Books
2:00 pm
Tue May 7, 2002

Odd Girl Out

A new book by Rachel Simmons claims there is an epidemic: American girls are getting meaner and meaner.

Providence, RI –

If I were a parent with a daughter who seemed to be slipping away, I might have relished "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls." Or, no, wait: If I were woman who had been ostracized, or betrayed by a friend 20 years before, I would have been comforted. I am neither. Rachel Simmons, the book's 27-year-old author, falls into the category of a girl who was pushed around. At age eight a girl bullied her. Later on, events reverse themselves: Simmons has to face up to her part in shunning another girl.

Ostensibly, this book is about teaching girls how to deal with girls gone hostile. "Girls ought not to be mean," declares the author, "but they were." This shouldn't be surprising, but it is, even to psychologists. Too often studies in aggression overlook the female species. When Simmons found out how little literature there was on the topic of why girls bully each other, she set out "to map" --and here it should be noted that cartography is but one of many metaphors she deploys -- the bad behavior underground. She wants other bullied girls to know they are not alone, and goes so far as to label the situation an "epidemic."

To hear Simmons tell it, your average girl is a walking Molotov cocktail of insecurity, taut nerves, and confusion. Attempting to negotiate the shark tank of an adolescent world, she is most likely to wind up anxious, depressed, or suicidal. How does she cope with her own anger or that of others? Unlike a boy, who can fight and forget or simply flee, she will dissemble and influence and hold an endless grudge. Covert action, not overt action, is the female solution to frustration. "Our culture refuses girls access to open conflict," Simmons writes. And so, they fight using body language and wield "friendships" as lethal weapons.

Simmons' research boils down to anecdotal evidence gathered by journalistic legwork: she ensconced herself in three regions of the country for over a period of a year, and interviewed some 300 girls. She visited a range of public and private, elementary, middle, and high schools, each with different racial populations and gender ratios and varying degrees of traditionalism. She conducted group and individual interviews with students, staff, and parents, and also interviewed by telephone 50 adult women whose lives had been marked by severe episodes of bullying.

Simmons unpacks the silent treatment (relational aggression), the whispered secret (social aggression), and the spreading of rumors (indirect aggression). These are known as "alternative aggressions" and girls use them, she argues, because this is what's in their toolboxes when it comes to dealing with conflict. Society's insistence on feminine behavior leaves them no choice.

Except that people always have choices. Herein lies a clue to the book's greatest drawback. As Simmons puts it, "I neglected to talk to more girls comfortable with anger and conflict. I regret that." Another drawback: the book is studded with homiletic phrases such as "It is a blessing and a curse of human nature..." and generalizations like "Once a girl gets her coveted status, popularity is no walk in the park..." Simmons shores up her statements with quotes from "Heathers" and "Survivor." The book comes off as a compendium of confessions, whines, and painful memories that would serve as perfect fodder for a day of talk show banter. For the record, Simmons has appeared already on Oprah, Dateline NBC, and the Today Show.

Boys are left out. Families get short shrift. So does the media. The pileup of anecdotes misleads the reader into thinking that all these stories, all this lack of silence, will actually conclude with something other than a new way to ask what it feels like to be angry. The most riveting tales are notable because they show that the scars of childhood still linger years later. Some girls are scarred for life after their best friends or the entire grade gang turns up on them. Some keep their troubles from their parents and languish in deep depression. These are serious matters, but Simmons's answer to the problem -- a new infrastructure in the schools -- comes off as an advertisement for the Erie, Pennsylvania-based Ophelia project. The Ophelia project trains high-school mentors how to teach younger girls ways to prevent and confront relational aggression.

Simmons also calls for anti-bullying policies. "Until alternative aggressions win recognition as real forms of violence in schools, parents should err on the side of intervention," she writes. But probably not the kind of discipline found on page 53, which features a parent who offers a few coins to her overweight daughter for every pound lost. What makes Simmons think parents are equipped to deal with the problem? These girls' behavior takes cues from within the home.

At its best, "Odd Girl Out" marks the beginning of a conversation about how girls relate to power, bringing America one step closer to examining how it is that women still make 76 cents for every dollar men make. The most engaging chapters address what happens to confident girls; independent-minded adolescents who, even in a crisis, didn't blame and didn't aggravate their wounds; they simply made different choices.

Overall, collective carping outweighs the book's profiles in courage. The fact that "Odd Girl Out" has just hopped onto the New York Times bestseller list signals that America's national therapy session is not yet over. Simmons's book makes you wish for a day when a woman can regard her psychic wounds as battle scars instead of as lifelong handicaps, when being the odd girl out represents a fact rather than a pathological condition. That's one way of making peace with conflict.