10/07/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Female Bullies and Mean Girls in Training

The story begins with three American Girl dolls and a "wannabe." When my granddaughter was in second grade, she insisted I play a special game with her. The game included her American Girl dolls: Julie, Ivy and Isabelle, each complete with her own back-story. They had lovely outfits and carefully groomed hair. These were my granddaughter's characters.

My doll was Renata, an American Girl "wannabe" purchased from Sam's Club several years ago to gauge the level of her interest in these dolls before committing $99 to buy one. Her hair stood on end and she wore outfits rejected for the other dolls. More importantly, her back-story was two words -- she's mean.

I know this game was a second grader's effort to sort out how girl relationships worked, but it disturbed me. I suggested Renata might have had her reasons for being mean. I wondered aloud if she would have been nicer if the other girls included her and treated her kindly. But my granddaughter, who is a kind and inclusive child by nature, already knew how this girl thing worked. There was no room for understanding Renata's motivation. As I was told whenever I tried, "She's just mean and that's all."

There were numerous variations of the plot but the basic storyline was consistent. The two newest (and therefore most valuable dolls), Isabelle and Ivy, were good friends. Julie used to be Renata's friend, but when given the chance to raise her social status by joining the popular dolls, she abandoned her. Then Renata was mean, which justified her rejection.

This painful plot must have replicated what my granddaughter had observed on the school playground or at summer camp. The game was a way to understand the rules of female social behavior. But in third grade, the plot thickened. She stopped playing the game with dolls and started to figure out how to navigate the game in real time.

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Because she's thoughtful and a sharer of information, she confessed to her mother that there was a "pay to play" scheme going on during lunch recess. Two popular girls had started a club. To join, you had to bring them a toy from home or give them part of your lunch. Some of her friends, eager to be included, complied with the rules of the game. My granddaughter thankfully turned down the opportunity and chose to play with girls who were not in the club.

One awesome eight-year-old was ambivalent. Sometimes she paid. Other times she resisted the allure of these Queen-Bees-in-training, who also told her not to eat all of her lunch because she would get fat. These are little girls. Boys have not even entered the scene yet. I shudder to think about what these girls will be doing in middle school.

Most of the parents who found out about this club were distraught. They hadn't imagined they would have to deal with this behavior at such a young age. A teacher also attempted an intervention. But the question remains: Will the behavior stop or will the girls just become more skilled in hiding it from adults?

This is the 10-year anniversary of Mean Girls, the movie written by Tina Fey based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. In the movie, a home-schooled 16-year-old enters public high school for the first time. In trying to find her place, she crosses paths with the meanest species of all: the Queen Bee, who is the leader of the most popular clique. An all-out war ensues as the girls battle over a boy.

Wiseman has revised her 2002 book, which includes the roles played by Queen Bees, Targets or victims, and Wannabes or bystanders. According to the urban dictionary, a Wannabe is a poser or follower who copies or imitates the popular girls, adopting their style of dress, mannerisms, speech, and social opinions. The Targets are those chosen for arbitrary reasons by Queen Bees to be bullied. To avoid becoming a Target, the Wannabes have to attack the Targets.

We usually focus most of our attention on the bullied Targets. The Queen Bees maintain their power by controlling the Wannabes. So it is this latter group that must be empowered to stand up for what is right. Teaching them to be true to what they know to be just and fair is the key. A Queen Bee without worker drones is not very powerful.

Before boys enter the equation, there is hope. Second and third grade is not too soon to talk to girls about how to respect themselves and others.


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