Friday, November 17, 2006

Kewl Kidz and Queen Bees

Sara Robinson

The image of the mainstream media as a gaggle of adolescent Kewl Kidz giggling and sneering in high school hallways has been in circulation as a stock lefty blogger meme for a few years now. But I don't know that anyone's really stopped and taken a look at the deeper implications of that analogy -- or the possible solutions it might point to, especially what we know these days about "relational aggression," which is what this precise form of bullying is called when it happens in schools.

Bullying between boys has been a concern of vice principals as long as there have been schoolyards to fight in and windows to break. But it's only been the past 15 years or so that thoughtful psychologists and child development experts, mostly women, have taken a look at the very different ways girls bully each other. Where boy bullying is hard to ignore, given how often it leads to physical aggression and outright violence, girl bullying is far more subtle and therefore easier to shrug off. Yet the effects on girls are no less devastating; and the wounds cut so deep that many women will be emotionally and socially disabled by them for the rest of their lives.

The Parenting Perspectives website provides a concise description of this devastating style of coercion and abuse:
Acts of relational aggression are common among girls in American schools. These acts can include rumor spreading, secret-divulging, alliance-building, backstabbing, ignoring, excluding from social groups and activities, verbally insulting, and using hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Other behaviors include making fun of someone's clothes or appearance and bumping into someone on purpose. Many of these behaviors are quite common in girls' friendships, but when they occur repeatedly to one particular victim, they constitute bullying.

Increasingly common is another form of harassment termed “cyber bullying”—using e-mail and websites to harm someone. Cyber bullies use personal websites and instant messaging to spread rumors about classmates over the Internet. Cyber bullies might also use classmates or “friend's” PIN numbers and pass codes to send embarrassing e-mails. Sometimes it is easier to engage in cyberbullying than more direct acts because the bully never faces the victim. This form of harassment is also very fast--an instant message posted at night may spread through an entire school before the first class period….

Relational aggression tends to be most intense and apparent among girls in fifth through eighth grade. This type of behavior often continues, although perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, in high school.…

The usual motivation behind acts of relational aggression is to socially isolate the victim while also increasing the social status of the bully. Perpetrators might be driven by jealousy, need for attention, anger, and fear of (or need for) competition. One reason girls choose this type of bullying rather than more direct acts of harassment is that the bully typically avoids being caught or held accountable. Girls who appear the most innocent may indeed be the most hostile in their actions. These bullies are often popular, charismatic girls who are already receiving positive attention from adults. Because of their positive reputations, these girls may be the least likely suspects. Thus it can be very difficult to identify the perpetrators of acts of relational aggression, and victims can suffer for long periods of time without support.
Rosalind Wiseman, whose Queen Bees & Wannabees is one of the bibles on relational aggression (the other is Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out), says that Queen Bees are generally the girls who have bought most heavily into "media bombardment" to look pretty and cool. She provides the following list of traits for the garden-variety relational bully:
--Her friends do what she wants them to do.

-- She can argue anyone down, including friends, peers, teachers and parents.

-- Her comments about other girls are about the lame things they did.

-- She doesn't want to invite everyone to her birthday party, and if she does, she ignores some.

-- She's charming to adults.

-- She makes other girls feel "anointed" by declaring them special friends.

-- She is affectionate to one person to show rejection of another, like throwing her arms dramatically around one girl to emphasize the exclusion of another.

-- She does not take responsibility when she hurts another's feelings.

-- She seeks revenge when she feels wronged.
Some people never outgrow this. Some boys give up overt physical bullying for this more subtle style. A disproportionate number of these appearance-obsessed kiss-ups grow up to work in the media, where they can make or break careers, argue people down on camera, deliver the news about lame things people did, pick and choose whom they're going to favor with their attention, charm people with influence, destroy others with impunity, and take revenge on anyone who questions their right to power.

So it's small wonder why the Kewl Kids behave this way. They're the Mean Girls, all grown up and now concentrated in an industry that plays to the very worst in their already shallow personalities. And they're running exactly the same social games they did when they were eleven…only by this time, they've had 30 years to master them.

The work on identifying relational aggression and understanding the behavior of Queen Bees has also given victims, parents, and schools some rudimentary tools for putting a stop to this form of bullying. Generally, girls on the receiving end of this treatment are encouraged to:
-- Learn to stand up and speak up for themselves in assertive ways that make them both non-violent, and yet not a victim.

-- Draw a firm, bright definition: Friends are people who are nice to you. People who are not nice to you are not your friends.

-- Keep a record of bullying events in a journal.

-- Cultivate friendships outside of the school arena, beyond the reach of the queen bees.

-- Form alliances with other victims of bullying, and work together in mutual support.

-- Seek the support of the school and parents in creating a strong, coordinated response to instances of bullying.

These steps may also point to some effective strategies for liberals seeking to change the culture of bullying that's come to characterize the media response to our spokespeople and ideas. Specifically:

Get Assertive -- As I noted in the post below, the Kewl Kids must always be met with assertive speech and action that denies them the right to take space, energy, and dignity from us -- and, at the same time, increases the risk that any attempt to humiliate us may result in their own on-camera humiliation. Bullies of all stripes tend to pick soft targets. Consistenly setting strong boundaries and defending them will make us far less interesting to pick on.

Choose Your Friends -- We need to start keeping careful accounts, as the Republicans once did, between those who are our friends, and those who are not. Kewl Kids who don't treat Democrats with respect should find that they have a harder time booking Democratic leaders for their shows, and don't get invited to private events held by influential Democrats. This wouldn't have been much of a sanction before the election; but if they want to cover Congress now, they are going to have to stop smirking, or lose access to all but the most public and official events.

Keep Records -- Blogs have played a powerful role in serving as the progressive movement's institutional memory. In this matter, we (particularly blogs like the incomparable Daily Howler, the indispensable Media Matters, the irreplaceable Crooks & Liars -- and, dare I say it, this one) are the left wing's comprehensive journal of bullying events, documenting past acts of aggression that need to be kept in mind as we deal with these people in the future. And we should continue to be at least as dogged in documenting every smirk and snigger in the future as we have been in the past.

Pursue Other Friendships -- The media sometimes appear to be the only power in the political universe (and they'd certainly like us to think so); but the world is full of many power players, many of whom don't appear anywhere on the media's radar. The Democrats' real power is in the alliances the party forms with its natural allies, both here and abroad. The bigger and stronger that network of alliances, the more quiet pressure it can bring to bear on the media to force a little change of attitude. All that has to happen is for everyone in that network to understand that the campaign for media respect is a core party priority, and the message will carry from there.

Form Alliances -- Our version of "forming alliances with other victims of bullying" is to do what the GOP did: Form a corps of a million or two rabid letter-writers, who don't let the least whisper of a slight against any Democrat at any level see print anywhere from the local shopper sheet to the New York Times without triggering an overwhelming negative response. We can be polite, of course; but those making the news decisions need to know that the days when they can slight us with impunity are over.

Unite to Change the Environment -- On a larger level, we need call this bullying explicitly and loudly for what it is, and not be shy about pointing it out wherever we see it. The above-mentioned sites have long been on the job; but it needs to be everybody's job for a while until the Kidz get their attitude back on straight. And we need our own talking heads to continue getting more and more aggressive at pushing back when they're being subjected to it, as Clinton did. They need to know that whenever they start that shit, the smackdown will be usually instant, frequently humiliating, and never worth the risk.

I've been arguing that "adult supervision" is one of the most important frames for us to be working right now. As long as the MSM continues to behave like a bunch of trivial, self-centered pubescent girls, it won't take too much conscious effort to make our spokespeople look like serious grown-ups by contrast. The victory begins when we start insisting that there are more adult and worthy things to talk about than hair, clothes, parties, who's going with whom, and who's got the better ratings. Queen bees regard anyone with power who'll return a phone call as a "friend" -- so as soon as they see that there are grown-ups in charge exercising authority and setting standards, their natural kiss-up reflex will kick right in, and the eye-rolling should stop forthwith.

Back in the 70s, the GOP coined the phrase "liberal media" to combat what they saw as the mainstream media's queen-bee assault on their values. It's high time we mounted a similar campaign pointing out that junior-high social rules and behavior are beneath the dignity of the national media of a great nation. It's also a grossly immature misuse of power that diminishes the ethical and cultural stature of a great profession. The Kewl Kidz need to either grow up, or go home.

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