Mean girls: an overhyped stereotype

Adolescence has always been a slippery slope, best navigated by keeping your head down and putting one foot in front of the other. My time in middle school was no picnic. I'm sure yours wasn't a walk in the park either. If you had friends you worried about losing them; if you didn't, you thought you'd never have them. Classes were too hard or way too easy. Nothing made sense and everything was unfair. Have I gotten it right so far?

To make matters worse in my case, I transferred midyear from a sweet little private school to a large public one where all the kids (and I mean all the kids) took an instant dislike to me. I was teased, ostracized, even beaten up - for three years. So when I hear that today's girls are meaner than in my day, all I can say is "no way."

For me, the dark night ended as nights always do - gradually. I made friends in the older grades, found out it was OK - even good - to be alone. And eventually, in high school, all the kids that didn't like me suddenly did. Go figure.

So how is my daughter's generation different? Are the Gen-Ys any worse than the Boomers? How's my daughter doing, compared with me? The answer is, better than expected, despite all the current claims that girls are just plain mean. But though it's never been easy to be 13, I believe these days it's even harder.

For one thing, positive role models are few and far between. I don't know what to call Britney Spears, but role model isn't at the top of my list. For another, our American culture's gone overboard into the ocean of mean. Reality shows are really all about cruelty. You're fired, you're dumped, you're tricked, or sometimes you're coerced into swallowing bugs. What's a teenager to do? The media's serving up nasty on a roll and we're eating it up.

It's not easy being mean; it takes a lot of energy - energy that could be used to study, or help others, or read a book. But there's got to be a better way to ferry our kids around the shoals of adolescence than to simply shrug and say they'll get through it. The kids that were mean to me weren't all bad. But they were galvanized by a mob mentality. It can happen to kids. It can happen to adults. (See "Lord of the Flies" and "Triumph of the Will.")

Just think about all the nasty things that used to be considered acceptable - segregated buses; book burnings; the Spanish Inquisition; cow tipping. (OK, some people still think cow tipping is all right, but a growing number of us don't, and our voices will be heard.) My point is: We get what we put up with.

I don't think this hypermedia focus on Mean Girl Syndrome is helping matters either. On the contrary, it's almost making it hip to be unkind. Books like "Girlfighting" and "Queen Bees and Wannabes," while well-intentioned, focus far too much heat on the problem while shedding very little light on the solution. Movies like the upcoming "Mean Girls" and TV shows that portray kids as cynical and sniping (just about any television show aimed at teens today, and don't even get me started about MTV) perpetuate and glamorize such behavior.

I am tired of many things. Reality shows, low-carb diets, low-cut jeans, and mean-girl mania. Especially mean-girl mania. I'm tired of the trend that says not only are girls bad, but bad is good, or at least a good way to get attention. As if the only choice a girl has today is to be mean or meaningless. We used to have books like "Reviving Ophelia." Now I'm expecting a title like, "Drowning Ophelia - as told by her best friend."

But it doesn't tell the whole story, not by a long shot. Yes, there are mean girls, just as there are mean boys. But this characteristic is not genetic; it's generic. Happy people don't act this way. Unhappy, insecure people tend to bully others. And by people, I mean adults as well as kids. We shouldn't tolerate bullying anywhere - not in the workplace or the school yard. But we do, in a way, when we make a joke of it. Or say it's just part of growing up.

Not all girls do this. Most girls don't do this. Most are fully capable of having friendships without strings or barbs or claws. And yet the myth of mean prevails, like so many other urban and suburban legends. Facts are often misleading; they don't always add up to the truth.

And as far as acts of meanness go, who should shoulder the blame? No 1: The girls themselves. No 2: Our pop culture, for holding up meanness as a cool way to behave.

And the No. 3 culprit has got to be - the parents. I know we don't like to take the blame, but sometimes we've just got to. Are we so concerned about our kids having friends that we don't teach them the importance of being a friend?

I read an article in which an 18-year-old was quoted as saying, "I was a girl who wanted to be popular and I would step on anybody to be popular." Where did she get the idea that being popular was so important? Did anyone take the time to tell her that some of the best people are extremely unpopular because they care more about doing the right thing than wearing the right thing?

Not being popular is hard, but I think being popular is worse. Being so concerned about image that you end up empty. Or to quote Gertrude Stein, "there's no there, there."

Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus. They were servants of mankind, not slaves to fashion. And not a bully in the bunch. Now that's a crowd I'd like to hang with.

Madora McKenzie Kibbe is a freelance writer.

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