What Makes Mean Girls Mean?

by BUST Magazine

What makes mean girls mean? It’s a question that has intrigued feminists, parents, and Hollywood for decades, but what do scientists have to say about this seemingly inevitable social phenomenon? The latest theories may blow your mind.

One of my favorite books as a child was The Against Taffy Sinclair Club. It was a YA novel about a group of fifth-grade girls who form a club devoted to dissing their classmate Taffy. What was so wrong with Taffy? Well for starters, she made the egregious mistake of growing boobs.

I adored this story, and for all the wrong reasons. I somehow missed its message about loving thy neighbor as thyself, and instead just really dug the idea of a club that made fun of people. I quickly formed a group of my own, though my little clique didn’t reserve our ire for merely one person. We were more enterprising, and spread the mean around our little Catholic school, mocking our classmates about everything from inexpertly rolled uniform pants to poorly feathered bangs. Our plaid pinafore-clad gang was a force to be reckoned with…for a while, anyway. And then just like the main character in the book, I got my comeuppance: in sixth grade the tables swiftly turned, and I got a well-deserved taste of what it was like to be mocked and decreed a dork.

We have all known mean girls. Anyone who’s ever attended a slumber party is familiar with the aggression and cruelty that can occur when young women are left to their own devices in a finished basement. It’s like a miniature female version of Lord of the Flies, but with more singing into hairbrushes and fewer conch shells. From Heathers, to Pretty Little Liars, to, well, Mean Girls, every generation has enjoyed their own Hollywood version of the backstabbing queen bees they’ve had to endure in real life. But what is it that makes some girls so quietly, sneakily unkind? And hey, are we really that much worse than boys?

Bullying boys are known for using physical violence or “direct aggression” to intimidate—shoving classmates into lockers, giving wedgies, that kind of thing— while mean girls wield “indirect” or “relational” aggression as their weapons of choice. According to Dr. Jamie Ostrov, a psychology professor who studies aggression in children, girls are more likely to use “the relationship as the means of harm, including social exclusion, or spreading malicious rumors, gossip, and lies about others. It’s the main way girls and women harm others.” In other words—boys go for headlocks, while we play head games.

Vaillancourt hypothesizes that women use relational aggression(non-violent meanness) as an “intrasexual competetion strategy.” “Making another women look bad is a means by which competing females can secure the best mate for themselves.”

Studying lady aggression is a rather new development because most research on aggression has focused on men. Recently, however, the British science journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society devoted an entire issue to the latest findings on the subject. One article detailed the ways in which lady chimps will get into spats and then viciously kill each other’s infants. (Which is a bit harsher than making up a story about your friend having sex with a corndog.) Another piece described female animals using “odor signals” as an important part of competition and interaction.

But the study that sparked the most media buzz was conducted by Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in indirect and relational aggression, and PhD student Aanchal Sharma. Vaillancourt and Sharma asked different groups of heterosexual women aged 20 to 25 to meet for what they thought was a study on female friendships. Once the groups were chatting away, there would be a knock at the door, and in would walk a research assistant. This assistant would be dressed one of two ways—she’d either be sporting jeans and a bun, or she’d be clad in a tight top, miniskirt, and knee-high boots. What Vaillancourt and Sharma really wanted to observe was how the women responded to the assistant in her different get-ups. They measured the women’s reactions on what they referred to as “the bitchiness scale.” “Bitchy” reactions were characterized by telltale behaviors like making faces, eye-rolling, or mocking laughter. While the conservative assistant barely even registered on the bitchiness scale, the sexy one was a different story: the women stared her up and down, then made fun of her when she left. One woman even shouted, “What the fuck is that?” upon spotting the woman’s cleavage-enhancing top.

After observing these spiteful reactions, Vaillancourt hypothesized that women use relational aggression (non-violent meanness) as an “intrasexual competition strategy.” Making another woman look bad is a means by which competing females can secure the best mate for themselves. How? Because once a woman has been publicly insulted, she not only appears less appealing to the opposite sex, but her self esteem is injured, thus making it more difficult for her to compete. Vaillancourt also sees relational aggression as a way to make sure the sexual balance of power isn’t upset. As she explained recently on LiveScience.com: “It’s women who suppress other women’s sexuality, because if sex is a resource, then more sexually promiscuous women lower the value of it.”

Interestingly, these theories would seem to align with anecdotal evidence suggesting that most mean girl behavior tends to rear its head right around the time when girls first begin to menstruate and become capable of reproduction. Older women, on the other hand, are less competitive for mates, and are therefore less likely to be jerks to one another. (Not sure how this explains The Real House-wives, but perhaps those lasses are their own seperate species?)

Vaillancourt goes on to say that women might have actually evolved to be more finely attuned to these forms of indirect aggression, since we once relied so heavily upon each other for help raising children. Back in more primitive times, if you were snubbed by your cave-women chums, it would have devastating results. You wouldn’t just miss out on all the best cave parties—you and your offspring would likely starve to death. 


Yet another theory suggests that being mean evolved as a way for females to safeguard their baby makers. Yep. The idea here is that women have resorted to smack talk as opposed to actual smacking, because it quite literally meant the survival of the species. In an article titled “Staying Alive: Evolution, Culture, and Women’s Intrasexual Aggression,” psychologist Anne Campbell posits that we may be hardwired to resort to underhanded meanness as a way of keeping our reproductive systems from becoming injured. 

Both Vaillancourt and Campbell are in the field of “evolutionary psychology”— the idea that certain human behaviors can be seen as psychological adaptations, developed eons ago by our fore-primates. It’s a controversial discipline that tends to make feminists uneasy, since this school of thinking has resulted in many articles that seem to reinforce gender stereotypes or dismiss bad behavior by saying, “Welp, that’s just the way those womenfolk be made!” But as evolutionary psychologists are quick to point out, they aren’t saying people are incapable of change. Rather, they believe that more thoroughly understanding the evolutionary basis for behaviors can actually help us to alter said behavior and change the way we relate. 

Have girls really cornered the market on meanness? Is there something particularly awful about the way females treat each other?

Nevertheless, not everyone is on board with the theories. Dr. Colin Johnson, a professor of gender studies at the University of Indiana who previously taught a class called “Mean Girls, Feminism, and Female Misbehavior,” is not at all jazzed by Vaillancourt’s sexy research-assistant study. “If anything, what these findings suggest to me is that women have had to work very hard to be taken seriously in many contexts, including academic contexts; that clubwear isn’t read as serious attire; and that people in general might therefore be surprised, offended, and even annoyed if a woman decked out in clubwear wandered into the middle of an ostensibly serious focus group,” he says. “I mean, if I was sitting in a focus group dealing with any subject and a man wandered into the middle of it wearing hot pants and a muscle shirt, I would probably say ‘What the [expletive] is that?’ And not because I have anything against men wearing hot pants, believe me. It would just seem so conspicuously out of place.”

It’s certainly a valid point. Also in the skeptic camp is mean-girl expert Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the bestselling book on adolescent female aggression that was the inspiration behind Tiny Fey’s Mean Girls. In fact, Wiseman says she finds these studies “irritating.” “They irritate me not only because they reinforce cultural stereotypes of women being entirely focused on reproduction and having to manipulate men to get said reproduction accomplished,” she says, “but also because it runs so counter to what I experience with so many young women.”
Wiseman is also dubious about the theory suggesting that women subliminally live in fear of incurring a damaging blow to their ovaries. “As a woman who got her black belt in karate when I was 24, I was profoundly empowered to be able to protect myself,” she says. “That was one of the single most important things I did as a young woman to come into my own. And none of the girls I work with who fight— and plenty do—think about protecting their reproductive systems. They want to kick ass and they are unapologetic about it. And if they are fighting against someone who is trying to assault them, then more power to them.” She’s got a point; while females’ indirect aggression might not risk harm to their innards, direct aggression is still often required to protect them.

Still, it’s hard to say whether the famous cinematic impulse to dump that bucket of pig blood in Carrie was Darwinian, or if society simply teaches girls to lash out at one another. In Comparison of Aggression in Boys and Girls, Dr. Donald Meichenbaum says: “For both boys and girls, the rates of (direct) aggressive behavior peak around age three. It is around age four that gender differences begin to emerge, as girls show greater responsivity to socialization pressures and a marked decline in their (directly) aggressive behavior.”
So do girls stop with the hitting and kicking simply because society tells us that it isn’t what nice girls do? Or is some cavewoman part of our brains fighting to keep the human race alive by spreading a rumor that Sarah gives handjobs behind the bleachers?

Dr. Ostrov thinks it’s probably a mish-mash. “We are all products of both genes and our environment, and our environment and culture can actually change the expression of our genes,” he says. “With that said, there is a very big role for what we call socializing agents or models within our environment. That is, girls learn about relational aggression from older siblings, older peers, parent-child relationships, friends, and even the media. In fact, one of the ways that children may learn about relational aggression is from being the victim of aggression and then displaying these behaviors in the future.”

As I type this, I’ve just seen a news story about a possible Mean Girls movie reunion, and Heathers: the Musical has just opened off-Broadway. While I enjoyed these films as much as the next person, I can’t help but wonder why our culture seems so fascinated by young women being cruel to one another. Have girls really cornered the market on meanness? Is there something particularly awful about the way females treat each other?

Wiseman says no, and in fact, in her book about boys victimized by bullying, Masterminds and Wingmen, she asserts that dudes have it just as hard as ladies, and in some ways, even worse, because they’re not supposed to show their emotions. “We’re just blind to it because boys and men don’t have a language or permission to talk about the complexity of their relationships,” she says. “We are so focused on girls being the only ones with these problems.”

Of course, one has to ask: Do we also hear less about boys behaving badly simply because it’s more socially acceptable for boys to be aggressive? “The pat answer would be that meanness and aggression are what’s expected of boys, given prevailing gender norms,” says Dr. Johnson. “As such, meanness and aggression in boys is simply less surprising, and therefore less likely to generate commentary or concern. And I do think there’s some truth to this. That said, I think a more sophisticated and probably more accurate answer would be that meanness, especially, is a disposition that is thought to have fear and insecurity and pettiness at its heart. If we acknowledged the prevalence of ‘boy meanness,’ of which there is certainly a great deal in the world, we might also have to acknowledge that men are haunted by fear and insecurity and pettiness in much the same way that women have historically been thought to be. And that would be very destabilizing to the status quo indeed.”

Even if aggression is indirect, it can have real, physical consequences. Whether it’s calling someone a whore on Facebook, or to her actual face, the fallout from bullying can be devastating, and it is horrifying that it’s no longer surprising to hear of a young girl killing herself after relentless slut-shaming by her peers. Felicia Garcia, 15; Jessica Laney, 16; Cherice Moralez, 16; Audrie Pott, 15; and Jesse Logan, 18; are all girls who took their own lives after a sexual encounter or assault led to them being ruthlessly taunted and shamed.

Fortunately, there is much more awareness around bullying in today’s world, with anti-bullying campaigns like the It Gets Better Project and StopBullying.gov helping parents, teachers, and kids inter.vene. And this kind of education and consciousness-raising really seems to be the only way to stop the cycle of meanness, since most children (myself included) often don’t understand the root causes of their own cruel impulses.

So what truly makes a mean girl mean? The jury is still out. But according to Wiseman, that’s not what really matters anyway. “There’s never one answer to this question—as much as people want there to be one so they can blame someone or something,” she says. “It’s always some combination of nature, nurture, and culture. The only ‘answer’ that is useful for any of us is to know the above and then have the courage to self-reflect about our own behavior and the quality of our interactions and relationships with people in our lives.”

When I look back on the times I teased Mary or Marla, I still burn with shame 25 years later. And it would be kind of nice to blame my decision to call Jennifer Bartley “Jennifer Fartley” on a Darwinian impulse beyond my control. But I don’t know if I can. What I do know is that I’d like to go back in time and find myself at age 12— that awkward little girl with buckteeth and a lazy eye—sit her down, rip the dog eared copy of The Against Taffy Sinclair Club from her hand, and instead hand her this quote from Henry James:  “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

By Johanna Gohmann
Illustration by Rosena Fung
Images via Goodreads, Heathersthemusical.com, playbuzz.com


This article originally appeared in the August/September 2014 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today

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