NEW YORK — When Rosalind Wiseman was 22 and fresh out of college, she taught martial arts to teenage girls. As part of the training, she asked the teens to reflect on who they were and what forces had shaped them.
The answers she got were often troubling. Many girls, she realized, were suffering from emotional damage inflicted on them by other girls - and sometimes the tormentor even included one of their closest friends.
She heard stories of cliques, bullying, and rigid social structures built on physical appearance and adolescent notions of status. She was horrified by tales like the seventh-grader who was ostracized and afraid to return to school because she didn't wear her socks the way the popular girls did.
Originally, Ms. Wiseman had begun her work in the hopes of protecting young women from physical violence. But she ended up worrying about another kind of violence: Why, she asked, are adolescent girls sometimes so cruel to one another?
The result of her questioning is "Queenbees & Wannabes," a book in which she attempts to chart for parents and teens alike the murky waters many young girls navigate as they learn early and painful lessons about social power and status.
Often a cruel "Queenbee" is someone who dominates her peers, but other girls assume roles like "sidekick," "floater," "torn bystander," or the "pleaser/wannabe/messenger."
With her book recently released in paperback, Wiseman is again on a book tour, speaking to audiences, and continuing her quest to advise both girls and their parents on strategies for dealing with the teen years.
Why can teenage girls be so mean? Have they always been this way or is this something that's getting worse?
It's such a simple question and yet so complicated at the same time.
I think it's a combination of things. Generationally, girls have always done this. Eighty-five-year-old women sometimes tell me they remember the exact same thing and they even remember the names of the girls who were mean to them.
But today girls become more verbal at an earlier age. Our culture pushes girls to become more and more adult at younger ages. The clothes reinforce this. Girls need to feel in control of their situation today more than they did in the past.
But if this was just something that was happening to this generation I wouldn't have had this kind of response [to the book]. It exists everywhere. A community with more money requires not just a Tiffany bracelet, but the most Tiffany bracelets. In communities with less money it may be a pair of shoes or a pair of jeans.
But it's all working together to conspire against girls. What gets you high social status? The right style, the right look.
If you're a beautiful girl, you get privilege. People pay more attention to you.
Hasn't any progress been made in terms of offering girls different kinds of role models?
In some ways we've made progress, but in other ways we haven't. [Status] is extremely tied to how you fit in gender stereotypes.
You can have [the] Victoria's Secret [look] on one hand, and [soccer star] Mia Hamm on the other, but they're both body types and both very hard to achieve.
Today people have a very hard time holding their kids accountable and dealing with the fact that they're being mean. They have the feeling they can't talk to other parents about it. It's perceived as being superficial, a rite of passage, something everybody goes through. Sometimes people even say they'll be stronger for it. I'm trying to work with schools to hold kids accountable and empower parents.
Why are adults often reluctant to deal with this?
We don't want to look at why this makes us so uncomfortable. [These issues] go to the root causes of bigotry and inequality in our communities. It shows discrimination. It shows how we get power and privilege in our community. It's too difficult to wrap your head around.
But we have to. I tell teachers all the time: You have got to understand how the experiences you had as a teenager impact the way you teach.
I had a teacher who said to me, "I have bullies in one class and I just ignore them. Listening to you I realized I was bullied by the same kind of guys when I was young and here I am again not dealing with it."
What do you hope to achieve?
I want to be able to talk to girls about rights versus responsibilities. My concern is that girls are learning to sacrifice their personal boundaries with each other [to gain] social status. They learn that in sixth grade. Then in seventh and eighth grade they find out that boys are key to maintaining that status. That can lead to date rape and abusive relationships.
Why do girls lose their voice? Why are they doing this? Some of the learned behaviors are coming from early adolescence, and they are learning that from other girls.
How do you feel after talking to these girls? Do you come away feeling encouraged, or discouraged?
It's different on different days. Sometimes I come away feeling great because I feel they're learning. Other days I feel really down because I realize girls are facing so much.
I love working with girls. They ask the most incredible questions. They are so incredibly smart. They always keep me on my toes.
Do some of these behaviors continue on into adulthood?
Yes, but adults don't want to deal with that. You have a sacred duty as a parent to behave the way you should - and that includes being very self-reflective. The majority of parents just feel really lost sometimes and are trying very hard.
How should we feel about the future, about this younger generation that you are working with?
I think the girls are incredibly self-reflective and that they want to do better.
There's a portrayal of teenagers being narcissistic, not caring. It's frustrating to me because that's not what I see. I feel very optimistic about the girls I work with. I think the girls I work with are very honest, and willing to change.
A lot of Queenbee girls realize how much energy they're expending and how much they're losing doing it.
It's exhausting to maintain that front and they're willing to let go. A lot of times girls feel they're frauds and it's a relief in a lot of ways to give it up.
What is the thing you would most like to make parents understand?
That there's something they can do about this. They can hold their children accountable when their children are doing the targeting, and they can affirm them when they are being targeted.
And what is the thing you would most like girls to understand?
To know what their "unbreakables" are in a friendship - the things that absolutely have to be there. Girls across the board tell me that what they have to have in a friendship is trust, loyalty, and [the ability] to be themselves.
That's why adults are always so horrified when the kids who are in trouble are the beautiful kids.
Entitlement is a huge, huge thing and you get no rewards in our society for being nice, for being courageous, for doing the right thing. You get awards for achievement, for being competitive.
If you do not address these issues in substantial ways you do not have control of your school. The kids with status do.