GIRLS TALK IS a classic Dave Edmunds song, penned by Elvis Costello, and it captures in a few verses and choruses the complexities of a girl culture that thrives in the corridors and toilets of schools around the world. Movies like Heathers and Mean Girls helped bring the dark side of this secret society to mainstream attention and revealed it as a breeding ground for a stealthy kind of bullying that has long evaded notice and official consequence.
Few children schooled in the Western world escape experiencing or witnessing bullying, but what exactly is it? When we think of bullying we think of the traditional scenario: a bigger boy beating up a smaller boy or the infliction of a humiliating initiation rite on a terrified newcomer. We think of boys and we think of the body, or of persistent schoolyard name-calling. We know girls can bully, and most of us recall the "tough girls" of our childhood, but they were a rarity, seen as an aberration of girlhood.
Dr Ken Rigby from the University of South Australia defines bullying as repeated aggression in which there is an imbalance of power, but aggression itself isn't always easy to recognise. Unlike boy-bullying, which tends to be physical or verbal and overt, girl-bullying can be diabolical, two-faced and strangely intimate.
My childhood best friend, Donna Rowlands, and I went to North Annandale primary school. Last year, I received an email from an old school friend of ours, whom I'll refer to as Tom C. Tom had come across some writing of mine and managed to track me down. I had no recollection of him so I asked if he had been among the boys I'd claimed as a boyfriend. He wrote back saying that yes, Donna and I had once given him a heart-shaped cushion with "We Love You Tom" sewn on it, along with some gushing notes. He admitted that the lingering sentiment of first love was the reason he'd decided to get in touch.
I was seized by concern that the gift he had taken as vital praise might have been one of our tricks and, racked with guilt, I phoned Donna. She reassured me that Tom C had not been the butt of a joke – we really did like him. We liked him so much we trapped him in my bedroom and forced him to kiss us, attacking him with hairspray and lipstick at any sign of resistance. I mentioned this to him in an email and offered to pay his therapy bills, but moments after I sent the message Donna phoned to say that it hadn't been Tom after all, but another boy we regularly victimised, who hangs on the blurry edges of my memory. According to Pru Goward, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, the kissing/hairspray incident probably qualifies as sexual harassment, which she considers a "subset of bullying".
Children are, essentially, conformists. A sense of belonging is the appeal of the best friend or clique; they affirm and enhance the self. Belonging to an "us-world" grants its inhabitants a larger than life-ness. The faith in the other members of the "us" and their faith in you, the movement of this faith flowing back and forth in an open channel, somehow feeds the self, makes it bigger than it was, gives one a boldness unachievable alone.
For the most part, the "us-world" Donna and I created was harmless fun, but bullying and rejection is the shadow life of this desperation to belong, for the nature of belonging to one friendship, group, school, area or subculture necessitates rejection: some will not be allowed to belong. This is natural and not, the experts assure us, cause for alarm. So, when does this normal social order become bullying, and what triggers it?
ONE DAY, A boy called Spiro, who lived at the end of our street, threw a birthday party to which Donna and I were not invited. We scooped a dried-out dog turd off the footpath and wrapped it up in endless sheets of newspaper, finally covering it with pretty giftwrap. We presented the gift to Spiro at his front door, party balloons billowing up behind him, with our smiling wishes for a happy birthday.
Another time, we turned on a girl who lived a few doors down. My mother had some innocuous pills that had the baffling side effect of turning her urine blue. Donna and I stole some pills and produced blue piss of our own. We poured it into an empty perfume bottle and gave it to the girl as a present. I have no idea what these children made of our cruelty, but the memories stand as evidence of the unspeakable spite children are capable of in their "us" against "them" narratives.
I was not raised to discriminate against people on the basis of race or colour. Donna was dusky-skinned, of Islander and Chinese heritage. My step-grandfather was Burmese and my family has a United Nations of friends, but there's no denying those unkind gifts expressed a pointed anxiety around difference. Spiro and the girl must have seemed foreign to us, aloof even. It's likely we came to the conclusion they thought they were too good for us.
When I mentioned I was writing about bullying to an Italian-Australian friend over lunch she disclosed that she had been targeted as a "wog" because she dared to be attractive, talented and a top student. She explained, "I wasn't allowed to stand out. As soon as I did a hate campaign started against me. It started with taunts about my loving myself and thinking I was beautiful."
There is another kind of bully victim, who is at the very lowest rung of the social order and who is judged as literally worthless: the un-sporty, the stutterer, the odd child – persecuted not as tall poppies but as weeds. Some children are not just bullied for their difference, but tortured for it.
When we caught up for coffee, Tom C volunteered the haunting story of an event that took place after I'd left North Annandale: a lone Aboriginal girl stands surrounded by a group of children in the playground. One of them starts chanting, "Scaboriginy, scaboriginy ... " Others join in. Before long she is surrounded by what seems like the entire school chanting and clapping. It's an image befitting a horror movie and I can't help wondering where she is now, what her life is like and how she shares her days with this scarring memory.
CHILDREN ARE SPONGES. They soak up the bigotries of the society into which they are born and regurgitate them. There is now welcome focus on homophobic bullying in schools, but girls have long led the field in sexuality-related bullying.
Goward says that, having facilitated sexual-harassment workshops with high-school students around Australia, she came to the conclusion that girls were by far the worst perpetrators of this form of bullying: "I went to schools expecting to hear stories about boys hassling girls for sex. What I heard instead were constant stories about girls sexually harassing other girls about their sexual status, their sexual attractiveness or their promiscuity."
Girl-bullying, it turns out, can be viewed as a feminist issue. Girls internalise sexism and this accounts for why girls bully each other so mercilessly around sexuality. And embedded in our societal beliefs about femininity is the age-old view that relations between girls are trivial, that females are inherently "bitches" who will, by their very sly nature, gossip about and ridicule each other. But the subtlety and sideways-ness of girl-bullying can be linked to the way in which girls and women are heavily conditioned to be "nice". In Mean Girls, Cady – who has recently started high school back in the United States, having previously lived in Africa – says of one conflict: "I knew how this would be handled in the animal world, but in 'girl world' all the fighting had to be sneaky."
According to Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls (Black Inc, 2002) the peak bullying phase for girls is between the ages of 10 and 14. She says: "Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumours, name-calling and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims. Unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the victims."
Simmons writes that in almost every group session she held with girls "someone volunteered her wish to have been born a boy because boys can 'fight and have it be over with'. "
This doesn't mean, of course, that bullying by or between boys is any easier for its victims to endure, but it does point to the cultural genesis in the differences between the ways boys and girls bully.
Dr Michael Carr-Greg, a spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Bullying, says that girl-bullying is often totemic, with a "queen bee" at the top followed by "sidekicks, bankers, float-ins and targets".
Simmons comes to the conclusion that girls tend to act anger out via clandestine and abusive behaviours. She focuses on girls' reluctance to talk openly about their feelings of anger towards each other and their resistance to confrontation, suggesting this is fertile ground for bullying. But surely feelings generated outside of peer relationships would also contribute to their dynamics and bullying must, to some degree, be born of displaced shame and insecurity related to a child's home environment and broad cultural experience. While it would be simplistic to imagine all bullies and bullying as necessarily and only the product of a dysfunctional family life, it can't be denied that a child's immediate surroundings and primary relationships influence how they interact with other children and the world around them, including how they behave on the internet.
Technology creates an ever-expanding network of opportunities for those inclined towards bullying. Christopher Daunt Watney, principal of SCEGGS Redlands, expressed concern that though he sees cyber-bullying as "another tool in the arsenal of the bully", meaning that those who perpetrate cyber-bullying are by and large the same kids who bully in the playground, he also sees the potential for it to attract the kind of children who wouldn't normally bully in school. While boys no doubt indulge in it, bullying via SMS and the internet would seem, by its covert nature, to be a perfect fit for girl-bullying.
MY LIFE WITH Donna came to an abrupt end when my mother announced that we were moving to Waverley. Torn away from Donna and from my beloved North Annandale Primary, I rattled miserably around the new, alien house. My teacher took an instant dislike to me, finding never-ending ways to debase me. In fact, she bullied me. I was roundly rejected, made no friends and cried every day. I would probably have qualified as clinically depressed. Donna remained my best friend in heart and mind, and that helped sustain me, but it didn't make going to school every morning any easier. What could have been done? What is being done now?
Bullying in general is clearly on the agenda. In January 2005, the NSW Department of Education and Training implemented the Anti-bullying Plan for Schools, a compulsory program for all NSW schools. John Betrand, of the National Coalition Against Bullying, claims about 700 schools have taken up the Better Buddies Program peer-support system the coalition is promoting.
Still, the question remains – given the heightened public profile of bullying, is girl-bullying still under the radar? The courts have acknowledged at least one case of girl-bullying. In 2003, a Melbourne girl was awarded $76,000 after she sued a secondary college for bullying suffered when she was thirteen, in which she endured daily slurs of "two-dollar hooker" and the like. Litigious claims and their outcomes are interesting as an indicator of cultural temperature, but they hardly constitute a solution.
In Odd Girl Out, Simmons recommends a range of strategies for girls that includes peer-driven group exercises, seeking support from parents and teachers, and helping girls to recognise and leave abusive peer relationships. Many anti-bullying policies acknowledge girl-bullying, at least on paper, by citing a wide range of its behaviours, but how effective are these policies on the ground?
Kath Delaney has worked as a high-school teacher for more than 30 years. She has her own term for girl-bullying. "I call it 'ice' bullying," she said. "I've noticed it all through my career. They just 'ice' some poor kid out of existence." She says that, despite what might be written in policy, in her school at least, girl-bullying is rarely addressed. "It's much harder to detect as a teacher. We're busy teaching, we're not busy observing every nuance of every group." She points out that inadequate communication between teachers is part of the problem. "There's a cone of silence for the classroom teacher. You could be teaching a kid six times a week and not know that they have any issues. You only know a kid has problems by the look on their face, intuition and academic performance going down."
I stayed in high school for only a year and a half. I managed, in the first year, to wheedle my way into the clique of popular kids in my grade, where teasing was relentless and rake-thin girls were abused as obese. I recall a constant feeling of unease, of niggling duplicity and fear. At some point in the second year, I dropped out of the clique voluntarily and aligned myself with outcasts. I remember coming to the conclusion that the clique, and its way of being, was shallow and pointless. Soon afterward I stopped attending school altogether.
At the end of Mean Girls, Cady, having inadvertently become a nasty girl, has learnt her lesson. She says: "Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier, calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter." Wise counsel even if, predictably, the assumption that it's better to be skinny goes unchallenged. What Cady's words speak of is the reality that when one student bullies another, two people are afflicted, not one, and both of them are our children.