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.