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Nonfiction Review: Mean Girls Grow Up

Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to Bees
Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.,
Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005

Karen was my daughter Jennie's best friend through most of high school. With similar backgrounds and shared values, friends, and interests, they had a friendship that was a strength and support. I was a bit concerned about the two girls getting on each other's nerves or relying on one another and not developing other friendships when they went off to the same college and were roommates in the dorm for two years. I also thought, however, their alliance would be a powerful protection in the huge life passage of leaving home. Jennie complained some about Karen being grouchy and constantly helping herself to Jennie's clothes and other possessions, but the dormitory life together appeared to go well most of the time.

When they came to the next rite of passage — moving out of the dorms with eight other girls and into a huge house with two apartments — I again cringed a bit, thinking of the potential for drama and conflict with 10 young women living together. In the next two years there was a lot of fun, a lot of chaos... and, sadly, the start of the bullying.

I listened to my daughter during countless phone calls in those two years as she cried and talked about the mean behavior Karen directed toward her — making up lies and spreading them; making cutting remarks about Jennie's appearance, possessions, or accomplishments; ignoring her at parties; and building alliances with other girls. Neither Jennie nor I could explain Karen's subtle and confusing cruelty. I often thought that the behavior Jennie was describing sounded like girls in middle school. Surely, these smart, talented young women in their 20s were past that kind of behavior — weren't they?

"Unfortunately, some women never outgrow these behaviors, turning into adults who slay with a smile and wound with a word."

Cheryl Dellasega says that these behaviors — now called female relational aggression (RA) - are indeed the same things mean girls did in middle school and, "Unfortunately, some women never outgrow these behaviors, turning into adults who slay with a smile and wound with a word." [Dellasega, 8] Dellasega calls RA "the subtle art of emotional devastation that takes place every day at home, at work, or in community settings. Unlike openly aggressive men, women learn early on to go undercover with these assaults, often catching their victims unaware." [Dellasega, 7] Educators and others who work with children say that RA is epidemic, yet in an email to me in July 2006, Dellasega said that few are researching RA and adult women.

Nina Mounts describes RA as "behavior specifically intended to hurt another child's friendships or feelings of inclusion in a peer group. An example of relational aggression would be a child spreading hurtful rumors about another child so that other children are less inclined to be friendly toward her. Or, a child might retaliate against another child by not including her in the play group. Relational aggression, then, is deliberate manipulation on the part of a child to damage another child's peer relationships." [Mounts]

In 1993, Carol Gilligan's ground-breaking In a Different Voice reported that connection and relationship were paramount to a girl's identity. [Gilligan] So if RA undermines the connection most important to the female psyche, it's no wonder that this behavior is so devastating.

The truly artful Queen Bee relies on others to carry out her aggression and thus maintains her cloak and pleas of innocence.

Queen Bee
Dellasega's research shows that the RA "team" includes a number of roles, and sometimes women move into different roles at different times of their lives (true, in my experience). "Queen Bees are at the top of the RA food chain, exerting their authority over all others and jealously protecting their power." [Dellasega, 32] The seeds of this relationship style are most often planted in middle school, and such "bullies rarely recognize themselves as such, which is part of the problem." [Dellasega, 33] The truly artful Queen Bee relies on others to carry out her aggression and thus maintains her cloak and pleas of innocence.

Middle Bee
The style that Dellasega describes as the Middle Bee is not "one-dimensional or easily explained." Nor are the Middle Bee's tactics always the same. Often the Middle Bee is the woman who gathers information and spreads gossip, and sometimes she simply does nothing to stop the aggression she witnesses. "The Middle Bee's position of noninvolvement can be used… to turn her into an accomplice." [Dellasega, 45] The Middle Bee is, however, usually "much more active, often making it possible for the Queen Bee to maintain her position at the top of the hive." [Dellasega, 42]

"Unlike adolescents, who often get caught between an aggressor and a victim, grown women sometimes deliberately place themselves there."

"Unlike adolescents, who often get caught between an aggressor and a victim, grown women sometimes deliberately place themselves there. This is the malicious version of the Middle Bee, who not only passes on gossip and rumors but tries to perpetuate aggression, constantly working undercover to create a context ripe for conflict. Although she has no inherent power, the Middle Bee creates some for herself by keeping bullies and victims isolated and selectively feeding the Queen Bee information calculated to incite her anger. As master of behind-the-scenes antagonism, the Middle Bee ensures that bullying will continue without ever being accused of being directly involved." [Dellasega, 50]

Dellasega says that Middle Bees sometimes work in groups ("The Swarm"), and that the Middle Bee may be "the most influential RA role. The Middle Bee has the opportunity to change the RA dynamic by swinging a situation in favor of either the bully or the victim. Their ability to control the social atmosphere of any group means Middle Bees often determine whether the outcome of an interaction is helpful or harmful. As such, they can be just as supportive as they can be destructive." [Dellasega, 53]

"Coercion, harassment, exclusion, and a host of other behaviors can keep Afraid-to-Bee women victimized and stuck in feelings of fear and failure, sometimes indefinitely."

The final role Dellasega describes is that of the victim or the Afraid-to-Bee: "Victimized women are afraid — afraid to speak up, afraid to remove themselves from unhealthy situations… too frightened to allow their real potential to be realized. Unfortunately, abusive women with Queen Bee or Middle Bee tendencies seem to have a flare for finding and exploiting those whom they perceive to be weaker or more fearful…. Coercion, harassment, exclusion, and a host of other behaviors can keep Afraid-to-Bee women victimized and stuck in feelings of fear and failure, sometimes indefinitely." [Dellasega, 58]

Of course, the big question is why women behave in these ways, and I think one answer is power. Not only are women unaccustomed to power, I think we have a poor understanding of what power really is. Women's studies and education scholar Lyn Mikel Brown, who has been studying the way girls' subordination within the culture affects their relationships, said in a 2002 interview, "Girls are fighting to be somebody. They want to be powerful, visible, and respected. They struggle for voice, love, safety and legitimacy within a patriarchal culture that takes them less seriously and subordinates their needs and wants." She says that girls are "much more likely to use relational strategies because they have been taught from day one that girls' power comes from pleasing others and managing their relationships." [Brown].

'True power comes from passion, not aggression.'

The term "managing relationships" seems very telling. Are we acculturated to manage relationships rather than to actually be in relationship? And what is our understanding of power? Don't we all want to be somebody and to have a voice? So many of my "powerful" female bosses have adopted the dominant culture's definition of power-over rather than a sense of power-from-within or power-with-others. Dellasega says, "Power does not have limits. One woman's gain should be every woman's gain, rather than a source of envy or loss. Neema Caughran, the former executive director of the Tucson Women's Commission and a seminary graduate, sums up the issue nicely: 'True power comes from passion, not aggression.'" [Dellasega, 96]

I think this is something that many women do not yet understand and will not, until we begin to identify and speak out about RA in ourselves, our friendships, our circles, our work, and our spiritual organizations. Dellasega's research shows how much this needs to happen.

"Ironically, some organizations that would seem most dedicated to promoting positive relationships among women are the very ones where RA runs rampant. After many women involved in female-oriented or all-female professions and even feminist organizations contacted me, I decided this was an important issue to address. There was a special kind of betrayal experienced when an all-female environment that women thought would be more supportive and nurturing than one dominated by men turned out to be less so." [Dellasega, 82]

Do grown mean girls gravitate to all-female organizations?

My friend who was fired from her job one week before her baby was due (thus losing income and desperately needed medical insurance) can attest to this. She worked at a "feminist" agency that helped women victims of domestic and sexual assault. And I can tell a story of RA so deeply ingrained as to be institutionalized in a "Goddess spirituality" group in the town where I recently relocated (ironically, to accept a new job and thereby escape a female bully boss). In this "spiritual" group I experienced sexual harassment and every RA behavior described in Dellasega's book; now I wonder along with the author "if grown mean girls gravitate to all-female organizations." [Dellasega, 84] Dellasega's research shows that other female-dominated professions and groups are full of RA, and that religious organizations can be "places of hurt and betrayal." [Dellasega, 143] Sadly, pagan groups are no haven from this reality. [Anon]

Does this all start to sound depressing? In the last five years, female aggression has received a great deal of attention, bordering on hype. When Phyllis Chesler published Woman's Inhumanity to Woman in 2001 (with an updated preface in 2002 that refers to the backlash from the first printing of the book), the book garnered huge attention from both supporters and detractors. [Chesler] I remember one listserv on which women said that Chesler wrote 500 pages on the problem, but only a couple of pages on the solution. I think this is hyperbole: Chesler's book discusses the problem at length, but she gives solutions, too. I credit her and all the others brave enough to bring the subject of female aggression into public discourse. I think that RA is a forbidden topic, as domestic abuse and racism were at one time.

Nobody could criticize Mean Girls Grown Up for not giving solutions. Dellasega provides assessment quizzes to help women recognize if their behavior fits any of the "Bee" roles. Best of all, she provides tools and resources to help women stop the cycle of RA. Detailed, clear, and practical, this book also gives a therapist's advice on changing "the RA way of life" by healing residual relational aggression and learning the power of forgiveness. The book also contains help on communication, self-affirmation, Netiquette tips (what a good idea!), and mentoring resources. Dellasega is a champion of mentoring and of women speaking out and educating others on RA. She acknowledges, "Despite the evidence that a serious problem exists in women's relationships, there is still denial and reluctance to take action to address it." [Dellasega, 218]

This takes us back to the story of Jennie and Karen, who have remained in the same peer group these six years out of college. Jennie actively detached from Karen and learned to endure the silences, snide remarks, and discomfort at all the weddings (more than once, they were in the same bridal party), reunions, parties, and baby showers. Everybody in the group knows about the rift, but it's the proverbial elephant in the living room that these nice girls won't talk about.

About two months ago, Jennie unexpectedly received an email (how 21st century!) from Karen apologizing for her bad behavior of these many years. Karen said she knows she's been a bitch and she feels terrible about it. She asked for Jennie's forgiveness. Jennie did not respond to the email because she simply didn't know what to say. After being devastated by Karen's RA, Jennie had truly let it go some time back, knowing that Karen's behavior was about Karen and not about Jennie.

At one of the many June weddings this summer, an alcohol-lubricated Karen cornered Jennie and asked her whether she had received the email. When Jennie acknowledged that she had, Karen cried and apologized profusely for her mean behavior, saying that it was born of jealousy. Jennie later said to me that she used to long for Karen's apology with all of her being, but now it felt like too little too late, as she had become so detached from Karen and her behaviors.

"The bottom line, and an easy rule to follow, is: if your behavior hurts or takes advantage of another, it needs to change."

From that conversation, the two young women have made their peace. Jennie says this will certainly make interactions in their shared peer group much easier over the years. Although I was amazed and happy about the change, I know these two women will never regain any level of intimacy or trust. Jennie told me that she hopes Karen is making sincere steps toward changing her aggressive behavior, so she won't end up as a 40-year-old woman still aggressing. Dellesaga gives concrete advice on how aggressors can make amends and stop the behavior. "The bottom line, and an easy rule to follow, is: if your behavior hurts or takes advantage of another, it needs to change." [Dellasega, 41]

The only disappointment I have with this book is that it — like everything else I have read on the subject except for Chesler — does not mention RA among lesbian or bisexual women. This summer I wrote the author asking about whether she had encountered lesbians in her research; she responded, "It's interesting you ask this because I did receive a story from a few women about RA between lesbians. Because it added an extra dimension of sexual attraction I decided not to use them, but I debated." I think that this could be a rich area of research for somebody.

The other question I have in general about this book is Dellasega's conclusion that the aggressors all have low self-esteem. Others versed in theory about aggressors (such as the pagan bully site mentioned above and some school counselors) say that bullies have too much of a sense of self and entitlement.

Why am I reviewing a book about women's relationships in a zine about Goddess? MatriFocus has addressed female aggression and group dynamics before in a series by Feral on feminism and spirituality. [Feral] Like Feral, I have steeped myself in literature about this "problem that has no name." Reading the research has been reassuring, affirming, and at the same time, disturbing. Much fine literature is emerging on this subject, and I think this particular book is especially well written. In my opinion, the problem of RA runs rampant in our groups and communities, even as we try to perpetuate the myth that we are somehow above all this.

At a recent national conference for professional communicators, I heard an outstanding speech from a journalism professor in which he mentioned the Spiral of Silence theory. [Noelle] The theory refers to how people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority; one of the main reasons for this behavior is fear of isolation.

The Spiral of Silence theory perfectly describes what I see happening with RA. It's the rift that the college girls wouldn't talk about. It's the Bees never admitting to their behavior as they sting and sting again. It's women recoiling, then disbelieving their own experience and returning to be stung again.

Recently, a woman well known and much loved in our community died. Deb had remarkable connections to numerous communities-within-the-community, and the cross-cultural representation at her memorial service was a testament to how many lives she touched.

Several of her close friends spoke or sang at her memorial service. One of them (who reportedly is "banned" from entering the premises of one of the pagan groups in town) said that one of Deb's dying wishes was that people begin to heal the rifts in the community. As I looked at enemies literally sitting across the circle from one another in their own distinct groups, I wondered to myself what it would take to heal our community and how that would be done.

I think a start might be to practice plain common courtesy and respect. "The importance of treating all women with respect is vital, especially for women who have identified themselves as feminists. In every encounter, recognition and acceptance of another woman's abilities and interests is common courtesy. She need not become your best friend, or even any kind of friend, but the occasion to communicate with a like-minded woman, be it in an airplane, in an elevator, or as you sit in a waiting room, should be treated with courtesy." [Dellasega, 96]

We need to come out from behind the mask of niceness and denial and examine our behaviors and our relationship to power. We need a spiral of truth-telling.


  • [Anon]
    Anonymous. "Bullying by Pagans?!?" site. Available as of 10/28/2006 at
  • [Brown]
    Brown, Lyn Mikel, Ed.D. "Fighting to be Somebody," UMaine Today Magazine, Ocono, ME: University of Maine, September/October 2002. Available 10/28/2006 at
  • [Chesler]
    Chesler, Phyllis. Woman's Inhumanity to Woman. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002.
  • [Dellasega]
    Dellasega, Cheryl, Ph.D. Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to Bees. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005.
  • [Feral]
    Feral. "Hard Times Trying to Walk That Talk", MatriFocus, Imbolc 2002. "The Organizational Mysteries," Beltane 2002. "Imperfect Love, Imperfect Trust," Lammas 2002. "Starting from Where We Are," Samhain 2002.
  • [Gilligan]
    Gilligan, Carol, Ph.D. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • [Mounts]
    Mounts, Nina S., Ph.D. "What about girls? Are they really not aggressive?" The Ohio State University Human Development and Family Life Bulletin: A Review of Research and Practice. Vol 3, Issue 2, Summer 1997. Available 10/28/2006 at
  • [Noelle]
    Noelle-Neumann, E. The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion -- Our social skin. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984. Concept summarized in "Spiral of Silence" web page from University of Toronto - Netherlands, available 10/28/2006 at
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