Girls Need Safety, Opportunity, Not More Policing

The bad news about girls just seems to keep coming, particularly if you pay attention to popular media. Girls are going “wild,” girls are “mean” (and certainly meaner than boys), and girls are even getting as violent as boys. Current media coverage of modern girlhood, at least in the United States, is virtually all grim. It is also clear as to the source of the problem — girls are getting more like boys — and that is bad news for girls.

Despite widespread acceptance of these notions, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are incorrect. They also lead to bad social policy, obscure the good news about girls and distance the United States from the global conversation about girls and girlhood.

Let’s start with the media fascination with “mean” girls. The manipulative and damaging characteristics of girls’ social worlds have been the subject of high-profile best-selling books like “Odd Girl Out” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” These, in turn, spawned hit movies like “Mean Girls” and a slew of articles, like The New York Times Magazine cover story entitled, “Girls Just Want to Be Mean.”

Notions of “meanness” rely on psychological categories of behaviors that are intended to harm, but are not physical in nature; instead they rely on covert or indirect behaviors like rumor spreading, ignoring or eye rolling. Some scholars have suggested that while boys tend to specialize in physical violence, girls specialize in these more covert forms of aggression, an idea that the media immediately embraced.

However, the literature on relational aggression does not consistently support this notion. For example, University of Georgia researchers randomly selected 745 sixth graders from nine middle schools across six school districts in northeast Georgia. The student participants took computer surveys each spring semester for seven years, from sixth grade to 12th.

Key findings included the following. First, covert and relational aggression is extremely common; 96 percent of the students who participated in the study reported at least one act of relational aggression (meaning, everyone is mean sometimes), and 92.3 percent of boys and 94.3 percent of girls said they’d been the victim of such an attack at one point during the study period. Second, they found that boys admitted to significantly more acts of relational aggression than girls did. And girls were more likely to be victims.

Finally, and of the greatest significance, of the meanest kids (the ones who fell into the “high” relational aggression group), 66.7 percent were boys and 33.3 percent were girls. So, at least according to this study, the problem is mean boys, not girls.

Read the full article in JJIE.