack mentality, brutality and hierarchy. They become fearless, fabulous friends that make the world a better place. Female friendship is one of the bedrocks of my life. Without it my mental health would be in danger; I rely on my mates for love, affection, warmth, support and sanctuaries to vent, laugh and cry.
Perhaps the ‘mean years’ of primary and high school are a training ground or a learning phase where women test out who we want to be and how we want to behave. Where we learn to handle group dynamics. Where we learn to become better friends. Where we grow the strength and knowledge to be able to choose mates who don’t wield their friendship as a weapon and will instead defend us from some of the world’s brutalities. School is a baptism of fire and hopefully we emerge like a phoenix to rise out of the ashes and fly into better friendships that support and sustain us.