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Stephanie Manes Headshot

The Meanest Girl of Them All

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Call her a bully, a mean girl or a queen bee -- she leads the army in social warfare and she is getting ready to emerge on the scene as the new school year unfolds. Fortunately, we are a lot more savvy about social aggression among girls than we used to be. Thanks in large part to increased media attention and thoughtful public awareness campaigns, adults are much less likely to tell themselves that "girls are just being girls" when they engage in these covert forms of bullying. Educators and parents have responded by taking steps to stamp out relational aggression between girls. The problem is that even with all of our youth-focused efforts, we may still be missing the worst offenders. The truth is social aggression is alive and well in the magazines we read, the television we watch and the blogs we follow. And our own vicarious participation may unwittingly send girls the very message that we are trying to silence.

Young women live in a culture where tearing down other people is a national past-time. Mainstream entertainment seems to thrive on this sport. Tune in to the wildly popular shows like "America's Got Talent" or "The Voice" and you can watch people being mocked and scorned by a panel of bullies-for-hire. Or look at some of the reality television that adults tend to favor, like "Top Chef" or "Project Runway," where the contestants aren't thanked for their participation and good effort, but are coldly told to pack up their knives or sewing kit and get out. Of course, in all of these cases, the victims are actually volunteers, but there is still plenty of glee in witnessing their take-down. And let's not forget the pulp magazine covers ruthlessly shaming actresses and pop-stars, with headlines like "worst beach body" and "stars without makeup."

The bad news is that our daughters are growing up in cultural waters that support ruthless criticism of each other. The good news is that with the wealth of examples of bullying, we have many opportunities to talk to girls about values, teach empathy and encourage a different kind of empowerment. Here are some tips for how to work with mainstream media to get out your own anti mean girl message with your daughters:

  • Monitor what you are viewing. Even if it seems harmless, our own vicarious participation in cultural shaming sets the tone for our daughters. It's hard to take your anti-bullying message seriously if she sees you taking pleasure in witnessing someone get a dose of the same kind of cruelty on television or in a magazine.
  • Talk to her about what she is watching and reading. Of course, we can't completely insulate our daughters from all the negative-speak. And the point isn't to raise them in a vacuum; we should teach them to develop their own value system -- one that hopefully includes a healthy respect for difference. Invite her to form opinions about whether these instances of shaming-as-entertainment fit with her own sense of right and wrong. In other words, we can use some of these events to teach our girls to think critically about the message itself rather than the person it is directed at.
  • Look for ways to teach empathy. Turn these public examples of mean-spiritedness into chances to help your daughter develop compassion and empathy for someone else's suffering. Pop culture is a great entry point for conversations with our daughters, since it already has their attention. Ask questions that invite your daughter to put herself in the shoes of the person being critiqued. What does she think that young actress might feel when she sees that snarky comment on a magazine cover or entertainment blog? And invite her to draw parallels to her own peer group -- does she hear girls doing the same thing to each other at school or on Facebook?
  • Give her other options. Take advantage of girls' natural tendency to seek out peer groups and give them the chance to join communities that are promoting girl-positive voices. There are some fantastic on-line resources that encourage healthy self-esteem and empowerment for young women and invite girls to resist destructive media messages (for some great examples, check out www.girlsinc.org, www.mygirltalk.org, www.7wonderlicious.com and www.newmoon.com)