When girls ruin girls
Barbara Kay, National Post · Nov. 16, 2011 | Last Updated: Nov. 16, 2011 4:09 AM ET
I don't remember being bullied by other girls when I was young. But I do remember with shame having failed to do the right thing as a teenager at summer camp, when a cabinmate - we weren't close, and she wasn't socially attractive, but still - was cruelly humiliated.
"Shira" kept a diary, as many of us did at the time. A mischief-maker found it, and some intimate details of Shira's sexual fantasies about a male counsellor were read aloud to shrieks of pitiless laughter. To this day I can vividly recall the moment's exact setting, and Shira's horrified face. I also recall my own visceral empathy with her pain, in spite of which I didn't step up to the plate and denounce my cabinmates' barbarism.
The rumours spread around the camp, and Shira's summer was ruined. Looking back, I have to wonder how that vignette affected her life and her relationships with women as an adult. Such a betrayal isn't something any girl would forget.
The good retrospective news for Shira is that she grew up before the era of social media; her mortification was socially contained and unarchived. Shira's fate today might have been that of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., an Irish newcomer who, relentlessly hounded on Facebook and in text messages by girl peers ("slut" was the leitmotif), hanged herself in her closet in 2010. In the aftermath, the question remains: "Are girls really meaner?"
Actually, yes, conclude two documentary filmmakers, friends and 2009 graduates of Pepperdine University. Both survivors of shunning and whisper campaigns by female peers in their teenage years, Laura Parsekian and Molly Stroud set out to explore the defining aspects and scope of the problem in their 2010 documentary Finding Kind. The film, brought to Canada by the RBC Children's Mental Health Initiative in partnership with Workman Arts, was shown from Nov. 9-11 in schools across Toronto's GTA, with a public screening Nov. 11 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Parsekian and Stroud kept it simple and to the point. With only their mothers and a cameraman in tow, they traversed 10,000 miles and 28 U.S. states in a Toyota-donated van, talking to thousands of girls and young women in small towns, suburbs and cities: girls of every socioeconomic stripe and ethnic makeup, of every family paradigm and of every shape and size - slim, chunky, beautiful, homely: there is no victim "type" - about their genderbased bullying experiences.
We see Lauren at one school, asking an audience of girls, "How many of you feel insecure?" Every hand goes up.
The filmmakers are not surprised. Lauren says "100%" of girls at some point experience peer bullying, and many go on to become bulliers. Therapists and researchers interviewed in the film confirm the universality of the syndrome, as well as its viciousness. "On a bad day it's a bloodbath," says one. Item: A girl of 10 is told by her girlfriends that she needs liposuction. Item: "We were best friends one day and the next day they turned on me and I never knew why."
The film intersperses narrative and school scenes with head-on "truth booth" narratives by girls recalling their victimization. Every single girl starts to cry as she recalls her ordeal. The one that got to me was Lori, age 21 at the time of the interview. She was tough and self-possessed, an unmarried mother and an orphan, but without a shred of self-pity. She narrated her tale of social isolation with seeming aplomb, then suddenly, with the words "All I wanted was a friend," burst into tears.
There's no question girls and boys are different when it comes to social bullying. Guys soon forget insults; girls never do. Guys are happy in groups and keep it emotionally light. Girls crave intimacy and willingly succumb to a "tyranny of niceness" in order to be accepted.
Add to girls' inherent insecurity: Impossibly high contemporary standards for beauty and slimness endlessly assaulting girls' con-sciousness in movies, ads and fashion magazines; popular reality shows that encourage female competitiveness, distrust and cattiness; social media that cannot be monitored by teachers; and the list goes on.
Feminism should have made girls more confident. Paradoxically the ideology removed them from the shelter of a sexually modest culture that put more of a premium on non-sexualized activities and inner worth, and encouraged the materialism and premature sexualisation that exacerbate negative female relationships.
I have four granddaughters, the oldest soon to be eight. That apparently is when it all begins. Finding Kind fills me with dread. But also hope that the film - and the "Kind campaign" movement Persekian and Stroud founded to combat female bullying (Kindcampaign. com) - will help find a solution to this pernicious social problem.