Cultural Norms. We live in a “trash and bash” society. Reality TV shows and magazines have helped to normalize a communal celebration of each other’s failings. We find a perverse satisfaction in the stories of crumbled relationships, emotional breakdowns, and drug addictions. Bodies are examined and criticized, accusations and assertions are made based on entertainment value rather than truth, and celebrities’ worst moments are set prominently in the spotlight for all to jeer and ridicule.
Girl vs. Girl. Female celebrities, in particular, are often positioned against one another, cattily duking it out over men, jobs, or other “prizes.” This image of girls and women helps to support the existence of a “pecking order” whereby girls are able to move higher on the social scale by maligning or embarrassing each other; noticing and pointing out the flaws in others is not only tolerated, but also expected. Such representations normalize the portrayal of women as competitors rather than allies.
Commercial Values. The combined pressures of the fashion, beauty, diet, and wedding industries send the same messages: Men are the prize, and other women are the enemy. Popular magazines and television shows often define girls in terms of their appearance and popularity, playing down the importance of other qualities and abilities. Most teen magazines regularly feature headlines like How to Win His Heart or How to Catch the Guy of your Dreams. All of this winning and catching means that someone somewhere is losing, perpetuating the rivalry.
Insecurity. This competition stems partly from insecurity, from a fear of not measuring up to the idealized version of “girl” that’s trumpeted about our culture. This insecurity builds into a pressure to collect boys like trophies, not really because of the boy himself, but because of what “getting him” means in the larger context; that she is worthy, popular, beautiful, sexy, better. Girls often learn to be suspicious of other girls, to doubt the trust level in their relationships, and to prize romantic relationships above female friendships.
Learning to value friendships. In a culture where girls regularly choose boys over friends, we hardly talk at all about how powerful female friendships can be in the life of a girl. Authentic, strong, female friendships are important for girls’ social and emotional development. With the proper role models, girls can learn great lessons about loyalty, cooperation, and empathy from these relationships. Girlfriends often know each other inside and out. Boys may hold their hands, but girls will hold their souls.
What can you do? How can you help girls build healthy, strong friendships with each other?
- Focus on the positive. Help her to see the qualities she values in her female friends, and how those friendships deepen over time.
- Help her verbalize messy feelings. Anger in relationships is normal. But without an avenue to express these feelings, they can surface as gossip and backstabbing. Help her put her feelings into words, and realize that it’s okay to do so.
- Help her learn conflict resolution skills. Relationships can be destroyed by everyday arguments; help her develop the tools to work out problems before they become overwhelming.
- Help her look at the long term. Help her realize that a good friend is one she can confide in, cry with, and tell her dreams to. Her girlfriends are the ones she will be able to count on long after the boys have come and gone.