I read Odd Girl Out: the hidden culture of aggression in girls by Rachel Simmons as part of an Ed Psyche assignment. Below you will find an unedited copy of the paper I turned in. My next post will be an expansion of this one in which I will discuss my experience with alternative aggression in girls.
This book explores an often ignored part of young girls’ lives, both by parents and teachers. Girl bullying or, as Simmons calls it, alternative aggression, is a phenomenon that has left many girls scarred, insecure, and with low self esteem.
Odd Girl Out is a revelation from the beginning. Having experienced alternative aggressions from girls in elementary school and middle school, I identified with several of the stories presented, of which there are many. Simmons’ book is filled to the brim with interviews of girls between third grade and high school, adult victims and former bullies, as well as parents and teachers. She even includes personal stories from her own past as a victim/bully. Building upon and expanding on existing research (of which there is not surprisingly little on alternative aggression), Simmons shows us the true face of girlhood, a world hidden in plain sight, where girls smilingly torture each other; they make faces, pass notes, circulate petitions and systematically isolate each other all in front of a teacher’s unseeing eye.
Despite all this, the book does not demonize young girls. On the contrary, in reading the stories of girl bullies, the reader finds nothing different from their victims. In a world where “females are expected to mature into caregivers, a role deeply at odds with aggression…[our] culture derides aggression in girls as unfeminine…” (p.18) A good girl, Simmons writes quoting Peggy Orenstein, “is nice before she is anything else—before she is vigorous, bright, even before she is honest.” (p.106) As a result of this unwritten societal rule, conflict between girls must always be hidden, and it is in these hidden spaces that girls are forced to suffer alone and in silence. Whenever it is talked about, teachers and adults are quick to wave it off saying that it is just the way girls are, and that they’ll grow out of it (p.33). However, as every victim of girl bullying knows, that is simply not the case.
That American society forces its women into a role of passivity and nurturing is the root behind girls’ use of alternate aggression. (p.17) It is socially acceptable for boys to be physical, to push, to punch, and to yell out their anger. Yet, if a girl acts out her aggression, she is considered to be acting out of her prescribed gender role; she is considered masculine, Other, the anti-girl. Girls are supposed to be nice, loving, caring, period. Our society does not teach its girls how to resolve conflicts in a positive, productive manner. Instead, girls are encouraged to be sugary sweet and keep their problems to themselves. Research found that girls were told to be quiet or use a “nicer” voice nearly three times more than boys, even though the boys were louder. (p.18) Simmons corroborates this fact when she writes that “to elude social disapproval, girls retreat beneath a surface of sweetness to hurt each other in secret…covert aggression isn’t just about not getting caught; half of it is look like you’d never mistreat someone in the first place.” (p.23)
What makes alternative aggressions all the more sinister is that the pain stretches out longer than a punch in the face. In the silent, invisible game of alternative aggressions, friendship acts as currency and the threat of abandonment is ever-present. Accordign to Simmons, “girls perceive danger in their lives as isolation, especially the fear that by standing out they will be abandoned.” (p.30) One girl will threaten to abandon another girl if she does not do what she wants or if she acts a certain way. As punishment for a social faux pas, girls will form alliances with each other in order to box a girl out of the overarching social network. These acts often come with little or no warning for the offending party. The victim(s) of such acts may never find out what it was that she did to offend the others. Because it is our culture that girls not come out and say what is bothering them, it can be impossible for a girl to get a straight answer as to why another girl no longer wants to be her friend.
When a girl perceives that she is being ignored or pushed out, she might ask another girl why she is acting a certain way. The other girl will most likely respond that she does not know what the first girl is talking about, and she will deny that she is doing anything to harm her friend. Bullies’ blatant denial of the aggressive acts leaves the victim of such acts to question her own mind and feelings. As a result, many girls have described feelings of being “crazy” because they cannot believe that they can trust their own version of events and they begin to feel as though the bullies are right about them after all. (p.46)
Due to the fact that the perpetrators of alternative aggressions are often close friends of the victim, many girls learn not to trust other girls, often spending more time with boys. Many girls and women relayed the feeling that with boys “you know where you stand” and that they feel a lot safer with guys (p.16) Simmons interviewed adult women some 10, 15 years after the their experience with bullying, and some of them still did not trust other women. Some had only recently begun to have close women friends again and had learned to trust them.
It should be made clear that when we are talking about alternative aggressions and girls that we are talking about all girls. Of course, not every girl has been either a bully or victim. Some of the more lucky ones have managed to sneak by unscathed. However, in silence and complacency, we make ourselves accomplices to alternative aggression.
Additionally, it should be said that aggression amongst girls does not manifest itself in the same way in all communities. In her chapter entitled “Resistance”, Simmons discusses how aggression amongst girls is different in low-income communities and communities of color. African American and Latina girls and girls from poor communities, and it goes without saying that this is not true for all girls in these communities, tend to be more honest and direct in handling conflict. What Simmons found in interviewing these girls is that unlike white and middle class girls, these girls spoke their minds to each other and were not afraid of getting hurt. They were instructed by their parents, specifically their mothers, to fight out their issues. Because these girls were able to hash out their conflicts with each other, they tended to be much closer and trusting of each other than girls from higher income or white communities. (p.188)
So as teachers and school officials, what can we do to aid young girls in navigating conflict amongst themselves? Rachel Simmons gives some great suggestions as to how we can begin to change the school culture and treatment of alternative aggressions.
First, we have to create a language to talk about these issues. We have to talk about the ways in which boys and girls are gendered, the roles that society has forced upon them. We have to give it a name and call it out when we see it happening in our classrooms.
Second, we can no longer ask girls to be quiet, passive or nice. American society says that girls can be whatever they want to be, and yet it still places a lot unrealistic expectations upon them. We must allow girls to get angry and we must allow them safe spaces to express that anger, most especially to each other.
Third, in the same way that teachers call out male students in their aggressive acts, we must call out girls on theirs. And we must do it, each and every time. Violence is violence, and both boys and girls must understand that alternative aggression is a covert form of violence and as such it cannot be tolerated.
Reading Odd Girl Out, taught me a lot about myself and my experience as a female bodied person growing up in the public schools. What is more is that it sparked several conversations with some girlfriends. One of whom, shared with me her own story of being bullied. This book not only sheds important light on the issue of girl bullying, but also serves as a catalyst for healing.
As girls, we are often told that our girlfriends are (or should be) the most important thing in our lives, and that, because of our shared oppression as women, they are the only ones that can understand our unique stories and experience. I think this is true. My experiences have taught me to be wary of new people in my life, yet still it is only to the close women in my life that I would share my deepest secrets and my greatest pain. As I read stories of women, who have forsaken other women (or believed that they themselves had been forsaken), I realized that the battle against alternative aggressions is also a battle for women. Learning to more productively navigate our conflicts is a lesson in learning to love one another despite everything else. As women, we also have to understand our capacity for hurting as well as healing. In her chapter, “The Bully in the Mirror”, Simmons writes that
“by washing our hands of our own capacity to injure, we perpetuate the stereotype that females are nonaggressive. We become accomplices in the culture’s repression of assertive women and girls by making aggression pathological, private, and hidden. We also help silence the public discussion of the ways and reasons girls are mean to each other. Most disturbingly, we become strangers to each other. By leaving these episodes in the private, emotional realm, by continuing to imagine those who have bullied us living in the gutter and falling off cliffs…we deprive alternative aggressions of a fair hearing and ourselves of a more honest sisterhood, because to put it out there would mean we have to admit to ourselves that inside we are all mean, that inside we are all aggressive. And girlfriends, we are. (p.151)
Once we are able to come to terms with the fact that our relationships with other women have this double edge, that our love and our hate is inextricably bound together, then we can begin to heal. But not before.
For those of us working in the schools, we have to remember that this is a part of child development that is normalized but is not normal. We must use our authority and influence to stop the cycle of violence among girls. And we need to include parents, especially mothers, in the discussion. Many adult women are still dealing with the trauma of having experience alterative aggression in school. Likewise, many are dealing with the guilt of having been a bully. By working together, we can come up with concrete solutions that will help us raise stronger, independent, and socially competent young women.
Simmons, Rachel. (2002). Odd Girl Out: the hidden culture of aggression in girls. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.