The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Rachel Simmons Headshot

What Kind of Girl Power is This?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

In "The Code of Miss Porter's," Vanity Fair's Evgenia Peretz offers a rare glimpse of life inside America's most exclusive girls' boarding school. It is a story of girls' empowerment, but -- at least as this article tells it* -- it is a power premised on hierarchy, hazing, and projecting a ruthlessly "perfect girl" persona at all costs.

Head of School Kate Windsor apparently declined to view the behavior of the Oprichinki as bullying. This is unremarkable, as far as many schools go. Girls grow up in a world that largely depicts female aggression as comedy, and euphemizes their cruelty as a "rite of passage," developmental phase or "girls being girls" ("You can't sue a school for girl drama," an '07 alum told VF).

What's intriguing is that Windsor seems to have taken it one step further. She suggests that such behavior is appropriate training for life. As she marveled to Peretz, "We create these rites of passage where girls actually get anxious." She actually called the rituals "awesome," exercises that teach girls how to "prepare for the unknown."

Taking an approach to psychological aggression that is as outdated as the saddle shoe, Windsor draws the line of intervention at "physical harm." As anyone who has spent a few minutes with upper middle class girls knows, throwing a punch is the last way they'd try to take down a peer.

To be sure, Miss Porter's has not ignored bullying. I was an invited speaker there in 2003, and I was enchanted with the headstrong, bright young women, so much so that I hired one of their teachers to work at my summer Girls Leadership Institute. I found then-Head of School Burch Ford to be an exceptionally wise, devoted educator, clearly passionate about girls' leadership and sympathetic to targets of psychological aggression.

If her comments to Vanity Fair are to be believed, Ms. Windsor, by contrast, conflates her school's responsibility for dealing with bullying with the current regrettable trends in overparenting and overprotection. This is a dangerous misread. A school's commitment to the social-emotional welfare of its students does not, by definition, gut them of resilience. But if MPS leadership now sees aggression and intimidation as appropriate training for life, it would follow that enduring it as seen as a badge, rather than seeing its existence as an outrage.

The antidote to helicopter parenting is not a free-for-all in which only the fittest survive. Teaching girls to be tough can be accomplished in more humane ways, and certainly not at the expense of hurting or beating someone else. Resilience is not about being better than or stronger than; it is something found within the self in response to the daily stresses of life -- not stresses that are artificially designed.

When the aggressive dynamics of girls become the basis for how young women negotiate the world, a new, disturbing glass ceiling is created. In my new book,"The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence," I trace the migration of girls' social habits into their behavior in classrooms, extracurricular activities and athletic fields. For example, instead of resolving conflicts on sports teams directly, girls often import the silent treatment of their lunch tables onto the field, refusing to pass a teammate the ball when they are angry.

Sports fields and classrooms are training grounds for how girls will take on the world as young women. Aggression in the workplace and a willingness to win at any cost become the very behaviors that limit female potential. A school like Miss Porter's is at the forefront of girls' empowerment. Ms. Windsor should not be reinforcing this brand of leadership.

If this were a story about boys, we'd call the "rituals designed to produce anxiety and intimidate" hazing, pure and simple. Because we're talking about girls, the toughness Windsor is promoting falls under the ever-expanding umbrella of "girl power." The Oprichinki, according to an '07 Ancient, "don't inflict real pain, just the anticipatory fear of pain." That's not skill building or skin thickening. It's bullying.

* Admittedly, drawing conclusions about Miss Porter's from a magazine article feels like writing a movie review without seeing the movie.