BEST-SELLING author Rachel Simmons slumps on a couch at the Seattle Girls' School last Thursday. "I'm wiped," says the 27-year-old, looking almost as youthful as the sixth-grade girls she is here to see, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and wearing jeans, chunky jewelry, and a knee-length black jacket.
No wonder. The frenzy over so-called mean girls, the subject of Simmons' book Odd Girl Out as well as a spate of other books recently released (Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, Emily White's Fast Girls, Phyllis Chesler's Women's Inhumanity to Women), was in full force as she swept through town last week to give several readings and hold a workshop with students. The day before, Simmons had appeared on Oprah—for the second time. She had just received word from Newsweek that it was going to put a mean girls story on the cover. And for the second week in a row, she was listed on The New York Times best-seller list. (Last week she climbed to No. 6.)
Buoyed by a wave she doesn't entirely understand, Simmons has come to conclude that the interest in her topic is linked to the concern over adolescent bullying provoked by the Columbine High School shootings, whose perpetrators had been ostracized by their peers. While Columbine involved boys, Simmons says, "It was only a matter of time before girls were discussed."
The link may seem tenuous, but it is true that many people, remembering their own tortured adolescence, responded viscerally to the despair and rage felt by the Columbine shooters. And many now are responding viscerally to the powerful examples Simmons uses to prove her point that girls engage in aggression that is indirect but at least as damaging as boys' aggression. In her book, she describes how a group of girls tormented one poor soul by sending her flowers under the name of a boy she had a crush on, sending him a sexually explicit letter under her name, and telling a teacher she was cheating on tests. These examples provide a darkly fascinating portrait of the incredible lengths to which girls will go to humiliate other girls.
YET THERE'S ALSO a way that Simmons' book and others like it are generating heat by playing into ongoing debates about gender and kids. First came a wave of books in the early to mid-'90s, like Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown's Meeting at the Crossroads and Peggy Orenstein's Schoolgirls, that looked at how girls lost confidence during adolescence. The books chronicled how girls started to feel pressure to conform to notions of feminine demureness, how they began to perform less well academically, particularly in math and science, and how they engaged in destructive behaviors like eating disorders. And they launched a movement to address the problem that sparked a crop of new girls' schools around the country like the Seattle Girls' School, a private middle school in the Central District.
What about boys?, shouted a subsequent spate of books that seemed to be a reaction to the burgeoning interest in girls. Michael Gurian's Wonder of Boys and Raising Cain by Daniel Kindlon and others argued that boys' emotional lives were being ignored or misunderstood and that there was a misguided attempt to turn boys into girls rather than channel their testosterone in productive ways. While the books didn't necessarily counter the books on girls, they drove home a message: Girls aren't the only ones who have problems; so do boys.
Now comes a new rush of books that fits right into the cultural dialogue created by the previous waves. At first hearing, the new books sound like they could be a postscript to the tomes demanding attention for boys: By the way, girls are mean, too, not simply virtuous angels who are victims of sexism. At least that's how they could be interpreted and possibly one reason for their appeal.
So it's no surprise that revered feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, who also came to town last week to promote her new book, The Birth of Pleasure, worries that a backlash against girls is afoot. Gilligan says she has mixed feelings about the mean-girl books. She feels that Simmons' book in particular is an "excellent" attempt to air an undeniable problem. But she is suspicious of the larger uproar that Simmons' and other books have created. "At a point when people have started to look at girls and see their strength, suddenly this [furor over mean girls] comes up."
IN FACT, though, a closer look at Simmons' message and at some of her most ardent fans reveals that an opposite force is also at work. As Simmons says at the Seattle Girls' School, "The people who are talking about this are the people who want to help girls. This is an attempt to empower girls."
Simmons demonstrates her point as she strides into a classroom full of worshipful sixth-grade girls, sinks to the floor where they're seated, and begins to draw them out.
"Once I had a friend who dropped me like a fly," says one girl. Another, countering a peer who suggests that boys have it worse because they can end up dead from their kind of fighting, says of girls' cruelty: "Maybe you don't die physically, but you can kind of waste away, and to me that's worse than death."
Simmons responds with a heaping dose of positive reinforcement. "Yes, yes, yes, yes! Totally. You guys are so smart and easy to talk to."
She ends the session by stressing a major thesis of her book: "Girls tend to be indirect because in our society they are not given permission to be mad at each other."
SEATTLE GIRLS' School Head Marja Brandon asserts that this attempt to put girls' aggression in context is what separates Simmons' book from other works on mean girls. Brandon talks about how she hated a recent New York Times Magazine article on girls' cruelty that helped thrust the issue into the limelight. "The New York Times article asked, 'Why are girls so mean?'—and said they should stop. Rachel goes far beyond that question to look at the sociological landscape, at how girls aren't given permission to have the full range of emotions."
In other words, girls aren't to blame for their sly brand of cruelty; the patriarchy makes them do it by preventing them from expressing anger directly. Yet while the effort to cast even aggressive girls as victims no doubt contributes to its popularity among females, it's a troubling part of the Simmons phenomenon. Doesn't Simmons' impulse to explain away girls' cruelty ultimately reinforce rather than challenge the stereotype of sugar and spice that the author rails against?
Peggy Orenstein, who laughs at how she's become the "grandmother" of all these books, hasn't read Simmons' book but allows that there is often a subtext to feminist writings that women are morally superior. "I hate that whole morally superior thing. It goes way back, to groups like Mothers Against War."
"That just doesn't get you anywhere," Orenstein continues. "I don't know why we can't accept the idea that everybody, whether oppressed or not, can be nice and everybody can be a big fat jerk."
Orenstein believes that girls are culturally conditioned to express their meanness in indirect ways. But if they weren't, girls would still be mean, she offers, just in more direct ways like shouting, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."
It's a fair point, but one that differs from Simmons' analysis. At the Seattle Girls' School, Simmons gives the students a scenario of an alternative to indirect aggression. Say her roommate Jenny is mad at her for not doing the dishes. "Jenny needs space to say, 'I'm upset,' and I need to honor that space."
Nobody's mean there. Jenny has a valid reason for being upset. All is discussed calmly and productively.
Yet Simmons' book is full of examples of astounding cruelty that have no such rational explanations or easy solutions. Yes, girls can be mean. Why would one expect anything else?