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April 1, 2006
Vol. 48
No. 4

Fights Like a Girl

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Whether you're the target or perpetrator of a nasty comment, a socially crippling e-mail, or a public exclusion, girl fighting affects all girls and all schools negatively—and requires structured intervention strategies.
The headlines say violence among girls is increasing: "Are Girls Getting Meaner?" "Ruthless Girlz." "Bad Girls." Some crime statistics say girls are fighting—and being arrested for fighting—more than ever before. Others point out that the incidence of female bullying and violence may be about the same as it ever was, but that authorities are taking the issue more seriously. Regardless, the "mean girl" phenomenon has educators, parents, and students concerned. Innovative programs have begun addressing the problem.

Cruel to Be Kind

Why do girls fight? Girls aggressively act out their emotions for many reasons. Prominent researchers such as Laura Crothers, Julaine Field, and Jered Kolbert have explored the connection between gender identity and relational aggression in girls—the slandering, insulting, or excluding that cause harm by themselves and can precipitate physical violence. The researchers say that girls internalize societal perspectives on gender and that these traditional views of femininity place huge restrictions on how girls can express anger.
To conform to the "nice girl" stereotype, girls often subvert their anger and use more manipulative and covert means to express themselves or gain a sense of personal power. "Girls are doing what we've expected from them. They're rewarded for not being disruptive, and so they do these things behind the scenes," says Lyn Brown, author of Girlfighting and professor of education and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Brown asserts that girls often direct their anger at each other because they are the easiest and most familiar targets. In a society where girls are often narrowly defined through lenses such as cheerleaders, jocks, sluts, or nerds, girls may lash out in frustration at the limits placed on their identity and how they are perceived. For example, Brown notes, if you are the cheerleader, you get the power of popularity and boys' attentions, but often your smarts will be second-guessed.

Do Your Homework

Culturally, girl fighting confounds ingrained beliefs about the so-called nature of girls: girls should be nice, and if they fight, it's cute and trivial. For some, girl fighting is eroticized, which trivializes it even more. Penny Linn, a guidance counselor at Winslow Junior High in Winslow, Maine, agrees that the "assumption is girls start rumors and talk behind each other's back, and that's just the way girls deal with stuff." Girls' fights are often hidden from or invisible to adults.
Educators interested in addressing girls' violence need to deal with the issue in a self-aware and honest way, Brown says. She urges educators to explore their own feelings, speak directly, and refuse to engage in gossip and slander. "It seems common sense that, if we want girls to do these things, then we would model healthier behaviors," she adds. "But we're also part of this culture, and this is hard, personal work." Brown suggests teachers get together to talk about girl fighting and how to model and set high expectations for girls.
Some schools are shifting the girl-fighting paradigm, with the help of passionate guidance counselors and curriculum spun from books such asThe Odd Girl Out, Queen Bees and Wannabes, Girlfighting, and See Jane Hit. Educators in the know are doing more than just armoring their students with adages about sticks and stones.

From Adversaries to Allies

According to Brown, adolescence offers a lot of "openings" to talk to girls about fighting and positive relationships. Adolescent girls give voice to their own outrage, and all that passion is a good thing, says Brown. It's the spark of engagement, and it can be nurtured into a full flame of action toward positive change and identity development.
Capitalizing on those openings, Brown has developed a curriculum called "From Adversaries to Allies" that builds girl coalitions. She has spent the last few years road-testing it in several Maine schools. The curriculum guides small, in-school coalition groups of girls on topics such as sexual harassment, healthy dating relationships, and media literacy—an especially important topic in a world where pop culture often meanly celebrates status and popularity at the expense of the unpopular.
Brown believes a girl-specific curriculum on bullying is necessary because "fighting and bullying is about power, and we give boys and girls different avenues to that power. For girls, the avenue is through their relationships with boys, through their looks and attitude. With boys, it's about physical prowess." The program recognizes this difference and works toward establishing a more complex definition of girlhood and power.

Muses and Hardiness Zones

Coalition groups center around two conceptual frameworks: muses and hardiness zones. Muses are female college students from Colby College who have studied under Brown. They partner with area middle school guidance counselors to cofacilitate girls' coalition groups. Colby student Jackie Dupont, a muse at Lawrence Junior High, notes that her relationship with the girls in her coalition is "reciprocal in nurturing toward girls' strengths. We're learning from each other." Dupont meets weekly with Lawrence Junior High guidance counselor Angie Lavallee to plan and run Lawrence's coalition groups.
The group itself is meant to be a "hardiness zone," a safe space for girls to talk about their problems and develop hardiness zones of their own—safe places where they can practice and hone their resiliency and apply it to situations where they feel less secure. In addition to meeting weekly, all area middle school counselors involved in girl coalitions meet once a month to talk about their programs.
"We're working toward a common goal," Dupont says, "creating a world where all girls are equal, independent, and safe in their everyday lives."
"And to help them understand that the issues that underlie our fighting are sometimes much bigger than personal issues," adds Brown, "we're trying to help them see that they can move beyond the personal. If they don't like something, they can say it directly; they don't have to do some of these underhanded things."
"Girls in our coalition groups want visibility, they want power, they want to be liked, they want a boyfriend, they want friends—they just have different means of accessing that," says Brown. "What we try to convey in the group is that they really do want the same things, and they're being really hard on each other for wanting those things and doing it in different ways."

Self-Defined, Strong, and Beautiful

Brown is sure educators have the chance to redefine power for girls—"not power over things, but power to effect change, and power to be visible and understood."
In a recent project, Lavallee gave her coalition members cameras and sent them out to take pictures of the women in their lives that they admire. In addition, the students asked these notable women to share their personal definitions of beauty. The coalition members took these definitions and photos, and made collages that were sent out into the Waterville community and posted in stores. When the collages come back, they'll dress the halls of Lawrence Junior High as testaments to strong, beautiful women not found in the pages ofSeventeen. Lavallee knows that "kids are still frustrated with the way things are, but the girls in the "From Adversaries to Allies" groups are finding new ways to channel their anger—through projects and activities, or through one-on-one counseling sessions."
She adds, "They're less likely to take their frustrations out on each other through fighting, and more likely to come to school with clear heads for learning."

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