The Clique Imaginary

The idea of the clique is used to destroy female intimacy in adulthood
IN the second season of Gossip Girl, Dan Humphrey, a sensitive scholarship student from Brooklyn, attempts a truce of sorts with the Upper East Side’s legendarily elitist and ultra-wealthy Chuck Bass, who had spent the past season and a half mocking Dan for his lack of pedigree and social acumen. Dan approaches Chuck by acknowledging these judgments. “I know we don’t like each other, you think I’m a boring, sheltered nobody,” he says, only to be interrupted by Chuck’s cool and brutal correction: “I don’t think of you.”

This moment illustrates one of the fundamental aspects of the mystique of cliques: outsiders are preoccupied with how the members of the clique perceive them, while clique members are not preoccupied with outsiders at all. This asymmetry of concern is at the core of how cliques are commonly understood, as inherently vicious and exclusionary. Cliques are the scapegoats for all behaviors perceived as negative by those outside of it. Parents blame cliques for replacing the family’s value systems with those of the peer group. Teachers blame them for elevating socializing above academic learning in school. Peers blame cliques for their lower self-esteem because they feel rejected by the clique, whether or not an outright rejection has occurred at all. While social scientists, according to the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, use clique to describe “a grouping of persons who interact with each other more regularly and intensely than others in the same setting,” laypeople tend to use it to describe a “social grouping of persons that exhibits a great deal of peer pressure on its members and is exclusive, based on superficial differences.”

I contend that the latter definition does not take into account the gendered nature of our social distaste for cliques. It’s no surprise that Gossip Girl, given its high school setting and exaggerated teen hierarchies, would offer an especially instructive moment demonstrating the social dynamics of the clique. What is surprising is that the moment consists of an exchange between two young men. Though the most common stories of sadistic hazing rituals on high school campuses feature young men’s sports teams, it is young women’s lunch tables that bear the brunt of most critiques of traumatizing adolescent social behaviors. In the public imaginary, cliques are almost universally characterized as not only female but as hyper-feminine, and they are held to demonstrate the absolute worst that young women have to offer: cattiness, exclusivity, cruelty, and ruthless social ambition.

Whether or not a pop-culture representation of a female friend group will be categorized as a clique hinges largely on whether viewers believe they would be accepted into the group. Few would question that Mean Girls’s Plastics are a clique; their exclusivity is explicitly stated, their group’s rules, rigid and exaggerated. The Heathers of Heathers are notable for how their group assimilates individual members to the point where their given name is obviated: Winona Rider’s Veronica is grouped in as a Heather. But what of the four preteen girls in Now and Then? They are ultra-reliant on one another for validation of their changing adolescent moods, and they appear to have no social world outside of their quartet. Cher and Dionne of Clueless are viewed as a classic cinematic example of enduring best-friendship rather than as a clique, despite Cher’s explicit statement in the opening sequence that their friendship is based on their both knowing what it is like to be envied. They accept Tai Fraser into their circle not as a friend but as a “project.” Yet audiences continue to look fondly on this pairing because we are more privy to their interior lives. They are misguided but lovable and loving, and they demonstrate these qualities from within their own small circle.

When cliques are derided, it is usually under the noble banner of uplifting and valuing nonmembers. But this attitude is based on troubling doublethink: it champions the outsider as inherently worthy of belonging to the clique while condemning the very existence of the same clique. “You are just as pretty and cool as those girls, they’re missing out by not being friends with you!” is a more typical response than, “If they aren’t friendly, why do you want to be friends with them?” or “Maybe they have enough friends.” The implication of our suspicions of cliques is that the only reason anyone has a close circle of friends is to experience the joy of excluding others, not the support of strong bonds.

Much of the academic literature about adolescent cliques views them as something closer to intentional communities, with stated missions and values, than elitist in-groups. “Positively oriented cliques, based on values of caring, empathy and respect for others provide learning experiences that augment those opportunities available in the family unit during adolescence,” writes Bette J. Freedson, LCSW, on social worker resource site Help Starts Here. But because cliques consist of members who only interact frequently and intimately with fellow members—as both the social science and lay definitions suggest—it should not be surprising that some outsiders can’t perceive that a clique’s values are “positively oriented.” If these outsiders assume that their non-inclusion is actually an intentional exclusion, that may say more about their imagination than anything about the clique. Freedson continues, “Someone who is rejected from a pro-social clique may gravitate to a clique of outsiders. Such a clique might click around antisocial behaviors as way of expressing negative emotions. In such a case, a dysfunctional type of self-esteem can emerge.” It is convenient to blame cliques to which people never belonged as having more influence on their behavior than their own friend groups or their disposition, but it is also dishonest. A study in Development Psychology published in 2009 found that young people already possessing antisocial qualities were likely to gravitate toward antisocial, more deviant cliques. Navigating one’s own clique dynamics is challenging enough, to demand that the clique members be responsible for the negative emotions of outsiders is beyond an undue burden.

The same study found that after age 20, most people have developed resistance to peer influences that might have engendered antisocial behaviors only a few years earlier. Films about early adulthood shift markedly toward depicting romantic entanglements rather than tumultuous friendship dynamics of teen dramas. Yet the belief that clique behavior continues into adulthood persists. The Plastics may have been a high school fiction, but it didn’t stop adults like F. Diane Barth from authoring a Psychology Today article in 2015 in which she labels adult women “mean girls” in a harrowing story on “mommy cliques” she encountered at her child’s gymnastics class. The language in the article is telling (emphases that follow are mine): “No one, it seemed, was interested in making a new friend … these women seemed to want me to know that they were leaving me out. Two of them appeared to intentionally wait until I was within earshot to make their plans to have lunch together … in those moments when I felt transported back to my own childhood sense of inadequacy and inferiority, was the sense that now my son was in the frame.” Her feelings of rejection are all things she’s imagined, sensed, and believes herself to have intuited, but no smoking gun of intentional exclusion ever appears. She goes so far as to state that her rejection implies a rejection of her son, though again no evidence of this outright rejection occurs. As one who has felt these same feelings when navigating a new social environment, I sympathize, but I cannot abide a writer passive aggressively describing other women as “mean girls” when the intent of the article is ostensibly to combat passive aggressive behavior.

Barth’s suspicion of adult female friends is hardly an anomaly. A 2013 survey found that 43 percent of a 3,000-person sample believe their workplace to be populated with cliques. “We find that office cliques tend to form most in corporate environments with weak management,” Katherine Crowley, a career and life coach, told Forbes. “They are like office gangs that emerge to fill in the void of leadership.” That’s right: if you go to happy hours without taking along the entire office, it’s just like being in a gang.

Though Crowley’s statement about gangs are not specifically gendered, having authored a book called Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal, she has a particular bone to pick with women in cliques.

The promotional copy of the book reads like classic conspiracy theory:

Have you dealt with a woman in the workplace who:

• “Accidentally” excludes you from important meetings?

• Seems intent on taking you down professionally?

• Gossips about you with other coworkers?

• Makes you look bad by missing deadlines?

• Forms a “pack” of mean girls to make your life miserable?

The more powerful these workplace packs’ members are, the more they keep their membership rolls guarded. An iconic New York magazine cover story from 1998 profiled “the Seven Sisters,” billed on the cover as “a clique of young publicists, only a few years out of college” who “now control much of Manhattan’s trendiest nightlife. No wonder they’re laughing.” The story focuses on their frivolous and outrageous behavior and their expensive fashion tastes, giving only passing notice to the fact their firms were billing over a million dollars a year. More recently, Taylor Swift’s friend collection has created a niche market for accusatory articles about her suspicious little club, all written with a scorn that Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Pussy Posse” clique (later “Wolf Pack”) never conjured over its decades of existence. As you may already know, Taylor Swift bills more than a million dollars a year as well.

“Clique-y” is the pejorative used to describe young women in a friend group that is perceived to be exclusionary. But this dismissal dehumanizes them and disregards their personal reasons for maintaining a tight-knit circle of friends. The suspicion aimed at cliques targets female intimacy, particularly when it shared between women with social capital. My friend and fellow writer Rachel Syme once noted, “Two powerful men being friends is an inevitability. Two powerful women being friends is a conspiracy.”

Women who orient their social lives around a select group are held in distrust, as if women’s duty is to cast their friendship nets widely and superficially. The expectation that they do so signals that a woman’s social life is not considered her own: it must be arranged for the benefit of the family, of strangers, anyone really besides herself. “Some had joined this activity expressly to be together,” writes Barth in her tale of gymnastics-class cliques. That the women in the class have elevated the value of their social circle over her demand to befriend a stranger for the sake of her son’s possible, projected sense of rejection should be celebrated as a victory for women, who often are obliged to forfeit friendships during motherhood. Instead these women are reduced to “mean girls,” their interior lives and their intentions made into unflattering speculative fiction because they would not perform the emotional labor of actively expanding their social circle.

Maintaining a small group of friends is about quality control of the friendships themselves, not quality control of the group’s members. A woman entrusted with any modicum of power and capital faces enough suspicion in her professional and personal lives to make the scrutiny of her friendship choices far more cruel than any imagined slights against those outside her circle. Her approval and her confidence are seductive prospects, but they are only entitlements in the most hollow politics of solidarity. Frankly, it isn’t her job to think of you, much less be your friend.