Lammas 2002, Vol 1-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Imperfect Love, Imperfect Trust
When I was eight, we moved onto a street where girls my age lived next door and across the way. Soon Stephanie and I took unwilling turns being outcast while the other was Mary's "best friend" in the neighborhood -- though neither of them was my friend at school. This painful, bewildering triangle went on for a couple of years, until Mary's family was about to move away. Only then did Stephanie and I become "best friends" to exclude Mary for two weeks. It was deeply satisfying.
Then I did my best to forget the whole thing, though for a long time the idea of best-friendship made me queasy. Margaret Atwood brought it all back with her novel, Cat's Eye (1988). Her narrator, Elaine, explains:
Here Elaine is the supplicant and Grace the subtle bully, but before the book ends, Elaine plays all the roles in the girl-group psychodrama.
In Odd Girl Out:
The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (2001), Rachel Simmons names
Simmons isn't talking about the girls of my pre-feminist girlhood or the women we've become. Her work is based on hundreds of interviews with today's girl-children. They're the beneficiaries of 30 years of feminism. They expect to succeed in the world, to have both careers and families. And still they're teaching each other to avoid any appearance of competition, assertiveness, self-esteem -- or risk being shunned.
According to Carol Gilligan, a pioneer in this research, isolation is the worst fear -- and thus the best weapon -- among girls. In a girl-group, the risk of confrontation is too great.
The girl who is different -- disabled, fat, unfashionably dressed, unconventional in her family or attitudes -- is a target. So is the girl who's too pretty, too confident, who doesn't understand or respect the boundaries of the popular groups. The message, originating in patriarchy and enforced by and upon women and girls, is that girls should be hyper-aware of social expectations and strive to fulfill (and not exceed) them.
A girl who doesn't want to be a target may choose her friends for social acceptance/advancement, not for authentic connection. Maybe this makes it easier to turn on a friend who becomes a target in the group. Bullying a target girl strengthens the alliance of the tormenters.
The torment is often
wordless, a matter of body language and exclusion rather than quotable
insult. The target girl often wonders if she's crazy, misinterpreting,
awful for not trusting her friends. Yet trusting them instead of her own
perceptions sets up an intolerable conflict that can lead to withdrawal,
depression, and sometimes suicide attempts. Changing schools is an escape,
but the damage to survivors can persist into adulthood. Simmons says:
If the target herself can't understand what's happening, teachers, counselors, and family are likely to be clueless. The alpha, the ringleader of a girl-group, may be the most socially skilled, the most charismatic. Her "power lies in her ability to maintain a facade of girlish tranquillity in the course of sustained, covert peer abuse." She chooses the targets, but often it's the other group members who carry out the bullying. Eerily, in adulthood the alpha may genuinely remember the target as her close friend, not her prey.
As with other kinds of abuse, most bullies are former targets. And the transition doesn't take a generation -- more like a school year.
or the Tiger
On the other hand, they may run up against one of the finest double-binds brought to us by sexism: It's healthier to confront and resolve conflict directly, but it's not ladylike, and mainstream culture still prefers the lady to the tiger. So do a lot of feminists. How many of us secretly or openly believe that women are intrinsically more evolved than men because we're less violent, less competitive, more cooperative? The girl-group research shows us how well girls use their vaunted cooperation skills to inflict emotional violence on their friends.
In April 1976, Ms. Magazine published an article called "TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" by Jo Freeman, writing as Joreen. She was the editor of the first national women's liberation periodical and a member of one of the first women's liberation groups in the country. Ms. had never gotten so many responses to an article, most of them from other women who had been trashed.
Freeman's experience in the '70s is a chilling match with the stories Simmons heard from middle-school girls in '99 -- and with the present-day experiences of adult women I know. This is one of the sources of internalized gynephobia, women's fear of women. It corrodes our institutions, our covens, our friendships -- even our partnerships. It causes us to fear our leaders because they perpetuate the pattern of hidden aggression -- or because we're afraid they will. It causes our leaders to fear open conflict and use or suffer bullying tactics. It causes women to run away from their heartwork because they don't feel safe with the women who share that heartwork. In short, this fear weakens us, wastes our energy, and handily distracts us from the work we want to do in the world.
Now, we're challenged to retrain ourselves again -- to recognize the girl-group patterns and to interrupt them without repeating them. As witches we believe we co-create our reality. In practice, that means we must enact our lives in the world we want, rather than the one we were born to. We're responsible for the loud unspoken thoughts, the rolled eyes, the large and small manipulations, as well as the smoldering fires of grudge, gossip, and character assassination we learned to nurture in middle school. We didn't always know what to call this stuff, but now we do.
The Matrilocal mission statement commits members "to unlearn behaviors that separate us as women, such as gossiping, secrecy, shunning, and power-over relationships." What it comes down to, though, is the old lesson from the early consciousness-raising groups: to change the world, each of us has to change herself.
+ book covers (CatsEye and Odd Girl Out), scanned images of Feral's hardback copies
+ hand-painted photo, courtesy of and copyright © Jason Freeman 1990-2001
+ Two little girls in a park near Union Station, Washington, D.C., courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW361-746 DLC.
+ trashing, Copyright © 2002, Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ girls, courtesy of and copyright © 1969-2002, Bill Hocker