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Navigating the New World of Mean Girls

Are girls getting meaner? It appears so. Over the past decade, experts have noted an increase in aggressive behavior involving female teens. But why is it happening? And how much effect do entertainment role models have on young girls who are either becoming bullies or are the recipients of derogatory remarks and physical abuse?

“Calling somebody else fat will not make you any thinner. Calling somebody stupid will not
make you any smarter. And you’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes
it all right for guys to call you that.” --- Math teacher Ms. Norbury addressing a student assembly in the recent film Mean Girls.

As parents we may hope our children pick up on the sensible messages given by figures like Ms. Norbury or other wise adults that interact with teens in movies. But for many young viewers sitting down in the seats, the actions of teen characters on the screen are often far more noticeable than any adult advice written into the script.

In Mean Girls, the 15-year-old home-schooled daughter of two scientists is about to make her first venture into public school. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take Cady long to realize that her fellow students are far more vicious than any wild beast she encountered while living in Africa. Initially shunned by many kids, the new girl is finally given a chance to sit at the exclusive lunch table of the “popular” girls. But scoring a seat with them, means living by a strict set of clique rules that outlines everything from wardrobe choices to social interactions.

In addition to the rigorously enforced regulations, she also discovers that much of this crowd’s entertainment comes at the expense of their more average classmates. Afraid of becoming a nasty entry in their book of shame, she tries to secure her spot in the clique by becoming the meanest of the mean girls.

Similarly in Sleepover, a group of everyday eighth grade graduates break a host of house rules and resort to stealing, lying and public mischief in order to beat their more popular classmates in an all-night scavenger hunt. The prize they’re vying for is a coveted lunch bench reserved for the socially elite kids.

Both these films are part of a growing number of movies aimed at female viewers that pit girls against girls in the pursuit of guys, status and popularity. While these concerns may be real for many teens, the problem is that few, if any of these films, give girls constructive ways to navigate these challenging issues. Instead, nasty notes, snide remarks, stony silences and outright abuse are often portrayed as the only way these girls have to interact.

With consequences rarely shown for this kind of behavior, there is little to deter real teens from following the example of the big screen characters.

For parents concerned about their own children’s daily relations with others, the need to become involved in the viewing choices of their teens is great, as is the need to help them understand the stereotypes being portrayed.

Interestingly, although popular students are often portrayed in negative ways, everyone seemingly wants to be one. By contrast many children will relate to the underdogs in the film; the less confident, uncertain characters that just want to fit in and find a place for themselves.

But without the aid of positive role models, too many girls may form unhealthy ways of dealing with others in social relationships. They can lose confidence in their ability to make judgments and to stand up for themselves. By taking time to help children clarify what popularity means and how social behavior is depicted in the media, teens can recognize and develop better ways of getting along with others.

In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, author Rachel Simmons talks about the often-devastating ways girls deal with one another and acknowledges that girls are frequently hesitant to talk about their experiences.

Getting them to open up can be difficult. Her advice: Start by asking leading questions. “When girls want to be mean in your class, what kinds of things do they do? Are some girls more secret about their meanness? Can friends be mean to each other?”

If your daughter admits to problems, the author encourages parents to be ready to listen even if the experience brings up painful memories from the past. Never tell your daughter this type of treatment is a “normal phase” or that she is being oversensitive. Avoid minimizing her problem or ignoring it. Be her advocate. Help her find alternative activities to try. Never tell her that she must be doing something to cause the abuse and above all, take time to listen to and hold your child.

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