I am sure that many of you, and probably the majority of the girls in your schools, have seen the film ‘Mean Girls’. There is the memorable scene, one that I have used in assemblies many times, in which the ‘plastics’ meet the new girl and try to embrace her into their fold. The scene always reminds me of Rosalind Wiseman’s book ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes’, and how the hangers-on cling onto the Queen Bee for their lives. The issues that the Queen Bee and her closest ‘friends’ can then cause for those who will never be part of their group are evident; girls can feel isolated and ostracised by their seeming inability to be seen as socially acceptable. Gretchen, one of the characters in the film, reflects on the ensuing problems when she says: “If only you knew how mean she really is, you’d know that I’m not allowed to wear hoop earrings, right? Yeah, two years ago she told me hoop earrings were her thing, and I wasn’t allowed to wear them anymore. And then for Hanukkah my parents got this pair of really expensive white gold hoops and I had to pretend like I didn’t even like them. It was so sad.” I am sure that we have all witnessed girls who have the power to make others feel that they have to put on such a pretence.
Encouraging girls to stand out from the crowd is difficult, particularly when they are virtually hardwired to conform to the views of their peers. Furthermore, the kind of behaviour mentioned above is not always perceived as bullying and issues are not always brought to anyone’s attention due to fear of reprisal. However, any behaviour that results in students feeling purposely isolated is exactly that – bullying. And girls need to feel empowered that concerns raised can and will be treated seriously. An effective set of anti-bullying policies and procedures are important to handle such situations, but I do feel strongly that the ethos of the school is crucial to prevent such group mentalities from forming in the first place.
In a recent PSHE session, I gave a talk to year-nine girls, entitled ‘Why it is good not to be a sheep!’ Although a rather tongue-in-cheek approach to the issue, the point I discussed with them was a serious one: girls need to feel that it is ‘cool’ to stand out and that they are not defined by their peer group. Indeed, celebrating achievements of all descriptions and encouraging girls to compete against themselves, rather than against others, enables them to develop the confidence and self-esteem necessary to stand out. It is important for our students to remember the sentiment so eloquently captured in Roosevelt’s quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
We also have to remember, however, that life isn’t always perfect for the Queen Bee who appears, on the surface, to have everything any girl could ask for. The demands on any child to maintain a perfect image can be stressful to say the least. The My Daughter website, which offers advice and support to parents of girls, points out “the danger of expecting ‘the best’ from each girl”. “The fall from dizzy heights of success can be a painful experience and undoubtedly it can be lonely at the top,” the article reads. “Our job is to ensure that the girls are ready and armed to cope with such challenges and the inevitable ups and downs.”
Perhaps then it is better to be the Cady Heron character in ‘Mean Girls’ and to flourish in the knowledge that pursuing the potential of one’s own character provides the route to success, in all areas of life.
Helen Jeys is deputy head at Manchester High School for Girls.