From Gamma Girls to Queen Bees: The Illusion of a Label

Having just read Laura Sessions Stepp's latest article, on the end of "Mean Girls" and the increase of "Gamma Girls" in adult women, I'm compelled to respond for several reasons.

As the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, it may be surprising that I'm the one who is questioning the very notion of labeling girls and women's behavior.

But I am for several reasons: One, I developed terms like "Queen Bees" and "Wannabes" as a starting place for naming behavior so we could understanding people's actions -- not as a way to box people in. Two, while I have no problem challenging the ever-present "Mean Girls" stereotype, we shouldn't challenge the seriousness of the issue or its larger consequences. Three, by superficially labeling girl's and women's actions, Sessions Stepp misses the larger implications and trivializes women's behavior and relationships. Four, the article's premise goes too far as a logically sound way to characterize people's behavior.

Finally, judging from women's response to the article, women who continue to struggle with these issues as adults feel dismissed and mothers now wonder about the magic answer they need to develop Gamma Girl daughters.

So what is this Gamma Girl? The article defines the Gamma Girl as having a self-perception based on "passions and priorities [instead] of an Alpha who is driven by external social hierarchies or other indicators of status or popularity." Let's take a step back. Who is going to admit to themselves, let alone on a survey, that they are driven by social status and willingly treat people like dirt? And you don't know if you'll act according to those Gamma aspirations until you are challenged -- as in someone wants to deny you opportunities. It is in that moment, when you're angry, that reasonable people can lash out and act in very Alpha ways. But because they feel justified, they'd never characterize their behavior as being "mean."

So let's take away the Gamma and Mean Girl Label and look more deeply at some truths I think we can all agree on.

1. Conflict is inevitable between people.

2. Bullying is about someone abusing power in a conflict. Unfortunately, it is also inevitable. If you strip away the term "bullying" or "mean girls" the actions of the abuser comes in several forms but generally comes down to degrading someone based on money, gender, class, race, ethnicity and homophobia. That's what bullying is and that is exactly what Mean Girl behavior is.

3. Although it's uncommon for any of us to be one way all the time (as in Alpha Girl, Gamma Girl, or Queen Bee), it's common to the human experience that when faced with someone who is cruel we often say nothing, hoping it will just go away, or we lash out.

4. What the target defines as "Mean Girl" behavior is often defined by the initiator as justified or at the least not that bad. That doesn't mean the initiator is in the right, but it does mean that often they are the least credible person to define the impact of their behavior on others. So Ms. Session Stepp's reliance on people defining their own actions can't be taken as a thorough assessment. And ironically, one of the hallmarks of Alpha behavior is only allowing your perception to define your behavior.

5. When we are young we learn cultural expectations of what is expected of us. This experience carries with us into adulthood. Adolescent "Mean Girl" lashing out is often about girls breaking these cultural rules and being socially punished for it. By the time we get to adulthood we often have learned those lessons so well so that we conform without thinking. Based on Sessions Stepp's argument, Gamma Girls and women have moved beyond these cultural pressures. If she's right, why is it that so many relatively mature women still have trouble trusting each other's apologies, are reluctant to declare they excel at something, and obsess about their weight?

Here are the messages I find most problematic:

1. If you can't blow off "Mean Girls" then you are weak and immature. In my experience with kids and adults alike, those people who can get beyond it the way Sessions Stepp wants, almost always have at least one person who is their bedrock of support. If you don't have this kind of support, you usually continue to struggle.

2. Confirming a "friend" on Facebook with a woman who made you miserable in school is proof that your relationship has moved beyond the Mean Girl phase. In a word, no. Let's be honest, for most of us in that situation, we click accept because we want to see what the person looks like and what's happened in their lives. At best, confirming that woman as a friend through social media gives you the opportunity to start a real dialogue.

3. "Mean Girls" only happen to middle class white women. I took the greatest offense to the article's comments about race and class. In a few sentences it trivializes middle class white women's experience and reinforces the strong black women stereotype that stops so many women of color from admitting emotional pain. Based on this article, Sessions Stepp comes across as being ignorant to the fact that black girls or other non-white women aren't capable of degrading each other based on race and class. Has she seriously never heard of people being put down because they have "Payless" shoes? When I was first teaching many years ago at a public high school in Washington DC, I remember a black student saying to me, "Ms. Wiseman, we don't have those eating issues like all the white girls do. We aren't putting pressure on each other to starve ourselves." I remember vividly my response: "OK, but let's talk about your hair and skin tone. Do girls put each other down if their braids aren't tight or their skin is dark?" After that, we could get down to the truth.

4. The Washington Post is not a blog or a press release. Ms. Sessions Stepp acknowledges that a marketing company conducted a study on Gamma Girls from a previous article she wrote for the Washington Post in 2002. Not surprisingly she agrees with the report's findings. I find this disturbing. At best, it's convenient to invoke research to support an agenda.

For girls to develop into Gammas, they have to learn and internalize two things: competence when you're in conflict with someone else and treating yourself and others with dignity when you are jealous, angry, intimidated.

So the next time you get angry at someone and you mull over exactly what you want to say to them and then in real life you can't seem to find the courage to speak, or your words get twisted around or your end up apologizing for making a big deal of out nothing, think about all of this "Mean Girl" controversy, and then forget about it. Instead, get down to the business of taking control of your life and speak your truth with dignity. No matter how old you (or your daughter) are, that's when you're really leaving the legacy of "Mean Girls" behind you.