The New Inquiry, newly inquiring into the eternally relevant topic of cliques, has found that this social arrangement’s been cruelly maligned. In “The Clique Imaginary,” Alana Massey defends tight-knit circles of women from cultural ignominy, suggesting that while “outsiders are preoccupied with how the members of the clique perceive them, … clique members are not preoccupied with outsiders at all.” A moderate interpretation of the essay’s argument is that close female friends are often penalized for the envy their bond produces in outsiders—and that this misallocation of blame reflects the harmful idea that women must always be attending to the comfort of others rather than to their own happiness. Fair enough! Please do not fault lady compadres for making you wish you were part of their world, like a vindictive Little Mermaid.
But a more extreme interpretation of its argument (promoted by its title) advances a much odder claim: that cliques don’t actually exist, and are instead a way of policing ties among women of social capital, like Taylor Swift. “Navigating one’s own clique dynamics is challenging enough,” writes Massey. “To demand that the clique members be responsible for the negative emotions of outsiders is beyond an undue burden.”
Is it, though? More to the point, is that not exactly what a Mean Girl would say? Perhaps Massey is right that society unfairly slams some friendship covens as exclusive cliques, and that these women truly have no inkling of the ghostly out-group shadow-people prowling their borders. But it is equally true that exclusive cliques exist, that they are not good, and that they should be held accountable for the negative emotions their behavior elicits.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know Massey, I like her writing a lot, I realize that I am typing words against female meanness that could be perceived as criticizing another woman. Bear with me?)
By way of example, the piece cites an article in Psychology Today in which a woman complains about the “clique” of gymnastics moms terrorizing her at her son’s class.
No one, it seemed, was interested in making a new friend … these women seemed to want me to know that they were leaving me out. Two of them appeared to intentionally wait until I was within earshot to make their plans to have lunch together.
Massey bolded the subjective verbs to underscore how the writer’s “feelings of rejection are all things she’s imagined, sensed, and believes herself to have intuited.” But come on: We are social creatures, and we know how this works. When you flaunt your intimacy with certain people in front of many people—when you telegraph intense interest in the few while projecting pure indifference to the many—you are being rude. Ignoring those who pass through open social spaces in order to only associate with your favorite folks is not OK for men or women. The solution to the gymnastics clique problem isn’t releasing female buddies from the obligation to demonstrate social grace on the assumption that guys don’t typically tread lightly when it comes to each other’s feelings. It is to demand from men an equivalent sensitivity, when they fall short, and to strive for politeness in all your interactions.
“Clique members are not preoccupied with outsiders at all”—Massey’s essay suggests that a lack of overt malice absolves people of rudeness. If only. When you are in public, it is your job to show some awareness of and consideration for the people around you. This means acknowledging them when they walk into a children’s gymnastics class, saying “gesundheit” when they sneeze, and showing them that they are welcome to participate in the ambient small talk. Massey places the onus on individuals outside of the clique not to be offended by offensive behavior, writing, “that the women in the class have elevated the value of their social circle over [the writer’s] demand to befriend a stranger … should be celebrated as a victory for women.” It should? Of course, close female friendships are things of power and beauty, soul-restoring and even feminist. I want as badly as Massey does to celebrate their magic. But provocative and badass as it seems to reclaim cliques for a political movement, it just doesn’t pass the “don’t be a jerk” sniff test. Don’t make lunch plans with your squad in front of someone you aren’t planning to invite. Full stop.
Massey implies that more confident (and thus likeable?) observers are less prone to worry about cliques: “Whether or not a pop-culture representation of a female friend group will be categorized as a clique hinges largely on whether viewers believe they would be accepted into the group.”
I’d argue that what distinguishes a clique from a non-clique is not whether you can imagine yourself being friends with the members, but whether those members evince a baseline friendliness. Viewers watching the Plastics in Mean Girls correctly deem that group a clique because the Plastics are unlikely to practice polite human behavior in a social interaction with an outsider. Viewers watching the four tweens in Now and Then don’t perceive a clique because that quartet mostly treats other people who cross their path as individuals worthy of basic respect and courtesy.
Massey’s slyest move is to cast the clique member as a powerfully charismatic women whose social capital is resented and attacked by pariahs. “Her approval and her confidence are seductive prospects,” she purrs, “but they are only entitlements in the most hollow politics of solidarity.” As bewitching as Massey may find this person, most of us don’t really require a stranger’s approval and confidence—only some basic social graces. “Frankly, it isn’t her job to think of you, much less be your friend,” the essay concludes. Alas, it is her job to think of me, just as it is my job to think of her, and the man to the left’s job to think of both of us. The goal of feminism is to create a kinder world for women, not to absolve women of the need to be kind.