Saturday, November 29, 2008

Repression causes oppression

I just finished Rachel Simmons's book Odd Girl Out* about the "hidden culture" of aggression between girls: the silent treatment, the taunts that are presented as jokes, the underhand barbs that girls use to undermine each others' self-esteem. Simmons uses information from interviews and secondary sources to describe the phenomenon of female bullying that occurs among pre-college age girls. Simmons describes how contrary to conventional wisdom about how bullying occurs as acts of obvious violence/malice against social outcasts, what often occurs is more subtle bullying through subtle remarks and social exclusion. Girls who are "all that," who are aggressive, competitive, or "too" anything (popular, pretty, smart, confident, aggressive, non-conformist), are often the targets of this aggression: other girls use bullying tactics to subtly undermine confidence because this is the only mechanism girls have for competition and confrontation. One result of this bullying is that many women grow up not trusting other women. Arguably more important is the consequence that many women who once were aggressive and/or confident suffer from lowered self-esteem and develop a self-effacing, non-threatening persona that can be harmful to their later career success**.

Simmons argues that this bullying occurs because of the pressure on girls to be "nice," "perfect:" since society expects girls to be well socialized and not taught to deal with feelings of competitiveness and jealousy, these feelings surface in ways that are subtle, manipulative, and difficult for teachers/parents to address. Simmons supports this point by describing the phenomenon that more marginalized girls, such as black, lower-income girls, are not brought up to be perfect, have no issues with being aggressive and confrontational and tend not to have this "culture of hidden aggression." The culture of hidden aggression affects not just girls, but women: there is a Calfornia-based professional training program that actually teaches high-powered women to cry and act less dominant in public so that they will have a more pleasing public image. Simmons makes a good case for why changing societal expectations for women (not to be perfect; not to be always nice), teaching girls that confrontation and aggression are normal, and allowing girls to be aggressive and competitive would benefit everyone.

While I wish this book had more hard factual evidence (its anecdote to survey result numbers ratio is very low; some parts of the book seemed too personal to be convincing to the nonbeliever), the bullying it described is exactly the kind of bullying I both experienced and took part in. This book supports my previous post about how gender-balanced environments can make it more difficult for individual women to succeed because they are simultaneously judged by how aggressive and self-promoting and by how non-threatening and self-effacing they are.

* New York Times bestseller some time ago and the first book to explore the subject of female bullying.
** As a result of peer ridicule of my tendencies to prefer reading to small talk, to be eager to answer question in class, and to generally care about the material in school, I went through a long period of decreased social confidence and became much less aggressive and non-threatening. This was followed by a long period of decreased intellectual confidence because my non-threatening behavior didn't really help me have an formidable intellectual presence.

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