‘Mean’ is not a girl thing

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Kate Hammer

Marnina Gonick is project leader on two projects funded through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Leaders Opportunity Fund (now named the John R. Evans Leaders Fund). She will be attending the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to present “The Blank Page: Literacy, Girlhood, and Neoliberalism” as part of a session called “Neoliberalism and the Production of Childhood” at the Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes (WGSRF) conference tomorrow, Sunday, May 31This article originally appeared on in July 2013.

Bullying in schools is more troubling than ever for a generation hooked on social media, as the dynamics of the classroom reach students at home through their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Along with these new concerns comes more awareness of a concept that behavioural psychologists call relational aggression, commonly known as the “mean girls” phenomenon. 

Popular culture has helped solidify the notion that girls are uniquely capable of a less physical kind of aggression characterized by back-stabbing, manipulation and social exclusion.

Marnina Gonick, Canada Research Chair in Gender at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, is challenging that idea. Through interviews with former bullies, she is debunking the idea that relational aggression is a uniquely female phenomenon. In other words, there are mean boys too.

“I don’t subscribe to the idea that relational aggression is only female,” says Gonick. “It pathologizes girls and normalizes male aggression as the right kind of aggression.”

She is concerned, though, that the education system has embraced the idea of relational aggression too readily. She is taking a critical look at how teacher and parent resources intended to combat bullying have taken up the idea over the past two decades.

“We’ve found,” says Gonick, “that many of the teacher resource materials that include exercises and activities for classroom use often promote a conventional femininity, with characteristics such as passivity, niceness and sweetness.” As ministries of education and school boards draft bullying-prevention policies, Gonick’s research will be instrumental in ensuring that schools aren’t stereotyping their students or their needs.

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Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2015