Perhaps by now you’ve seen Phoebe Prince’s story floating around online. The 15-year-old moved from Ireland to Massachusetts last fall. She began dating some kind of star athlete at her new school, South Hadley High, and evidently, though the details are hardly clear, that made some of her classmates angry. So they reacted in the manner high school students from time immemorial (or at least since the time there were high schools): they called Phoebe names like “slut” and “whore,” they threw things at her as she walked the halls at school and on the streets on her way home in the afternoon. Instead of handwritten notes they used Twitter and Facebook, but otherwise this was standard suburban teenage girl protocol. One day this past January, as Phoebe was walking along, one of the young women who’d been tormenting her drove by, and threw a can of Red Bull at her. Phoebe hung herself when she got home that day.
Phoebe’s tormentors were recently charged with crimes, but I doubt the charges will stick. And in any event, some of them seem a little off-the-wall – for example, two young men were charged with statutory rape, which one hopes is not referring to consensual sexual activity Phoebe might have engaged in, because that would seem a mite like posthumous slut-shaming, by you know, continuing to make her sexual activity the issue? And the growing media narrative of “pretty Phoebe” vs. the “Mean Girls” suggests a reductive reading of young intrafeminine dynamics I’m not sure I can get behind. That is not to say that Phoebe “deserved” the bullying she received, but rather to say that what she got is common, and problematic because it is common, not because it was an exceptional case of bullies targeting an otherwise pretty and angelic girl. You know, as opposed to their ordinary, more worthy targets, like ugly girls and fat ones.
Stories like this of course touch a nerve for me and I imagine for a lot of people who were bullied at school. I was nowhere near as pretty or adept with boys as Phoebe, but I can relate to people whose lives were made a living hell. In the seventh grade, a set of girls I had known basically my entire grade school life decided I was crimping their style, and wrote me a lengthy letter detailing all the reasons they’d rather not hang out with me. They told me a boy I liked had a crush on me, and I awkwardly tried to flirt with him until he came up to me and explained nicely, in the hallway, that these girls were lying to me. (Looking back I kind of admire the balls it must have taken for him to do that.) They left notes in my locker, told everyone I picked my nose, called me fat and said my hair was greasy. My experience was mercifully cut short when a friend of mine died in a accident and I became socially off-limits, an untouchable who no one wanted to set off.
But just those few months – which, looking back, seemed an eternity – have often led me to remark (flippantly!) in adult life that girls should be in solitary confinement from about ages twelve to sixteen. Yes, some of the cultural narrative regarding the nastiness of young women owes more to patriarchy than it does to actual lived experience. But a lot of it is actually reflective of young women’s behaviour, and the aggressive bullshit behavior between women is really too much to take, a lot of the time. Tina Fey, after all, had a point when she made Mean Girls – but that movie, popular though it is and was, never made much of a difference in the way we encourage young women to behave. And hell, the way we encourage grown women to behave. I’m sure I’m not the onl one here who thinks this behaviour often continues long after high school.
I’m not trying to clutch pearls here, far from it: it may not be such a bad thing that women are not the passive, docile swans that this culture would prefer us to be, swimming gracefully around the fishbowl, gently tossing polite how-dee-doos to every woman we meet. I don’t mind that we’re not always braiding each other’s hair when we have a spare moment. That said, I have been wondering recently, in reference to certain things going on in my personal life and also, hell, in the feminist blogosphere (click through for Meloukhia’s excellent recent post on the subject), to wonder if I’m ever gonna get out from under the clawing women sometimes engage in with each other. I realize that certain wounds are deep and old, and that we all need to be open to criticism and I in no way want to silence legitimate criticism, and finally that men are just as guilty of this in their own way. But I’m exhausted, on a near daily basis, by all of this. It makes me want to live in books instead of the world, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. Least of all the Phoebes themselves…