Conspiring Ophelia

Evaluating the newest threat to girlhood: other girls.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

The first 178 pages of Rosalind Wiseman’s describe girls torturing each other, sabotaging friendships, and betraying the deepest confidences. And yet on Page 179, the author urges girls to have sympathy for boys because boys can’t talk to their best friends about important issues or get emotional assistance from them. Similarly, in the early pages of, Rachel Simmons testifies to the “endless understanding” that “ever compassionate” girls bring to bear on “human mistakes.” But the remainder of the book is full of examples of the most wretched kind of bullying, teasing, and put-downs.

You might question these contradictory characterizations of girls—as giggly proto-nurturers on the one hand and bitches in training on the other. But Wiseman starts her book with an extraordinary pre-emptive warning, aimed primarily at parents who may not see their daughters the way these books paint them. She tells us that if something in her book strikes us as wrong, we should stop and wonder why: What nerve has she hit? “Ask yourself why what you read bothered you so much. … Acknowledge the pain you feel, but don’t let it stop you from learning.” It’s the old Freudian trick: If you think I’m wrong, it’s because you’re suppressing the painful truth. At other points, parents who doubt are told they are in denial or that perhaps their daughter is lying.

In fact the book isn’t painful at all: It is upbeat, interesting, and down-to-earth. There are convincing-sounding bits of wisdom: lists of what boys and girls want to know about each other, a plan for how to react if you walk in on your daughter having sex. The trouble lies in the long, attention-getting, media-friendly section on girl-girl relations. Wiseman classifies every one of her young subjects as one of a set of fixed types: Queen Bee, Wannabe, Banker, Messenger, and so on. No one is exempt, no group of girls immune, and the girls’ whole lives revolve round the cliques they are in. Wiseman only grudgingly acknowledges that a girl may, on occasion, change roles; most of the book assumes that girls play static roles throughout their entire adolescence. A recent Newsweek article about these books has an extraordinary graphic/chart showing Alpha, Beta, and Gamma girls and explaining what music they like, which actresses they resemble, and what they eat. It’s as filled with rigid, airless, self-perpetuating classifications as a Cosmo quiz.

Simmons’ book has a more overwrought and tragic tone than Wiseman’s. Although she does offer advice for parents and girls, hers isn’t much of a how-to book: She is setting out to describe what she thinks is the underreported phenomenon of girls’ “relational aggression” to each other. The phrase covers exclusion, negativity, using body language against others, spreading rumors, and so on. She doesn’t help her case when she makes rather wild claims, like, “Ours is a culture that has ignored the closeness of girlfriends”—except for the ways it is endlessly celebrated in movies, magazines, and Hallmark greeting cards.

Both books recount long, long stories of girls’ relations with each other: “and Erin said … and then Michelle said. …” Wiseman endearingly says that she sometimes gets exasperated with some of the boring stories girls tell. I kept wishing Simmons would ask tougher questions of her subjects, and I badly wanted to hear from the other person in each quarrel, who might have a quite different version. (Simmons’ reporting problems might not stop there; click here for a more serious critique of her interviews.)

There’s an awful lot of hurt feelings, and the girls are not able to confront each other for fear of hurting yet more feelings. (This happens constantly: Obviously someone is willing to hurt feelings, but not anyone who is interviewed.) This is recognizable but doesn’t sound too serious. In fact, these girl-girl tempests sound a lot like romantic relationships—girls make overtures to each other, arrange outings, get dumped, are disappointed, feel manipulated. It seems strange to be worrying more about these than about similar boy-girl bust-ups, which provoke sympathy but also a sense that the hurt party will bounce back soon. Of course, truly pathological bullying can be a terrible, life-scarring event. But the books don’t give much sense of the ratio of highly toxic bullying to the mildly poisonous variety.

Meanwhile, any smart bitchy teen-ager is surely scouring these books—they are perfect primers on how to bully your neighbor. If anyone hadn’t heard of three-way calling (Girl 1 remains silent, while Girl 2 encourages Girl 3 to discuss Girl 1) or petitions (everyone in a class signs his or her name to a mean statement about one girl)—well, they certainly have now. If you continually tell fifth-graders that girl-on-girl bitchiness is going to happen, surely you’re legitimating it somewhat.

Mean teen-agers might also like to prepare themselves for apology sessions: a wonderful recent profile (here, but you have to pay) of Wiseman in the New York Times Magazine describes this technique, which is dealt with only briefly in the book. A girl gets the chance to stand up in front of her peers and her victim and say something like, “I compared your face to a minefield … I’m sorry.” Isn’t this grossly humiliating for the victim, pretty good fun for the aggressor, and a chance to air the put-down in front of a few more people? There’s a big distinction between “I’m sorry I said X” and “I said X, and it is not true.” The former sounds a lot like “I’m sorry I got caught.”

We all want girls to grow up strong, self-reliant, and so on. But Wiseman and Simmons offer very little evidence that the bullying problem is as widespread as they allege. In fact, the books’ tone is oddly reminiscent of a familiar teen-age chant: “But honestly, everyone else is doing it, absolutely everyone.”