What Happens in Girls Club

Image courtesy of The Two Germanies

How one teacher stopped worrying and learned to love mean girls

Girls Club did not turn out to be the festival of sisterhood I hoped for.

The first rule of Girls Club-- “what happens in Girls Club stays in Girls Club”-- was violated at a rate which defied space and time. How were Girls Club secrets leaked to other classmates before the girls even left the room?

It's not because the kids broke the rule first that I now break it, but because years have passed and the stakes are no longer so high. At the time, I was as invested as the kids were in the drama of our weekly sessions, meant to foster communication and community between 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. My vision was that of early consciousness-raising groups-- theirs was, literally, that of the show Bad Girls Club, which, some told me later, was why they signed up. All of our emotions were so charged and volatile, it was impossible to imagine how the drama and gossip wouldn't define and ruin us forever. The kids were mean girls, after all-- an identity I envisioned like a chronic illness, one that had been lying dormant inside them and had to be treated immediately. Even then, symptoms could linger long after.

Once the word “mean” fused with the word “girl,” it became an inextricably compound concept. Codified by Tina Fey, the movie provided the ultimate reference point for the phenomenon. In the movie, girls' behavior mirrors that of the “animal world.” Girls are mean the way “animals hunt.” It's instinct. If girl meanness is instinct, then it is, like a dormant illness, something that lays waiting in girls’ bodies. All girls, then, hold the “natural” potential for mean-girlness. Maybe the meanness spouts from their tiny reproductive child organs.

My own childhood dissuaded me from buying into gender essentialism or biological determinism: Girl-ness itself felt like something forced on me, something not innate but alien. As such, talking about  mean girl-ness feels as aggressive and inaccurate as talking about girl-ness in general. At the same time, my childhood was populated, early and often, with mean girls. I was in high school when Mean Girls came out, and it seemed to speak resonant, universal truths about how terrible girls can be. And what convenient truths in a culture that is always looking for more evidence of how terrible girls and women are.

How easy, now, to have this phrase and this film to reference when discussing any instance where two or more women have a complicated or negative interaction. On Instagram, over a million posts are tagged #meangirls. A legal dispute involving two department stores can be a “domesticated version of Mean Girls” if Martha Stewart is at the center. Political disagreements, when negotiated by women, can usher an entire county in Oregon into a “mean girl era." And this has been the subtext-- and sometimes the literal text-- of the ongoing conversations about “bullying” in “Twitter feminism.” When NPR aired a segment featuring four women involved in the discussion, they called it “Mean Girls Online." In her recent piece “Don't you dare tell me to check my privilege,” Julie Burchill compares intersectional feminism to “the nastiest bits of Mean Girls,” accusing “non-white feminists” of “bitching about white women's perceived privilege”. It functions not only as a reference, but an explanation-- as if to say, “this is just how girls and women are,” without actually having to say it.

Since seeing Mean Girls in high school, I have learned that it's important not to see white, cis, straight, bourgeois girlhood as universal girlhood. I've also learned that it's important for girls and women to be proud of themselves and of one another, to love and support each other, because of all the other people and institutions and structures that keep girls down. It was feminism, vaguely speaking, that taught me those things. Still, I saw no problem with the concept of mean girls. Mean girls are the enemy of sisterhood, so they seemed like fair game to me.

Looking at mean girls from a socialization perspective makes it easier to hate them without feeling anti-feminist. It's not girlness itself that makes girls mean, this theory argues, but greater cultural and social pressures. Patriarchal society devalues girls and women and leaves fewer spots for them, setting them up to compete with one another. For those who believe in mean girls but not in essentialism, as I did two years ago in the throes of Girls Club, this viewpoint explains and rejects the behavior but exonerates the kids. It was quite convenient, too, that I could righteously embrace all my frustration toward the mean girls of my own youth, all the while knowing that it wasn't really their fault. The phenomenon is real, I believed, but their consciousness is false. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Working with kids, I often have the desire to exonerate them of all guilt. I love my students so much, and they're just little ones, and so many terrible forces and expectations are hurling at them constantly. Girls Club was born out of a realization that the kids, who I'd already known for several years, were in over their heads. One day, hanging out with the fifth graders while they did their homework, I looked over at my coworker. He was surrounded by a group of girls, many of whom were crying and talking over each other, and he raised his eyebrows at me. I tagged him out, confident that, as a former girl and current woman-- no matter how much discomfort and alienation I still felt with that identity-- I would be better suited to help.

My students-- all of whom must have been born within a few years of 2004, when Mean Girls came out-- were making “burn books.” I first learned the phrase from the movie, but I can't remember if I'd come up against them as a kid myself. It's just a notebook where you write insults and rumors about other girls and pass it around. Did my kids learn that from the movie? I'm not sure if they've never even seen it. Was pop culture reflecting truth or creating it? It was mean girl deja vu, and the insults felt just as familiar. Looks, boys, and allegations of promiscuity, written in magic marker and gel pen.

The kids obviously needed space to talk with each other, and they stood to benefit from the help of an adult who could mediate those conversations. Thus, Girls Club was born, creating a space for the interested eight, nine, and ten-year-olds to spend the last hour of after-school on Friday hashing out their social conflicts. Having taught after-school for a number of years, 4:45 pm on Friday is not an ideal time to get a lot of teaching done. Music from Dance Club wafted in from the vents as me and my co-teacher (a longtime friend) tried to get the kids to employ a little bit of empathy as they told each other exactly how they felt. We tried a group bonding game and it ended in injury. We tried having a party and the fighting groups sat on opposite ends of the cafeteria table. We encouraged them to speak openly and honestly, which resulted in a lot of pretty direct insults punctuated by declarations of  “I'M JUST BEING HONEST.” We had to explain that beginning a sentence by saying “No offense, but--” did not necessarily make the following statement inoffensive.

The biggest problem with Girls Club, of course, is that my friend and I weren't trained in restorative justice or any other tried and true program for how to really help kids work through conflict. It was a spontaneous experiment born of immediate need, and although if it had continued we could have and should have gotten more training, it was such a mess that we all put it behind us and didn't look back. For a long time.

Finally looking back at Girls Club, I remember the sincere panic I felt that these girls were being seized by the dormant gendered cruelty. Back then, we stood in front of the kids, frozen, as the older ones told us their favorite shows were Jersey Shore and Basketball Wives-- mean girl tutorials. I blamed Snooki and JWoww, I blamed the eight years that the kids had already been alive and consuming media and internalizing gender expectations, so that I didn't have to blame the young people standing before me, infuriating me. But now, as I watch the same kids a couple years later work together and generously compliment and actively appreciate each other, I want them never, ever to hear the phrase “mean girls” again.

Some phenomena are not explained by their names, but created by them. “Hysteria” was an excellent name for the phenomenon of women being irrational and unreliable narrators of their own lives. It was also not real. Despite the resolution at the end of Mean Girls, even despite the tropes of girlhood it  clearly satirized, what remains most powerfully is the construction. Within one gender category-- under which half the population is assigned-- any instance of interpersonal conflict can be understood and explained by that gender. And while additional categories like race, sexuality, and gender expression function to stereotype different women in different ways, the Mean Girls world view is a sort of diversity rainbow of mean girl-ness. From the pretty white leads to the softball players to the Asian students-- the latter two presented for laughs alongside the lead's earnest struggle-- all the girls united in their suffering. Tina Fey's character names it “Girl on girl crime,” a reference to the racist dog-whistle “black on black crime.”

My students were only mean girls to the extent that I saw them through my own Mean Girls colored glasses. If I refuse the shorthand, what were they? They were young kids with developing linguistic, social, and emotional skills. They are girls-- assigned and coded female, as of now-- working through conflict. Now they are fifth graders working together and hugging each other's little sisters -- literally the festival of sisterhood I was hoping for. Almost certainly, though, there will come another time in their life, as young people and as adults, when they must work through conflict. And probably, once again, they will be called mean girls and understood to be mean, just like girls are. For failing them with Girls Club, I can give myself a pass-- we all made it out okay. But what I regret is buying into the label that dismisses and demonizes their emotions, their pain, their girlhood itself.