“She has kept me on the warpath”: Of Mean Girls, First Wavers, and Female Friendship

When my Youth in Modern America class discussed Mean Girls, I asked them to consider whether or not the female friendships presented in the film were authentic. Among the men in the class, I got the sense that this question seemed entirely beyond their purview (despite the fact that I’d asked them about the authenticity of numerous representations in the past, all of which they’d seemed to find reasonable requests for consideration). I then asked how the female friendships of the film seemed different from the male friendships with which they were familiar. One student suggested that boys were more willing to confront each other face to face whereas girls resorted to talking behind each other’s backs. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. “Probably just nature,” he responded.

At which point I pretend spat and said, “I hate that.” Pedagogy. Master class.

Admittedly, I am the worst. But the good news, I guess, is that I didn’t stop there. I asked students about the gendered nature of raising up children and about patterns we had identified over the course of the semester: about which emotions were/are legitimate to display, based upon sex; about which characteristics were praised versus those that were/are discouraged, based upon sex; about the ways in which kids – and then teens – were/are measured by parents, by teachers, by peers, based upon sex. Where did kids learn to behave as they did? The home, presumably. And school, of course. But after a semester of considering American youth’s experience – with the majority of our consideration taking place in the 20th century – students knew the media and the marketplace played substantial roles in suggesting (directing? mandating?) the proper behaviors of boys and girls. Female agreeability, flexibility, and acquiescence remained fundamental elements of getting along. Appearance and attractiveness – denoted by the response a girl received from the opposite sex – were likewise key to fitting in. Rocking the boat was not part of the path to popularity.

Obviously much has changed since women’s liberation challenged gender binaries and advocated on behalf of equal rights and opportunities for American women. But old habits die hard (as I am learning when my daughter [WHO IS TWO] has learned and says that certain behaviors are “not ladylike” [she did not learn that in our house]). Even in Mean Girls, a millennial classic, a very 21st century film, the girls, for all their “power,” continue to be measured and evaluated on an antiquated system based on looks, goods, money, and heterosexual appeal. The power the mean girls wield is related directly to how well they adhere to the tried and true elements of the popularity scale. And even as they are mean, they pretend, outwardly, they are not. Only among friends do they reveal their animosity and hostility, for those in and outside the group.

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Susan Douglas has written beautifully about the problematic nature of the “queen bee” girl bullying “epidemic.” She suggests the phenomenon is a kind of red herring. The bullying that cuts to the core of high school girls’ coming of age experience is much more often sexual harassment administered by boys than girl-on-girl meanness. She suggests also the anxiety about the rise in “girl power” run amuck is directly related to the increasing rate of girls’ success when compared to their male peers. She also critiques the call for what seems to be an ever-increasing thinness. As girls gain power, they are encouraged to take up less space. Hunger, Douglas suggests, might contribute to bitchiness. The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, I think, was published before the publicity dedicated to girls’ and women’s increased devotion to maintenance of the thigh-gap, but Douglas anticipated its rise as she noted that girls, at younger and younger ages, named losing weight as their number one goal and often identified their appearance as the greatest obstacle they faced in their pursuit of happiness.

In any case, all of these considerations were my motivation for assigning the film (and a chapter from Douglas), but as I find with topics that that encroach increasingly on the present and with sources students feel they already know, this was a hard sell.

But I think the experience of talking about these things in the classroom was good – for them, and maybe more, for me. Because there is no rest for the wicked, I’ve been reading for a US Women’s History class I’m teaching next semester (A NEW PREP). Because the most recent works I’ve read considering 19th century women’s rights work are books I’ve read to my aforementioned daughter (read: intended for children), I’ve needed to engage in a reintroduction with the basics. And so I’ve turned to Jean Baker’s Sisters, which is wildly readable, and very much dedicated to a reclamation of the first wavers’ public AND private lives, which I love. Baker argues that key women’s rights ladies – Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, and Alice Paul – often appear in historical consideration as dehumanized figures, all work and no play, all politics and no pleasure. In fact, they’re fascinating and not only for their dogged commitment to the suffrage cause but also for the ways in which they attempted to integrate their views of sex and gender into their own lives, in competing and often contradictory ways.

So where am I going with all this? Friendship is the thread here. I now am obsessed with the friendship between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (I know ECS is a problematic figure for many reasons – but please, just give me this). Besties dedicated to breaking the oppressive bonds of patriarchy? Tell me more. Opposites in looks and disposition, clashing over key issues but keeping arguments in-house in order to present a united front? Not to mention recognizing these arguments were an essential part of their friendship? MORE, NOW. Yin and yang in their writing, research, and philosophizing? Oh my God. I just died of happiness. The ghost of Karen Dunak will complete this post. Wrote Stanton of their pairing: “In thought and sympathy we were as one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytic in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric…” What’s more, Anthony had been the force, Stanton claimed, that “kept me on the warpath.”

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SBA & ECS, Bosses

Ever since I was just a baby historian (aka five minutes ago) and I first read Carroll Smith Rosenberg’s “Female World of Love and Ritual,” I have loved the idea of a distinct women’s culture, forged between and among women as a means of support and solidarity, a place where men, for all their power, were superfluous. A thing I especially love about this world is how women recognized in each other particular elements of knowledge and strength and understanding that were ignored by or, I guess more accurately, were invisible to men, not knowing what to look for. Certainly, in my research and reading and teaching, concentrated much more in the 20th century than the 19th, I have seen remnants of this culture and argued for its ongoing value.

Women needn’t be denied rights in order to find solidarity among other women. Certainly, I haven’t found that to be the case. But I have also found an understanding of women’s rights and roles – the challenges to and infringements upon – enhances camaraderie among women. Recognition of the often competing responsibilities of public and private life and the challenges of integrating political principles into private relationships has yielded some of the most important discussions and solidified some of the most important relationships of my adult life.

I wouldn’t say Mean Girls is anti-feminist. It certainly attempts to communicate a feminist message in calls to limit girl-on-girl crime and in its concluding statements about the value of individualism, self-expression, and acceptance of difference. But more consideration of how the mean girls came to be so mean would’ve been welcome, and would’ve done much to reveal the institutions and mechanisms that indicate to girls what it is society will value in them. This, I think, was fundamental to Anthony’s and Stanton’s friendship: seeing the world in which they lived and their part in it, how it shaped them but also limited them, how so many of their private indignities were linked to their limited political power. It was with those considerations that they not only forged their friendship but also endeavored to improve the world beyond their beloved pairing.

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