A look at the fastest growing social disease both online and in person
By Rachel Giese
August 16, 2010
The scene was like something from The Hills. Dana Lacey, a 26-year-old writer, was at a Toronto bar with a group of friends, including her roommate—who happens to be a guy—and his new girlfriend. At one point, Lacey noticed the girlfriend and her friend were staring at her, giggling and playing with their phones. Later, Lacey found out the two women had been texting each other and making fun of how she was dressed. This wasn’t the first time the girlfriend had been snarky with Lacey. “When they first started going out, I had invited her to dinner to make her feel welcome,” Lacey says. “But my best attempts couldn’t charm her.
Eventually, the girlfriend’s behaviour—which was triggered, Lacey thinks, by jealousy—got so bad that it ruined Lacey’s friendship with her roommate. He chose the girlfriend over her and Lacey decided she was too old to deal with that kind of toxic environment.
Unfortunately, while most women believe they would never be the cause of loading such emotional stress on a friend or acquaintance, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of us never really outgrow being a bully, says Cheryl Dellasega, a women’s studies professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book Mean Girls Grown Up. “The [aggressive] behaviour just gets a little more polished and subtle [as we get older].” You know the transformation: The cool girl in chemistry class who didn’t invite you to her post-graduation party becomes the office diva who “forgets” to forward you an important email at work. The fair-weather friend who flirted with your first crush turns into the frenemy who won’t keep her manicured mitts off your fiancé.
“Bullying isn’t uniquely female,” says Irene Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Breakup With Your Best Friend and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. “But there are always women who need to build themselves up by knocking others down. They may exclude, gossip, or do other things to demean one individual—particularly someone who seems vulnerable. Making someone feel alone, rejected and treating her as an outcast can be as vicious as a physical assault.”
What makes these encounters with a female bully so confusing and wounding is the very nature of women’s relationships. While men tend to bond by activities—grabbing a beer after a game of hockey, for example—women look for emotional intimacy from their female friends. We talk, we share, we open our hearts. And so the quickest way to hurt each other is by what experts call “relational aggression.” The female bully doesn’t use her fists; instead, she denies other women a social connection by mocking or shunning them. “For women and girls, relationships are a source of solace and power,” says Rachel Simmons, an expert on female aggression and the author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. “Female friendships are one of the greatest comforts and the greatest weapons. The heart of female psychological violence is to destroy other people’s relationships.”
Meanwhile, technology such as smartphones, Twitter and Facebook has added a whole new supply of smart bombs to the female bully’s arsenal. Social media plugs right into women’s anxiety about direct conflict, says Simmons. “A tweet or a text allows us to communicate without having to look each other in the eyes. And with so much emotion bottled up, you can let it rip and say things you wouldn’t dare if you were dealing with a person face-to-face.” No wonder women are such social media fans, outtweeting and out-friending men by 10 percent, shows a recent online study.
Consider, too, the sharkfest that is celebrity gossip culture, from tabloid magazines to TV shows and harsh blogs. The target audience for this—and the targets of its mean-spiritedness—is predominantly women. Sure, male stars get their share of ridicule, but mainly it’s the Kardashians and their love lives, Heidi Montag and her plastic surgeries, or the ongoing Chernobyl-like meltdown of Lindsay Lohan. That this is happening at precisely the same time that women have more opportunities, power and freedom than ever before is no coincidence, says Simmons. “Young women are a lot more open now about expressing their appetites for sex, food and fun,” Simmons says. “The reason there is so much anxiety and ambivalence toward them is because they violate conventional rules of feminity.” There’s not that much difference between trashing Miley Cyrus for a risqué stage performance, she says, and shaming a girl in your dorm, office or circle of friends for being promiscuous.
So, after all these years of feminist triumphs, is sisterhood dead? Have we achieved success at school, at work, in academics, politics and sports, only to become our own worst enemies? Not so, says Dellasega. Women have had to be tough to get ahead, she says, and in some cases, particularly in the traditional male workplace, they’ve mistaken aggressiveness for assertiveness.
“Female Bullying” has been edited for FLARE.com; the complete story, “Bullied.” appears in the September issue of FLARE magazine.