Wednesday, October 27, 1999How can you stop a fight you can't see?
Girls' 'underground' aggression worries educators
Last summer, a couple of young teachers at a high school for dancers approached me with a perplexing question. They knew that I had written about female aggression, and they wanted to know how to manage it. They were watching, they explained, their girls engage in incredibly Byzantine rivalries and conflicts that often took months to unravel.
In other words, they were witnessing a sort of aggression -- indirect and largely psychological -- that academics call "social" or "relational" aggression. It's a specialty of girls, one that's gaining increasing attention from scholars, who have otherwise tended to assume that males are the only competitive and rivalrous sex. Clearly, females vie for power and status, too. But their methods, honed in adolescence, are more subtle and difficult to define.
Generally speaking, women compete with wits instead of weapons, because physical violence is neither acceptably feminine, nor particularly efficient. They attack indirectly through social networks -- slandering reputations, for example, or disrupting relationships. They bully, toss insults, form cliques and threaten "to tell," which is to say, to go to someone more powerful than their victim as a means of ensuring compliance.
As those attending an international symposium on girlhood aggression learned last weekend in Toronto, the gender gap in aggressive behaviour narrows dramatically when you start watching, not only how boys will be boys, but also how girls will be girls.
The main shift in thinking, at least in academic circles, is to see that nasty words are indeed as injurious to kids as kicks and shoves. Victims of "relational" aggression, reports Nicki Crick, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, manifest signs of depression, anxiety, social avoidance and shattered confidence.
"I think part of our work is helping people understand that these strategies are as harmful as fist fights," Crick said.
Another part of the work, it would seem to me, is to develop ways for parents and teachers to effectively intervene. The dance teachers echoed the frustration I have heard from teachers before: When boys fight, the flying fists and bloodied noses make it obvious to everyone.
At the very least, the teacher or parent can yank the combatants apart. With girls, however, you can't even figure out what's going on. Often the girls involved can't figure out what's going on. Who started the rumour that Shelley was a "slut"? Who initiated the "hate club" against Diana, which has left her ostracized from the group?
"A lot of girls' aggression is so underground," a teacher in the symposium audience lamented. "If you don't see it, you can't intervene." The aggressor is a shadow figure. The hurt and confusion linger for what seems like a glacial age in the moment-to-moment immediacy of adolescence.
So, what the dance teachers, as well as the educators this weekend, urgently wanted to know is this: Are there any programs out there that can help educators mediate girls' unique forms of invisible violence?
The short answer is, not many, but some. A former high-school teacher recently told me about a game called Star Power, used at the Linden School for Girls in Toronto. The objective of the game, which involves role-playing, is to get girls thinking about how they behave in the context of power. How do people compete for power, how do they gain it, how do they lose it?
A lot of the aggression girls engage in meets no formal consequence, which makes it difficult for them to learn to be accountable for the harm they inflict. They aren't taught, the way boys are, to own up to their power. They don't hear phrases like "fight fair," "pull your punches" or "stand your ground," what aggression scholars call "the regulative rules of anger," which teach boys how to keep their conflicts brief and to the point.
Research over the years has repeatedly shown that childhood aggression does not, in itself, predict criminality in adulthood. Kids are socialized, ultimately, to control themselves. But this research concerns itself mostly with males.
One study Crick conducted showed that relationally aggressive girls went on to wield that aggression in their college romances, either using their lover as a pawn to get back at someone else, or psychologically abusing their mate directly. This is a glimpse of female-perpetrated domestic violence that goes unaccounted for in crime statistics, not to mention political rhetoric.
Says Crick: "Relational aggression is to some extent normative." Meaning developmentally normal. "What I worry about are the kids who engage in these behaviours more than other kids their age." (As well as the ones, needless to say, who are resorting to physical violence in growing numbers.)
We don't want girls to stop being ambitious and competitive in healthy ways. So the balance between applauding them for competition, and intervening when they get vicious, is a fine one.
As Debra Pepler, director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University, says, "I think girls and young women are receiving very confusing messages about what it means to be female. We haven't helped them determine how they can be assertive and strong, and yet nurturing at the same time."
This is not a problem to be solved without thought. And thinking about it clearly calls for turning our backs on certain ideals, both feminist and old-fashioned, that sentimentalize the fair sex, trivializing the damage they can do.