In the last few weeks, ABC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have all reported a big new story: girls are often catty. Not impressed? Well, there is real news here, though the headlines missed it: the widely accepted idea that girls’ self-esteem disappears as they enter adolescence, a stubborn feminist fiction that has tainted education policy and cost taxpayers millions, is on its way out.
The Times Magazine cover story, “Girls Just Want to be Mean,” the Post’s “Alpha Girl,” and John Stossel’s ABC discussion of childhood social cruelty—where the weaker sex was well represented—made essentially the same point. Girls form cliques, held together by dirty tricks, gossip, ostracism, and ridicule. And though boys are more likely to engage in fisticuffs, girls aren’t immune to the temptations of physical domination and revenge. In one scene in the ABC story, a popular bully leads her victim to a playground corner and shouts to a young onlooker: “We’re hurting her. Wanna help?”
That females are manipulative, controlling, and even at times vicious may seem an insight on the order of “sailors swear.” Mean girls have been the stuff of literature and myth from Electra to Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe to Scarlett O’Hara. Most people probably remember their own encounters with young female wiles—and some of us may even recall being the perpetrator of one or two ourselves.
But in the 1990s, feminists, bent on portraying girls as cowering victims of patriarchy, locked away this ancient insight into the attic of political incorrectness. Early in the decade psychologist Carol Gilligan, high priestess of the new doctrine, advanced the theory that girls suffer a dramatic loss of self-esteem once they reach adolescence. If the young girl is a creature of “wisdom and generosity,” sure of herself, even indomitable, the 12- or 13-year-old loses her confidence and submits to “the tyranny of nice and kind.” “Drowning . . . into the sea of Western culture,” girls, she said, resort to “self-silencing.”
Gilligan’s “nice and kind” girls may have puzzled those of us trying to get our adolescent daughters to stop sneering long enough to eat a healthy breakfast, but that didn’t stop an entire industry springing up to defend these fin-du-siècle damsels in distress. As Christina Hoff Sommers tells it in The War Against Boys, best-selling authors like Mary Pipher rushed in, crying that the “selves of girls” were disappearing “like ships into the Bermuda triangle.” The American Association of University Women presented research purporting to show that the schools played a central role in this Western conspiracy against girls, which they called “an unacknowledged American tragedy.” Bent on righting such a wrong, Congress dutifully passed the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act, providing lawsuit-wary school districts with millions of dollars for gender-bias specialists and sensitivity programs. And in 1997, the Health and Human Services put more money behind the myth with a drug prevention program called “Girl Power!”
Now it turns out that these efforts were not only a gigantic waste of money but also may well have harmed their intended beneficiaries. For if girls left to their own devices are much like boys—status-seeking, aggressive, ruthless—then think of what happens when you empower them. What girls need, it seems, isn’t more self-esteem, but a little Western culture to teach them how to control their darker side.
The Times describes one Alpha girl, a seventh grader with “the highest self-esteem in the world,” who tells the members of her clique what they should wear everyday. Can we bring back self-silencing now, please?