Not Always Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Originally posted on February 27, 2012

Leo, a reader, sent me an email about a recent Psychology Today article written by Ditta M. Oliker. In the article Bullying in the Female World, Oliker discusses the ways that female aggression plays out:

The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression. [The film The Help] captures a number of these “weapons” as well as a pattern found in the interactions of males; the justification for the use of the same kind of aggression — physical or social — by the “good guy” in response to the original aggression by the “bad guy”.

As Oliker notes, the reasons for female aggression are the same as male aggression: dominance, power, control, improving one’s social status, and jealousy. What is different is how females act out those desires. Females appear to lean towards verbal and psychological abuse, and as many psychologists note that kind of abuse can have a longer lasting impact on a person compared to physical abuse. The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a farce. A bruise eventually fades, but hurtful words can stay with you forever. Oliker explains:

Since the “weapons” have a stealth nature to them, there is less possibility of anticipating the specifics of an attack and fewer actions to defend against an attack. This negative effect is particularly damaging during adolescence when the importance of acceptance in a peer group is maximized. Adding to the pain inflicted on the victim is the lack of support by teachers and other adults who view the bully — often a popular and charismatic young woman — as innocent of such negative behavior. Thus the strong positive reputation of the bully makes it difficult for a victim to get validation of the bullying and causes a victim to suffer the additional pain of not being believed and not getting any support.

This is a problem in many cases in which a popular person bullies or hurts someone else. People have a hard time believing such a “nice” person would do anything like that. However, it takes on another dynamic when the person is female because our culture views females as essentially harmless. Few people take the hurt and damage girls and women do to others seriously until it is far too late to do anything about it.

This kind of abuse does have a lasting impact. It shapes how victims view certain people, whether they will trust others, and how they react in social situations. Think about the person you know who cannot seem to take a joke, the person who does not get along with the popular crowd, or the person who always says something negative. Psychological bullying may be the reason for that.

This also potentially ties into misogyny. While it is certainly possible that some men who dislike or hate women do so out of pure malice or social norms, some of them may do so because of how they have been treated by women. This is important because quite often women’s abuse towards others, particularly males, is not treated seriously. Some of the reactions people see may be a result of men and boys simply being fed up with getting picked on, bullied, and abused and having no one stop it. Some may try to protect themselves by preemptively attacking potential attackers. It works, but it also has the side-effect of pushing away lot of other people.

It has taken some time for us to start looking at women’s bad behaviors. As a society we are beginning to take it seriously. The more we look at the issue, it may turn out to be more common than people expect.

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5 thoughts on “Not Always Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

  1. You’ve just described passive-aggression. And my mother and my sister as well. I was set up by my mother as the target child for abuse. That family dynamic has lasted all my life and exploded the day my father was laid to rest. My sister and mother conspired with my abusive brothers to steal everything they could from me.

    They got away with it because I didn’t want to believe women could be that evil.

    Boy was I wrong.

  2. Nice to see you liked it, it’s a good article. What about the other one, “The End Of Boys” ?

  3. I would also posit that this type of psychological aggression is responsible for a lot of domestic violence that appears to be initiated by men but is in reality the result of a man reaching the end of his wits at having to deal with this type of assault, then lashing out physically in order to stop it.

    In my days investigating child abuse cases, I handled quite a few with dv issues. The men typically blamed themselves for becoming violent, but when I could get them to describe events occurring before they became violent, the psychological and emotional aggression described here was quite common. Another common factor was that the women involved typically belittled the men and justified the psychological aggression they used against them while condemning the man’s physical response. another typical situation was the woman initiating the physical violence after the man became avoidant in response to her psychological warfare. His passive response emboldened her to become physical as it was taken as a sign of weakness in the man. This situation was common in cases where the physical violence became reciprocal and the woman was injured as a result of the man’s aggressive self-defense.

  4. Good piece.
    There’s a book called “When She Was Bad” that covers this subject and it’s worth reading. As with the article, one of the main themes is that society doesn’t recognise female aggression because it’s not obvious.
    And the “End of Boys” article is depressing. People have been saying for years that education and society are failing badly when it comes to boys and the usual response tends to be “They’re boys. They’re like that.”

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