Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Except, it seems, when they’re cracking bottles over each other’s heads, calling each other fat cows, spreading offensive, defamatory rumours or disinviting each other from parties, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.
I’m sure many parents were distressed by recent reports of the 15-year old schoolgirl at Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg who attacked a fellow pupil with a glass bottle. This incident seemed to be at the tail end of a string of bullying and harassing incidents that had passed between these particular girls.
We should be distressed but not surprised.
Many teachers, parents and psychologists have become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of an apparent rise in female bullying. This is sometimes called ‘relational aggression’ as physical assault usually plays only a small part in the pattern of behaviour.
Relational aggression includes spreading rumours, verbally insulting, exclusion from friendship groups and hostile and dismissive body language. It is different from the normal conflicts that occasionally flare up between girls, in that the aggression is persistent and relentless, usually targeting on one or two individuals. It can happen anywhere and in any age group, but it is most commonly played out in school settings and is most intense in the middle school, between grades 6 to 10.
As I said earlier, I believe girl-on-girl bullying has become more common, partly as a result of the availability of more instant forms of communication. A study of young people, conducted in South Africa in 2009 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, found that about 25% of them had been bullied by means of text messages, and that almost 70% of text messaging bullies had been bullied themselves through sms.
Why is this verbal bullying more common amongst girls? Partly it’s because girls generally invest more in friendships than boys do, and so the stakes are much higher, the hurt greater, when conflicts arise. Words are the instrument of affection but also the weapon of choice.
Any girl can be a victim or aggressor, and many issues can incite incidents. But one common thread that runs through these fights is the social isolation of a victim so that the status of the in-group is enhanced. Ring-leaders of the in-groups might resent competition from the victim or want more attention for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for those leaders to have an unstable self-esteem, one that is easily threatened by new voices and competing influences.
The chief bully in the group is often a seemingly popular and charming girl whom parents and teachers like and give lots of attention to. In other words, not the sort of person who would automatically be suspected of such behaviour.
The American parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, describes these girls as “queen bees”. She points out that other girls often hover around queen bees out of fear of being excluded from their approval, and that the queen bee (or mean girl or ruler of the clique) is often not well liked by her peers, but that she makes them afraid.
Complicating matters for all parties – parents, targets and teachers – is that the very nature of relational aggression makes it more difficult to detect and take seriously.
If a girl comes to you and says that her friends have started turning away from her when she approaches, rolling their eyes at her when she speaks, or telling others that she is fat, you might not understand that this is part of a relentless campaign that happens behind your back. Victims often fail to report what has happened and can suffer for a long time without being helped.
Johannesburg psychologist Lesley Rosenthal adds that “Part of the problem is that girls are socialised to be good and nice and compliant and people pleasers and therefore project a false self to the world. Social competition and aggression are denied and frowned upon as unfeminine. So the behaviour gets expressed covertly, through the bitchy meanness manifest in relational aggression.”
So much for sugar and spice and the world of nursery rhymes. It’s much more the little girl, who had a little curl, “right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.”