Mean Girls Don’t Have an Expiration Date

Mean Girls of all ages, Mean Girls aren't just high schoolers, middle-aged Mean Girls, women's relationships

It took me a few months to recognize I’d been struck from mailing lists and excluded from social events by a group of women whose company I’d enjoyed for several years. No one bothered to tell me. By the time I’d traced my “crime” back to suggestions I’d made at a meeting, suggestions I only later learned were not welcome—it was too late. I’d been cast out, rejected, shunned.

My niece’s daughter had a rough time this summer. A pack of girls she’d been hanging out with suddenly began to exclude her. No one bothered to tell her why.

“I don’t even know what I’ve done to make them act this way,” she announced. “It’s so unfair.”

“It is,” I agreed. “If it makes you feel any better, the same thing just happened to me.”

“To you?” my grandniece asked, astonished. “But you’re . . .”

“Old,” I replied helpfully. “And the women who turned their backs on me are even older than I am.” And, I might have added, liberal, university-educated feminists.

It took me a few months to recognize I’d been struck from mailing lists and excluded from social events by a group of women whose company I’d enjoyed for several years. No one bothered to tell me. By the time I’d traced my “crime” back to suggestions I’d made at a meeting, suggestions I only later learned were not welcome—it was too late. I’d been cast out, rejected, shunned.

In retrospect, it should have been funny. Senior citizens acting like middle schoolers? Oh please. Who needs friends like that anyway? Laughable, yes, but also hurtful.

“Mean Girl Syndrome” seems to be a thing these days. At a time when women have a number of real issues with which they’re struggling, too many of them are turning on each other.

A mean girl can be ten or seventy, rich or poor, liberal or conservative. She might be a born-again evangelical or dyed-in-the-wool feminist. She might be a mother whose unkind criticisms diminish her daughter’s self-worth or a group of radical artists piling on a commenter on a chat board. The mean girls, individually or in packs, may be motivated by insecurity or jealousy or, increasingly these days, self-righteousness. They are convinced the individual they’re taunting, berating, bullying or shunning “deserves” her punishment. Maybe they don’t like her behavior, her looks or her attitude. Sometimes they take the moral high road; sometimes they don’t. The attacks, whether passive or aggressive, become about exerting a kind of dominance over the ostracized victims.

Of course men can behave horribly, too; so can anyone along the gender spectrum. After all, we live in an age where campus violence is on the rise and domestic abuse hasn’t been sufficiently reduced, never mind eliminated. Women still suffer in terms of pay equity and institutional representation proportionate to their numbers.

We’d like to imagine women as strong, smart, sensitive, independent and nurturing human beings. Most of my friends fit that description. But human beings are a prickly lot and some women fall prey to their worst impulses. It used to surprise me, maybe because I expected so much of our gender. It no longer does.

In a time when offense is so easily given and easily taken, mean girls thrive. Trolls, once imagined to be socially awkward teens or young men suffering from arrested development, are welcoming females to their ranks. Women are getting more aggressive with their bullying, combining the age-old tactic of verbal abuse with acts of physical violence against their victims. Arguments on public issues devolve into personal attacks. Everyone and everything about them is fair game.

My grandniece will survive being snubbed and so will I. I just hope women learn how to treat each other better. There are lots of ways to demonstrate passion, commitment and dedication. Being mean-spirited isn’t one of them.

Nikki Stern has published two non-fiction books, Because I Say So  and Hope in Small Doses  a 2015 Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal finalist given to non-fiction works that inspire, provoke and redirect thought. Her essays have also appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, The Broad Side, Salon and Humanist Magazine. She’s been a guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and CBS “Sunday Morning,” among others. Her new novella, Don’t Move, is a suspense thriller available exclusively on Kindle. She’s currently working on a novel of magic and mystery set in New Orleans. 

Image via Daily Mail

  • Lezlie Bishop

    I’m glad you decided to write this, Nikki. So-called Mean Girls have always existed. I had my own experiences with them in high school. However, what’s changed is technology. Avenues to harm the mind and soul of an individual have increased exponentially with the advent of social media and smartphones. However, I don’t think there is much difference between mean girls/women and mean boys/men. That is made clear by the kinds of comments one finds on internet posts of all types. This type of behavior almost always points to a deep sense of inadequacy and feelings of insecurity. Only people who are pretty well-adjusted can afford to be kind because they don’t concern themselves with appearances, hierarchies and “in-crowds.”

  • Neighbor55

    So true! The practice is very common, sadly.

  • Susanne Freeborn

    It certainly has happened to me. I have one particular experience in the past few years that gnaws at me because of all the mutual friends who seemed blind to the directly cruel & ungenerous behavior of a common, but now former, friend of ours. Disagreements ought to have room in a friendship.

  • cwnidog

    Nikki, you’re getting the best revenge – living well.

  • mary hodder

    The equivalent of Bro Culture, for women. This is my other example of how feminine culture is really screwed up.. and we don’t and can’t really discuss it a as a culture because it’s about being silent and ghosting people — not being direct and conversing about behaviors and problems. It’s girls who haven’t grown up and still live as 9 year olds.. as if the feminine version of Lord of the Flies was acceptable. My exhibit A is the $60b / year wedding industry in the US. We have a lot of issues in women’s culture not growing up, and in our treatment of women (women to women) and it’s holding us back. The only solution is emotional intelligence and doing our personal work to own what we do and face ourselves…

  • SSS

    Nikki, both you and your niece should read “Odd Girl Out.” The discussion of the different types of relational aggression that exist from as early as kindergarten age is very enlightening, especially in hindsight for me both as someone who was often bullied in school, and watching my daughter suffer at the hands (or really the nasty mouth) of a fellow member of her high school team, who exerted a great deal of effort to try to excommunicate her from every social relationship she had. It was great luck that our daughter was the only one from her high school who chose to attend her college of choice so she got a fresh start, and she has thrived socially and emotionally ever since. One thing that the book points out is that teachers are clueless or often even just turn a blind eye to this sort of social aggression, thus empowering the mean girls to push their nasty agendas even further, until somebody finally confronts them and tells them to knock it off. Those middle-aged mean girls? Well, maybe they should just go back to passing notes in gym class and let the rest of us put on our big girl pants and run the world.

  • Amy Peterson

    Nikki, are you sure some of these educated women were not envious of you and used your remarks in a meeting as an excuse to act out their envious aggression? I read about what you’ve written and done while so many people talk about doing things but don’t actually do them. It’s just a suggestion. I go through periods dealing with women professionally in which they do the girl-aggression thing by getting all upset about a conflict and getting the other “girls” to surround them with nurturing and then start rumors that I’ve been fired, will be fired, my board has made a vote of no-confidence in my leadership, etc.

    Thank you for expressing this.

  • Amen sister! Well said, and better yet, well done!

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