Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feminist bookshelf: "Odd Girl Out" by Rachel Simmons

"Sugar and spice and everything nice - that's what little girls are made of."

And that 's what girls are expected to be in our society -- nice.

Nice girls never express anger or aggression -- it's just too messy. In fact -- aggression is discouraged and even punished.

It's part of a double standard. The rules are different for boys. Their popularity is determined in a large part by their willingness to play rough. In girls - displays of aggression are punished with social rejection.

So what do girls do to cope with these feelings that are simply part of being human?

In her book, "Odd Girl Out" researcher Rachel Simmons claims that because society refuses girls open conflict - they resort to what she calls "alternate aggressions."

These are nonphysical, covert forms of aggression that, on the surface, can appear harmless and are often invisible to the adult eye. They are not taken seriously and dismissed as "a phase," or "just the way girls are."

"Odd Girl Out" was published in 2002. Simmons drew upon individual interviews and focus groups she conducted with teen and tween girls. Additionally, she draws on her own experiences as a young woman. She returns to reexamine old relationships through a feminist research lens.

Simmons contends that a complex culture has evolved surrounding the alternate aggressions practiced by girls. It is a culture powered by dualities that range from love and cruelty to passive and powerful.

A language of mean looks and non-verbal gesturing contributes to confusion and fear of solitude and isolation.

These behaviors are formed as early as preschool and destroy female relationships making it harder for women to break stereotypes that impede the fight against sexism.

Humor is an especially popular tactic employed in the culture of alternate aggression. As Simmons says, "(Jokes) provide a membrane of protection around the perpetrator as she jabs at her target."

"We were just kidding," is a convenient verbal out along with, "Can't you take a joke?" or "Don't be so uptight."

Because boys have a wider range of opportunities for direct aggression, humor is clearly distinguished from real, serious moments of anger.

For girls, the line is blurred. A 13-year-old told Simmons: "What you say when you're joking is really what you mean, but you're too afraid to say it. Humor doesn't work unless both people know it's true."

In the culture of alternate aggression, girls self-enforce societal norms -- what Simmons calls the "hidden curriculum" that teaches girls to value silence and compromise. A good girl is nice beyond anything else.

The "odd girl out" is the one who resists these norms. She is outside of what is considered "nice." For example, girls don't want other girls to be confident because it makes them feel threatened -- confidence is outside the norm.

Other terms used to describe the odd girl out are brainy, bookish, opinionated, pushy, professional, independent, serious, and strong. Ironically, these are all traits used to stigmatize successful, assertive women.

If invisibility is the key to the power of alternate aggressions -- exposure is the key to their defeat. Simmons calls for "public language" to address conflicts, acknowledge the hidden culture, and enable girls to negotiate conflict and define relationships in healthier ways.

These behaviors are not new to the 21st century, but by naming them -- a hallmark of feminist research -- Simmons has taken an important step towards thwarting their perpetuation.

To find out more about Rachel Simmons, visit her website:

No comments:

Post a Comment