Relational aggression among boys: blind spots and hidden dramas

Article (PDF Available)inGender and Education · August 2016with 105 Reads
DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2016.1214691
Although boys too are involved in relational aggression, their experiences are overshadowed by the focus on relational aggression among girls. This paradox mirrors the empirical puzzle that forms the starting point for this article: while teachers saw relational aggression as a ‘girl problem’, we found a vast undercurrent of relational aggression among boys. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with staff and students in Norwegian schools, we ask how boys’ relational aggression can be left unnoticed by school staff. We demonstrate that there is a gap between the experiences boys have of being victims of relational aggression and their expression of this, in terms of both their inability to talk about it and its undramatic form. We argue that this represents a blind spot for school staff and for the boys themselves, and suggest that gendered knowledge production contributes to reproducing the invisibility of relational aggression among boys.
Relational aggression among boys: Blind spots and hidden dramas
Ingunn Marie Eriksen (a)1 and Selma Therese Lyng (b)
a) Norwegian Social Research, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Div. NOVA,
Postboks 4 St. Olavs plass, 0130 Oslo, Norway b) Work Research Institute, Oslo and Akershus University
College of Applied Sciences, Div. AFI, Postboks 4 St. Olavs plass, 0130 Oslo, Norway
Approximately number of words total: 7555
The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in Gender and
Education August 3 2016,
1 Corresponding author. Email:
Relational aggression among boys: Blind spots and hidden dramas
Although boys too are involved in relational aggression, their experiences are
overshadowed by the focus on relational aggression among girls. This paradox mirrors the
empirical puzzle that forms the starting point for this article: while teachers saw relational
aggression as a ‘girl problem’, we found a vast undercurrent of relational aggression
among boys. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with staff and students in
Norwegian schools, we ask how boys’ relational aggression can be left unnoticed by school
staff. We demonstrate that there is a gap between the experiences boys have of being
victims of relational aggression and their expression of this, in terms of both their inability
to talk about it and its undramatic form. We argue that this represents a blind spot for
school staff and for the boys themselves, and suggest that gendered knowledge production
contributes to reproducing the invisibility of relational aggression among boys.
Keywords: relational aggression; bullying; boys; masculinities; qualitative research;
feeling rules
Historically, the focus on the role of girls in bullying has been a case of battling for female
visibility, followed by an increasing recognition and acceptance of ‘feminine’ forms of
aggression that may differ from that of males (Rigby 1998, Ringrose 2008). This achievement of
the women’s movement has shaped our understanding, our measurement and our treatment of
bullying in schools today; there has been an upsurge of knowledge and understanding of social
and indirect forms of aggression, often termed relational.2 Relational aggression is characterised
by tacit forms of aggression, such as backbiting, rumouring and exclusion, strongly associated
with girls (Simmons 2002). However, this increased focus on relational aggression among girls
has overshadowed serious qualitative investigation of relational aggression among boys. Boys
are mostly excluded not only empirically, but also in the dominant theoretical understanding.
Through an empirical study of boys’ relational aggression in school, this article will argue for the
need to broaden the scope of relational aggression to include an understanding of its occurrence
also among boys, as an empirical phenomenon as well as theoretically.
There is a paradox in the field of male relational aggression: on the one hand, the outburst
of attention paid to relational aggression 10-20 years ago focused primarily on girls both in
quantitative and qualitative research, gaining momentum with the emerging field of Girlhood
Studies. Large-scale studies from the first effort to explore relational aggression showed that
girls were more involved in relational aggression or bullying compared to boys (Crick and Rose
2000, Craig 1998), and several studies argued that girls may be as aggressive as boys when the
research incorporates relational aggression (Björkquist, Lagerspetz, and Kaukiainen 1992, Crick
2 In the established and dominant definition of bullying internationally, instances of indirect or
direct aggression are considered as bullying when it occurs intentionally and repeatedly over
time, and in asymmetric power relations (Olweus 1993).
and Grotpeter 1995, Archer and Coyne 2005). This early phase was, in particular, shaped by
journalistic, educational and cultural documentation and exploration: Odd Girl Out by the
journalist Simmons had a major impact (Simmons 2002), coinciding with the book Queen Bees
and Wannabes by the educator Wiseman (Wiseman 2002). Both books have been adapted to
films, the latter forming the basis for the film Mean Girls (Waters 2004), which quickly gained a
large audience.
In this tradition, girls' relationships (in general) and relational aggression (in particular)
have been understood to have been shaped either by heteronormativity (Sanders 2015: 888) or by
different effects of patriarchy. As a gendered practice it is shown to reproduce hegemonic
masculinity and femininity in the competition for popularity, rivalry for recognition from fellow
students, and in establishing and maintaining power positions and relations (Hey 1997,
Tanenbaum 2002, Duncan 2004).
When the covert form of relational aggression is understood as a result of a lack of
female power, it is argued that relational aggression is a socially acceptable way to show
aggression for middle-class white girls (Simmons 2002, Brown 2003, Manvell 2012). Whereas
boys are taught to feel entitled to use overt power, ‘girls feel less entitled to have and show
power so they meet their needs in less direct ways’ (Manvell 2012: 69). Girls are forced into
behaving ‘meanly’ towards each other because other more openly aggressive ways are culturally
and socially out of bounds for them. The tacit fight for power collides with the norms governing
friendship among girls. In the literature on relational aggression, such aggression between girls
‘meanness’ as Merten calls it stems from the difficulty for women ‘to mediate the opposition
between solidarity with friends and competition for individual success’ (Merten 1997: 189). In
other words, ‘meanness’ is rooted in balancing the urge to become popular (i.e. to gain social
power) and not appear ‘stuck up’, ideals that are culturally defined yet opposing and that leave
‘meanness’ as one viable solution.
On the other hand – despite the fact that (girls’) relational aggression is primarily
understood as stemming from the place of girls in a patriarchal societyboys are in other studies
shown to be both perpetrators and victims of relational aggression and bullying more often than
girls (Salmivalli and Kaukiainen 2005, Kuppens et al. 2008). Olweus (2010) has recently argued
that the conclusions reached in the early quantitative research – showing that girls are more
relationally aggressive than boys is mistaken due to methodological errors, and that boys are
more aggressive than girls in both main forms of bullying, direct and relational. In his large-scale
empirical study of gender differences in bullying from fourth to tenth grade in Norwegian
schools, Olweus compared direct and relational aggression. The study shows that boys are
reported as perpetrators at higher levels than girls on all variables, also for the two
indirect/relational variables ‘isolation’ and ‘rumour-spreading’ (Olweus 2010). That boys bully
relationally more than girls is particularly evident in the higher grades (Olweus 2010: 27).
Moreover, his findings show that not only are boys the relational aggressors more frequently,
they are also more often victims of relational bullying than girls.
A recent quantitative large-scale study also indicates that there may be significant
similarities in both form and explanation for relational aggression among boys and girls.
Juvonen, Wang and Espinoza (2013) compared the frequency of the form of aggression
considered most ‘male’, physical aggression, and the form of aggression considered most
‘female’, spreading rumours. Not only did they find that boys to a larger extent than previously
assumed spread negative rumours, but their aim is the same as that of girls: To gain and maintain
social status and power (Juvonen, Wang, and Espinoza 2013). While studies on relational
aggression among girls are predominantly qualitative and focus on cultural explanations, the
scholars documenting relational aggression among boys predominantly use quantitative methods
and seldom employ cultural explanations. Qualitative descriptions, in particular theoretical
explanations of boys’ relational aggression, are severely under-thematised in research.
This gender paradox in research and cultural representations of relational aggression
mirrors the empirical puzzle that forms the starting point for this article: While teachers and
students discussed relational aggression as primarily and overwhelmingly a ‘girl problem’, we
found a great deal of relational aggression among boys. In this article, we therefore ask how male
practices of relational aggression can be left unnoticed or unrecognised by school staff. In order
to answer this, we start by describing how boys are involved in forms of relational aggression
typically associated with girls. Drawing from stories told by victims of relational aggression in
particular, we demonstrate the gap between their experience and their expression of it. We go on
to show how the silencing of male experiences of relational aggression may be fruitfully
understood in terms of gendered ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild 1979) that deny boys access to the
‘front stage’ (Goffman 1959) relational drama that often characterises girls’ aggression. This
causes relational aggression among boys to be experienced as individualised and shameful
episodic events. Apparently only representing the victims’ low status in the classroom, it
becomes a blind spot for school staff – and for the boys themselves.
The study
The data on which this article is based was sampled for a research project commissioned by the
Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training. The data are taken from a large qualitative
ethnographic and interview-based study carried out in 2014 and 2015 in 20 primary and lower
secondary schools in Norway. Based on a survey in schools in Eastern Norway (n = 455), the
schools were selected because they had reported a positive change in the school environment as a
consequence of their own strategic involvement. The aim of the study was to gain knowledge
about students’ psychosocial environment, the schools’ strategies for fostering a sound
psychosocial environment and reducing bullying, and challenges related to these strategies
(Eriksen and Lyng 2015).
In each of the 20 schools we performed group interviews with school management and
teachers separately. From these 20 schools, we selected four schools with a particularly
conscientious attitude towards improving the school environment for students: one primary
school and three lower secondary schools. In these four schools, we did ethnographic fieldwork
in six school classes: One fifth form class with students aged 10-11, three tenth form classes with
students aged 15-16 in two different schools, and two eight form classes in one school, with
students aged 13-14. The school classes chosen for ethnographic fieldwork were selected in
order to represent a variation of different class climates. Doing fieldwork, we observed students
and teachers in and outside classrooms every school day for three weeks at each school,
attempting to understand the student positioning in class, and noting how each student was
treated by classmates and teachers, their treatment of others and how they discussed events and
other students.
Most of the students in the school classes selected for ethnographic fieldwork were
interviewed either in groups or individually. In the interviews with teachers and administrators,
we asked what they considered to be challenges in the school environment and what they did to
prevent, discover and stop bullying or other unwanted social relations between students. We
asked the students what they experienced as problematic, painful or good in their life at school
and to describe their class and how relations in class had evolved since they started school.
This indirect and open-ended method had two important implications. One is that
recurring patterns in the interviews were not prompted by us, but by the informants. Teachers
and administrators from all 20 schools shared highly uniform accounts of their challenges with
‘girl stuff’, although we never asked them specifically about gender nor relational aggression as
such. Moreover, most of them observed that they had seen a rise in indirect bullying over the
years something which we know to be the case also internationally (Finkelhor 2014). This
testifies to the pervasiveness of these themes and perhaps also their resonance in the media, as
well as in research, as the staff in general were well versed in school research.
The other implication is that stories about lived experiences give a different level of
understanding than common-sense generalisations. This follows the general principles of the free
association narrative interview method (Hollway and Jefferson 2012), a method that rests on the
assumption that inner experiences, which involve taken-for-granted and also threatening matters
like being bullied, are difficult to perceive with the use of standard structured or semi-structured
qualitative interviews. This story-based method may thus avoid standardised discourses about
bullying, aggression and gender, and grasp more immediate and significant personal meanings,
at the same time as the taken-for-granted, discursive level of participants’ knowledge rarely fails
to be discernible. In the case of student interviews, we did hear much about what the students
thought characterises female and male forms of bullying – but we also captured their actual
experiences, which often contradicted their own sociological musings. Both observations and
students’ narratives of their lived experiences let us analytically separate their experiences from
generalised discourse (Eriksen 2013). This analytic separation gives an opening into grasping
what Arlie Hochschild (1979) has called ‘feeling rules’, the emotions that people may display
and even let themselves feelin a given context.
When interviewing students, we did not specifically look for, nor expect, stories about
relational aggression from boys. Going over the transcripts from student interviews, we realised
only in hindsight that we unconsciously seemed to avert the subject when it came up among
boys, neglecting to follow up stories of relational bullying, or even unwittingly abruptly
changing the subject. This attests to the uncomfortable nature of the subject of bullying, perhaps
especially when it presents in unconventional forms that break with gender norms. Only during a
subsequent deductive analytic process did we realise the prevalence of this topic in the material;
this realisation thus stemmed from the empirical analysis and marks our approach as different
from a theoretically driven approach. Moreover, the research process helped us clarify that our
own hypotheses and pre-conceptions about bullying were highly gendered yet unspoken and
partly unrealised by us before the analytic process.
Adult narratives of gender differences
School staff articulated a clear distinction between forms aggression and bullying among girls
and boys. Confirming the image from the dominant school of research on the topic, staff told us
almost unanimously that relational aggression is first and foremost a problem among girls, it is
complicated to resolve and has negative long-term consequences for individuals, relations and
the classroom environment in general. In contrast, staff said that there is ‘hardly anything’
among boys. When conflicts and offences do appear between boys, they are more simple, open
and direct – and quickly over and dealt with, as these teachers discuss in a typical account:
Teacher 1: Boys resolve the conflict there and then. They are more peaceful.
Teacher 2: Boys are simpler. Girls do meaner things.
Teacher 1: It is hard to see exclusion.
Teacher 3: There’s much more covert bullying amongst girls.
Thus, school staff were far more preoccupied with challenges among girls, or what they called
‘girl stuff’ and the students called ‘drama’: conflicts or bullying patterns between girls
characterised by rumouring, backbiting, negative body language, ‘bitching’, or exclusion or
everything at once. The adults expressed a desire and need to discover and deal with such cases
as soon as possible, before it escalated and developed into deep-seated painful relations that
would affect the whole class.
The teachers were, by the study’s design, uncommonly alert to students’ well-being and
anything close to bullying or unjust aggression yet they tended not to notice or acknowledge
what we found to be a vast undercurrent of boys’ relational aggression. However, the few
teachers who did notice relational aggression among boys, talked about it in terms of boys being
more ‘like girls’. A female teacher observed that: ‘Girl stuff with backbiting and exclusion is
now a problem among boys. Particularly in my class it is common’. The principal in another
school acknowledged that the few cases of ‘real’ bullying they had dealt with had been
‘psychological’: ‘Boys have become more girly too, because they are caught if they hit
someone’. In the cases where teachers did notice boys’ relational aggression, it was still
understood as ‘girl stuff’. School staff interpreted the increase in relational aggression among
boys as a result of them adapting to the increased measures and surveillance in their schools, as
though their natural tendencies towards direct aggression were suppressed, whereas relational
aggression is interpreted as something close to inherent in girls, almost impossible to get rid of.
Boys' experiences with relational aggression
In the first immediate discussion of the topic, the students too tended to testify to the pervasive
tale of boys being ‘square’ and girls being ‘mean’. Yet when boys related their own personal
experience as victims of relational aggression, and not merely discussing general observations
about generic boys or girls, their stories followed this pattern to a far lesser extent. Especially
potent was the gap between their own experiences of episodes of relational aggression and
bullying and the way in which they acknowledged and rationalised their experiences afterwards.
Both interviews and observation data provide ample cases of boys performing acts of
relational aggression, targeting other boys as well as girls. In terms of rumouring, students
describe how boys have actively taken part in cases of ‘smear campaigns’ directed towards
individual students, and we observed and heard boys themselves tell us about how they had
excluded others, sometimes unapologetically, sometimes with remorse. Perhaps as attempts to
justify such practices towards fellow students, they explained that they saw the victims as
annoying, pathetic, irritating or just trying too hard to be accepted.
Our main topic of interest in this article is the stories and observations of boys being
victims of relational aggression. The following interview extract shows how boys are subject to
exclusion tactics and degrading comments from other boys, systematically and over a long
period of timein other words, what would characterise as bullying according to the established
definition. The extract is from an interview with three boys in lower secondary school, Adrian,
Kenneth, and Pål, who describe that they have been regarded as ‘outsiders’, different and
unpopular since primary school. One of them explicitly stated that he was bullied for several
years in primary school, describing his experiences by referring to cases of direct and physical
bullying. Now in lower secondary school, the same boys who had been the most active in this
bullying at the top of the ‘coolness’ hierarchy – were submitting these three boys to more
subtle and indirect forms of exclusion, alongside the directly offensive language:
Pål: They think they’re so special. (…) And then they like to make your day bad.
Selma: How do they do that?
Adrian: By slagging you off -
Pål: Giving you shit -
Adrian: I notice that if I try to talk to some of them, like, they don’t always respond. They
just ignore you. They think they’re so much better than you (…)
Selma: Is this something that has been discussed in class, by the teachers?
Adrian: No. When the teachers are around, they respond to you automatically. But as soon
as the teacher is gone, it’s like talking to a glass wall -
Kenneth: You talk to a wall -
They go on to describe how degrading comments systematically take place even in front of the
teachers, with explicitly offensive words substituted by a degrading vocabulary that may pass
without the teachers being prompted to react:
Adrian: And also it’s like, when you try to say something in class and you think that it’s right
and then everybody says ‘No, it’s wrong, it’s wrong!’. But it’s not their turn to speak. And
then you get sort of sad and you don’t want to say anything anymore.
Selma: So you’re saying that they say things like this in class too, not only when the
teacher’s not around?
Adrian: Yes, in class, when the teacher’s present. But the teacher doesn’t say anything. The
teacher only continues talking to you, even if they slag you off.
Pål: Yes, but then it’s not like slagging off with those words, it’s more like ‘You are wrong’.
Things that sort of means that you’re stupid, that they sort of try to make you feel stupid.
Even though these boys had positive relationships with their teachers, and the teachers
considered the boys to be particularly vulnerable and therefore paid particular attention to them,
they still did not know about their situation.
To better understand the particular silencing manner of this male relational aggression,
we turn to another boy, Jon. He had experienced direct bullying at another school, before he
transferred to his current school, into a class that was well-known in the school for being
particularly nice. Jon and another boy discussed in an interview how they ‘like this class very
much’. Jon said that, as opposed to his old school, where he was bullied, students here ‘are nice’.
‘The only problem here is the super-friends’, Jon went on to say. ‘They are like real buddies, so
whenever there are birthday parties they will invite us, but not really care about us’. Turning to
his friend, Jon continued: ‘Do you remember Trond’s birthday party? When Jarle came, they did
like this’ Jon spread his arms wide in a virtual hug ‘and they whooped from joy and were
super happy. And then I came. And then they only did like this [Jon changed his expression and
voice to signal indifference]: “Hi”. So it feels like we are insignificant and the others are just
When listening to Jon’s full interview in isolation, we are left with the impression of a
boy who is not at the top of the class hierarchy, but not necessarily bullied – the story of his lack
of acceptance in the ‘super-friends’ group is the only explanation he gives for feeling
‘insignificant’. However, in interviews with other students, he was often talked about in a
degrading manner behind his back, both by boys and girls, and through the three weeks of
ethnographic fieldwork in his class, Ingunn, who observed this class, saw his position in class as
far more targeted than he communicated in the interview. One such occasion was a drawing
lesson. The students normally had fixed seating arrangements, but on this day, they had a
substitute teacher. Taking advantage of the fact that the substitute did not know how they usually
sat, one girl, Heidi, and a boy, Ola, swapped seats before the substitute arrived. Ola – the
undisputed boss of the group that Jon called the ‘super-friends’ – and Heidi now sat at a table at
the other end of the classroom, and told Ingunn underhand that they swapped seats to get away
from Jon. Upon Ingunn’s question, they reflected that Jon must have noticed. They said they did
it because they found Jon to be ‘very annoying’ and that nobody liked him. After a while, a loud
disturbance broke out at Jon’s table:
Suddenly Jon yells angrily, red faced, to the boys at his table: ‘YES! It is!’ and something
inaudible, before he throws himself around and runs out the door. Heidi asks Fatima what
had just happened. Fatima tells her that Jon and Lars discussed the length of a race. Lars had
said that it couldn’t be forty kilometres, and that is when Jon had shouted and run out.
Fatima mimics dramatically Jon sweeping out, her body shaking in imitated crying, her hand
to her head. Then she smiles wryly and comments that ‘that was a bit bad of me’. The
substitute goes to fetch Jon, and when he comes back, his sad face is wet with tears.
The students in this class knew better than to overtly show their aggression, and most of the time
it was more covert than in this instance – undoubtedly due the main teacher’s absence. Yet there
was a constant seeping of small and great grievances laid on him by some, and often several, of
his classmates. This ‘seepage’ of grievances adds up, however, and in this lesson, Jon erupted in
anger and frustration for something seemingly irrelevant an eruption that in itself became an
opportunity for other students to ridicule him and emphasise his exclusion.
Neither of the boys discusses their experiences as bullying in the interviews. Instead, it
comes up in the context of describing social groups in class. Despite the fact that these students
knew the definition of bullying by heart, and talked freely of previous experiences with bullying,
it is as though they considered each of these present episodes in isolation, as episodes that merely
attested to their position at the bottom of the class hierarchy as opposed to a coherent pattern of
aggression that constitutes bullying.
What Jon is left with to express his situation is the sense that ‘it feels like we are
insignificant and the others are just cool’. However apt this description of the social logic of this
class may be, it is still a description powerless in making the school’s adults investigate the
possibility of bullying. There is a discrepancy between the lived experience of relational bullying
and the vocabulary available for Jon to make other people and possibly himself understand
and react.
Boys’ feeling rules
How can we understand the fact that relational aggression as practiced by boys can be left
unnoticed or unrecognised by school staff? One part of the answer may have to do with the fact
that the boys themselves fail to relate their experiences to others, and in some instances even
acknowledge it to themselves. The reasons for this do not merely lie within individual school
walls. Rather, we suggest that it has to do with the contextual ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild 1979)
in our culture, which can be understood as governing also male expressions of vulnerability.
Being bullied is in any case shameful and difficult to admit, but, considering that hegemonic
masculinities in the Global North are often tied to a lack of emotional intimacy (Phoenix, Frosh,
and Pattman 2003, Kimmel 1994), the threshold for admitting to being bullied is arguably higher
for boys. This is the case particularly in adolescence, when conformity and group inclusion
appear especially important. This emotional restriction is not only external: feeling rules shape
how we perform emotion work, which entails a conscious or unconscious effort to change one’s
feelings to fit one’s ‘inner cultural guidelines’ (Hochschild 1998: 9) – not only the expression of
certain feelings, but the very feelings we let ourselves feel (Hochschild 1979).
While feeling rules structure the lack of openness about being teased or bullied in a
relational way, boys’ reluctance to talk about relational aggression and bullying may be
reinforced by the gendered genres in which relational aggression is recognisably performed.
Relational aggression is itself perceived as feminine, attested to by the accounts of gendered
bullying told by both teachers and students. The feeling rules in play are maintained and fortified
by the fact that admitting to being bullied in a ‘girlish’ way is itself a likely path to being bullied
more, as boys tend to self-represent their emotions and friendships according to peer-group
expectations about masculinity through the dynamics of teasing, slurs and anxieties, in which the
opposite of masculinity is cast: ‘Girlishness’ and homosexuality (Oransky and Marecek 2009,
Pascoe 2007, Frosh, Pattman, and Phoenix 2002, Mac an Ghaill 1994). Fatima’s impersonation
of the sobbing Jon is typical as it reinforces the bullying by mocking his ‘feminine’ crying in
public. Oransky and Marecek (2009) point to how the boys in their study attested to blocking out
emotions and avoided seeking support. The boys they interviewed were alert to the feelings of
others and were able to read them, but they responded to other boys’ feelings of hurt in a way
that allowed the other boys to ‘keep face’, which entailed not talking about it, rather diverting
their attention elsewhere. We find support for this explanation among the students in our sample:
In the interviews, students report that boys do not want to show that they are hurt, sad or upset
because of friendship conflicts, and therefore refrain from telling teachers or class mates.
However, their muteness on expressing their experiences does not mean that they do not feel
their position painfully, like Jon’s decided impression of being ‘insignificant’.
Hidden dramas
Another reason why school staff seem not to take notice of boys' relational aggression has to do
with its seemingly undramatic form. Our interviews and observations suggest that the nature of
relational aggression among boys is far less conspicuous than among girls, whose relational
conflicts are often highly dramatic, as we witnessed in both interviews and observations. Girls’
aggression and bullying may turn into a ‘drama’ with explicit and exhibitionistic elements
elements that none of the acts of relational aggression between boys shared. Their dramas
remained individual or isolated in small groups, hidden.
In Østby lower secondary school, the relationships between girls were marred by
conflicts and bullying. It had been going on for years, and it was commonly referred to as
‘drama’, although it encompassed cases of serious relational bullying, betrayal of trust and
broken friendships, as well as smaller, less serious instances of relational aggression. We draw
attention to this because it is in many ways typical of girls’ dramas as the teachers saw it, and the
particular form of girls’ drama enables a comparison with the far more hidden experiences of
relational aggression among boys. The teachers we interviewed described girls’ dramas in
similar ways: They are characterised by being covert in terms of each aggressive action, they are
repetitive - the conflicts crop up repeatedly – and they appear to be always changing, with
different constellations at each turn. Importantly, the drama among the girls also seems to take
the shape of organisms larger than the sum of single episodes (see also Ringrose and Renold
2010, Marwick and Boyd 2011). Most researchers, as well as the participants in this study, note
the covert nature of girls’ relational aggression; the furtiveness is in fact one of the most stable
characteristics in the literature descriptions, as in the teachers’ understanding of it (Currie, Kelly,
and Pomerantz 2007). Yet we find that whenever girls’ relational aggression evolves into drama,
it becomes conspicuous by means of the reactions it provokes the girls’ own reactions first,
which in turn spur others. Indeed, teachers observed that ‘girl stuff’ was sometimes also just a
drama: a dramatic performance drawing a large audience. In the typical girl drama, involving
other classmates and particularly teachers seems to be a vital part of the script.
Relational aggression has, as we see it, a frontstage and a backstage (Goffman 1959): on
the one hand, it may become a highly public drama, and on the other, there is the individual,
often shameful and victimising experience. The same feeling rules – the same emotional
restrictions put on boys in the context of school structure the lack of openness about being
bullied and their access to the frontstage drama. Seen in this way, the gendered nature of
relational aggression is not in the acts of aggression per se, but rather, it manifests in the
tendency to display and act out social dynamics either on or off stage. Boys’ relational aggression
has yet to take the stage in school as well as in research.
Shame in hidden, individualised dramas
In our data, there are indications that playing out relational aggression as drama may deshame
individual bullying experiences, a form that seems to be more accessible for (some) girls, but not
for (most) boys. One possible reason for the deshaming function of drama, as Marwick and Boyd
comment, is that drama does some important cultural work: It can be seen as a play of femininity
and action, which is socially acknowledged and approved. Being involved in drama is also to
become ‘known’, as the girls in Østby called it, possibly a school celebrity, a coveted position
despite sometimes being linked with notoriety rather than popularity. Girls have been described
to shape their style and actions according to celebrity culture in order to become more popular,
which in itself reflects dominant constructions of femininity (Read 2011). In our study, girl
drama is revealed as dreadfully felt at the same time as it is also a display of anticipated and
culturally acknowledged gender behaviour, that is, a gendered process that reflects discourses of
celebrity culture, soap operas and reality television (Marwick and Boyd 2011).
Whereas Marwick and Boyd argue that terms such as ‘drama’ allow teens to distance
themselves from practices that adults may see as bullying, we argue that the girls’ use of drama
does not necessarily diminish the power and severity of the drama for the individual girls
involved. Rather, it allows for socially approved ways to talk about relational aggression, and it
presents an opportunity to frame relational aggression and bullying as something that creates
room for an agentic femininity – rather than a victimised one (see Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz
2007). Despite the danger that playing out elements of relational aggression onstage as drama
may lead to teachers not taking it seriously enough, participation still confirms their femininity
and is cognitively, culturally and morally possible to articulate and make understandable for
themselves and others. ‘Talking about it’ may also open up therapeutic possibilities, another
aspect of drama perhaps influenced by celebrity culture – yet acting in the genre of ‘confessional
narratives’ may still provide emotional resources for managing difficult circumstances (McLeod
and Wright 2009).
In comparison, this opportunity seems to be close to inaccessible for most boys. Because
the boys who were subject to relational aggression regarded – or at least discussed – these
incidents as ‘small’, episodic and isolated, they lost the opportunity to recognise how the
exclusion formed a pattern of systematic, long-term bullying. This ‘seeping’ character of many
isolated negative experiences not only leaves male relational aggression particularly covert. It
might also be a reason why girls’ dramas fill the consciousness of participants and spectators,
whereas the experiences of boys (and many girls) remain almost unnoticed in experience-based
accounts – yet uncovered in quantitative studies such as Olweus’ 2010 study, which isolates
experiences of exclusion and rumour-spreading. However, this is not merely a problem of
recording acts of relational aggression. Whereas girls have access to an alternative to being
victimised by taking part in culturally acknowledged gender representations, silent victims of
relational aggression may have to revert to privatising shame-producing explanations related to
individual flaws or inadequacies, making it even more difficult to express.
Blind spots produced by gendered notions and knowledge production
We have elsewhere noted that cultural notions of gendered aggression contribute to the
trivialising and minimising of observed physical and direct forms of aggression and bullying
among boys; jostling, hostile comments and rough jargon are often viewed as ‘natural’ for boys
(Eriksen and Lyng 2015, Lyng 2007). We also find, however, that gendered notions and
representations of indirect relational aggression do significant cultural work: They produce blind
spots to the extent that relational aggression is practically regarded as non-existent among school
staff and students. The very notion that relational aggression is typical and practically exclusive
for girls may constrain and filter what teachers observe when they look for possible challenges
among boys.
In later years, there has been a significant knowledge production contributing to the
construction of these blind spots regarding boys’ relational aggression. The focus on relational
aggression among girls during the last decades in research, popular science and media (Ringrose
2006) has provided staff and students with a lense to recognise and a vocabulary to articulate
relational aggression. It has been instrumental in shaping a generation of young girls’
understanding of the particularly gendered characteristics that are attributed to their relationships
with other girls: close and emotional, yet potentially underhand, covert and ‘mean’.
Furthermore, in the wake of descriptive and analytic publications, there have been a
number of publications aimed at providing teachers with tools to discover and deal with covert
‘girl bullying’ (Ringrose 2008). While the phenomenon in the amassing body of school
psychology literature may generally be (but often is not) presented in gender neutral terms, the
examples and cases focus on forms of relational aggression among girls. Hence, teachers’
attention is directed towards girls in descriptions of the hidden and invisible forms of bullying
and harassment that they should be alert to, actively look for and train their capacities to
This manifold knowledge production has been effective in creating focus, understanding
and placing the issue of girls’ relational aggression on the political agenda. It has also enhanced
the opportunity teachers have to reveal and the opportunity girls have to voice covert bullying
and relational aggression and thus prevent and reduce harmful consequences. Combined with
an essentialising understanding of gendered aggression, this production of knowledge may
nevertheless contribute to the invisibility of relational aggression and its consequences among
In this article we have explored an empirical paradox in accounts of bullying and aggression. On
the one hand, school staff and students stress that relational aggression is predominantly a
problem among girls, and that this is the greatest challenge they face in the students’ school
environment. On the other hand, we find a wide extent of relational aggression among boys
when we observe them in school and ask them about concrete experiences.
In the analysis, we suggest two interrelated explanations for why relational aggression
among boys is left unnoticed and unrecognised by school staff. One reason is that boys hardly
speak about facing difficulties with relational aggression, something which we understand in
light of our culture’s gendered feeling rules. It is not culturally accepted for boys to be invested
in relational manoeuvrings, nor to show the hurt when they are subject to rumour spreading,
backbiting or exclusion. For girls, however, the cultural acceptance of ‘girl drama’ is increasing
with its representations in the media, self-help books and research studies. Thus, whereas boys
who experience relational aggression mainly keep it to themselves, girls’ relational aggression
sometimes has the opportunity to escalate to dramatic proportions, an opportunity that boys
rarely have. Boys rather perceive what happens to them as many isolated negative experiences,
rather than something larger, such as bullying or drama. When drama occurs, participating girls
gain an audience in peers and staff, offering simultaneously a cultural and satisfactory status as
‘known’, confirming their femininity as well as providing an opportunity to process painful
Our analysis shows that school staff as well as students lack both the lenses to recognise
and the vocabulary to articulate indirect relational aggression performed and experienced by
boys. In other words, they lack basic conditions for combating severe forms of bullying and
offensive behaviour among boys. While qualitative research has provided the lens and
vocabulary regarding girls’ relational aggression, we argue that there is a need for qualitative
studies to explore and map out relational aggression as experienced by boys, both as perpetrators
and victims. Further enquiry must be made into whether increased relational aggression among
boys may be another sign of masculinities shifting in the direction of being more relational and
emotionally open (Nielsen 2009).
Broadening the empirical and analytical scope to include boys’ relational aggression may
also provide a basis for enhancing and further developing our understanding of relational
aggression among girls. It is noted that the gender blindness that marred the early research on
bullying has turned into essentialised gender difference (Ringrose and Renold 2010), with the
troubling consequence that gender-essentialising theories of aggression are incorporated into
educational research and policy guidelines (Ringrose 2008). Including boys in future research on
relational aggression provides an opportunity for exploring gender similarities as well as
differences in forms, mechanisms, dynamics and causes. With further research we may increase
the effort and capacity of schools to prevent and reduce relational aggression among both boys
and girls.
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Boys relational aggression postprint.pdf
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Boys relational aggression postprint.pdf
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  • ... Content analysis of the media articles provides an illustration of how the reported boys' behavior is consistent with the dimensions of relational aggression. Finally, we conclude that the new "meanness" is in many ways less specifically gendered than first articulated by research (Eriksen & Lyng, 2016). It appears that young men are using digital technologies as a mode for relational aggression. ...
    ... Further, more recent literature has been concerned with the role that young men specifically play which often goes unnoticed. Eriksen and Lyng (2016), for example, provide ample evidence of boys' acts of relational aggression. Their interviews illustrate how boys can participate in "smear campaigns" directed towards individuals, along with other exclusionary behavior "sometimes unapologetically, sometimes with remorse" (Eriksen & Lyng, 2016, p. 6). ...
    ... This is no more evident than in the dismissive, normalizing, excusing positioning of responses to the current Internet "scandal". Including young men as well as young women in future research on relational aggression provides opportunities for exploring gender similarities as well as differences in methods, machineries, dynamics and sources (Eriksen & Lyng, 2016). ...
    Relational aggression has long been considered the "weapon of choice" for young women seeking to harm others through persistent manipulation or damage to relationships. However, in recent media articles in Australia, young men have been reported to use the same aggressive strategies to target young women. This article explores the themes drawn from a content analysis of 30 newspaper articles that report an Internet website established to "trade" sexual images of teenage girls. We argue that the prevalent forms and functions of girls' relational aggression, as described in the literature, are also evident in the perpetrating behavior of boys. We contend that the expression of such behavior prompts discussion of a gendered alternative to what is considered as "mean". The reported actions of young men can be recognized as aggressive and dangerous. It is damaging to dismiss "mean boys" subjectivities as merely "boys being boys".
  • ... Early work on school bullying focused almost exclusively on the bullying behaviour of boys, as aggression was seen to be most common among boys (Carrera, DePalma, and Lameiras 2011;Eriksen and Lyng 2016;Ringrose and Renold 2010). Crick and Grotpeter (1995, 710) argued that the notion that boys are simply more aggressive than girls is based on research that focused on more observable overt forms of aggression, rather than the 'relational aggression' typically engaged in by girls. ...
    ... The connection between masculinity and school bullying has thus been explained 'in terms of cultural representations, values, and social expectations' (Gini and Pozzoli 2006, 588;see also Felix and Greif Green 2010;Young and Sweeting 2004). This has contributed to blind spots in research and practice, with researchers and educators often focusing on the direct aggression of boys and the indirect rela- tional aggression of girls (Eriksen and Lyng 2016). Some researchers have, however, noted the direct physical aggression of girls (Davies 1984;Duncan 1999) and the indir- ect relational aggression of boys (Eriksen and Lyng 2016;Swearer Napolitano 2008). ...
    ... This has contributed to blind spots in research and practice, with researchers and educators often focusing on the direct aggression of boys and the indirect rela- tional aggression of girls (Eriksen and Lyng 2016). Some researchers have, however, noted the direct physical aggression of girls (Davies 1984;Duncan 1999) and the indir- ect relational aggression of boys (Eriksen and Lyng 2016;Swearer Napolitano 2008). Indeed, as Swearer Napolitano (2008,612) has thus argued, 'it appears that the "gender dichotomy" in aggression has been oversimplified in both the popular and research literatures.' ...
    Full-text available
    This article considers the ways in which school bullying is both gendered and embodied. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in two lower-secondary schools in northern Vietnam, the article focuses on the experiences of one ninth-grade boy, who was regularly bullied by his classmates, and whose experiences of bullying appeared to be embodied for all to see. Inspired by Arthur Brittan’s notion of masculinism, Elizabeth Grosz’s use of the möbius strip metaphor for understanding embodiment, and Urie Bronfenbrenner’s conceptualization of the ecological environment, I argue that school bullying needs to be understood not only in terms of the interactions between individuals or groups of individuals, but also in terms of the specific gendered social-ecological environment within which those interactions occur.
  • ... Exclusion, talking about other people behind their backs, and spreading rumours about others, often called 'indirect bullying', tend not to be included as often in the lay bullying definitions (Maunder, Harrop, and Tattersall 2010) or in younger children's definition of bullying (Smith, Madsen, and Moody 1999). When 'indirect bullying' happens between boys, it may occur under the radar of both children and adults (Eriksen and Lyng 2016). The way bullying is defined and measured may have an impact on intervention work. ...
    ... Olweus' definition has also been questioned for seemingly viewing bullying as a deviant individual act, and researchers have argued that we must instead look at the institutional and social factors behind it (Rawlings 2016;Søndergaard 2012). This critique includes an investigation of how traditional conceptualisations of bullying and terminologies such as 'bully' and 'victim' are used to maintain and withhold traditional gender discourses (Eriksen and Lyng 2016;Rawlings 2016;Ringrose and Renold 2010). ...
    Full-text available
    Background: Previous research has found that bullying is often defined differently by students, staff and researchers, leading researchers to call for a more consistent use of the term in practice to enable better intervention and measurement. However, little is known about the consequences of a more consistent use of the term in school. Purpose: The article examines the consequences of schools adopting an exact definition of bullying. Sample: Twenty Norwegian primary and lower secondary schools were selected from a survey (n = 455). The schools were characterised by a strong culture of bullying prevention, and their staff and students knew and used the same authoritative bullying definition. Four schools were then selected for closer ethnographic study. Design and methods: Interviews were conducted with students, teachers, support staff and school management. The interviews were analysed qualitatively, using a grounded theory approach. Results: For school staff, the term ‘bullying’ was construed as rigid and possessing an inherent power that is manifested through the way the term controls adults’ actions. Teachers viewed students’ use of the term as too wide. They emphasised the need to teach students the established definition, as students’ overuse of the term may lead to the word’s diminishing impact for those who are in real need of help. Nevertheless, many of the educators stated that few students report bullying. Both school staff and students displayed a sense of certainty when identifying what counts as bullying. Students’ recognition of the power of the word was apparent in the way they used the term as a tool for social positioning. Conclusions: By way of the status of a bullying definition as an established, research-based definition, it gains a potent power for management, teachers and students. Its power lies in the fact that the use of the term gives rights and responsibilities, determines guilt, and confers blame and status. Unwanted effects of a strict control of the bullying term may involve the risk of missing cases and the risk that students use the term as a tool in the power relations between the students themselves. Keywords: bullying definition; primary school; secondary school; student behaviour; teachers; school management; student well-being
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    Bullying research has widely included group dynamics as contextual factors. However, explanations addressing the causes of bullying predominantly emphasise individual dysfunctions related to aggression and empathy. Analysing qualitative data from Norwegian schools, this article explores four different group dynamics that may produce bullying behaviours as well as deactivate empathy. Drawing on theories of social hierarchies and ingroups/outgroups, the article offers new approaches to understanding the ways in which the intense markings of social distinctions between positions and cliques in peer culture represent significant social driving forces in school bullying.
  • Thesis
    Full-text available
    This PhD thesis explores how ethnicity is formed and lived in the context of a multiethnic high school in Norway, at a crossroads where four central axes meet: Norwegian equality goals, new demands for skills at school, changing ethnic relations, and youth. The thesis examines what consequences forms of ethnicity shaped at this crossroads have for high school pupils’ possibilities for individual development and different senses of belonging. The study is based on participant observation over a period of five months in a school class in first grade of high school, and in-depth interviews with 26 pupils in this class, where the majority were girls and minority ethnic pupils. The pupils were 15-16 years old. The analysis draws on postcolonial theories to grasp power and structures, and narrative theories to conceptualise aspects of identity and emotions. A theory of affective practices provides a site of analysis of lived ethnicity and aspects of power, negotiations and possibilities for change. A central finding is that the strong, locally situated sense of ethnicity that the pupils created was entangled with, but somewhat untied from, ‘race’ and background countries. Being called ‘Norwegian’ or ‘foreigner’ respectively was not necessarily about ethnicity in the sense of a background culture. The pupils created ‘ethnic packages’ where e.g. certain skin colours, slang, specific sexuality mores and classroom behaviour were salient, but not essential resources to become a recognised member of each group. Integral to the process of creating local ethnic collectives, was the formation of collective narratives. Typically, ethnic minority pupils would be narrated as noisy and low achievers and the girls as sexually virtuous. Ethnic Norwegians would be narrated as good pupils and the girls as sexually active. There was a strong tendency to re-narrate many aspects of life – for example ideals of gender equality, school attitude and skill, and sexuality – as having to do with ethnicity. The school lacked clear borders in pedagogy and architecture, which demanded of the pupils an ability to contain and discipline themselves. This opened a room for a group of space-claiming, visible and noisy minority girls. These girls performed an aggressive relational noisiness, which in form drew on gangster imagery, in need expressed frustration, disentitlement from success in a perceived Norwegian school and a need for protection from indignity. For the pupils who did not make as much noise, the combination of noisy school days, high demands and internal or external pressure was hard. Despite the school’s emphasis on self-discipline, this trait was hard to find in the pupils – but where it was found, it was laced with toil and sadness. The loose school structure seemed to be geared towards pupils with a larger capacity for self-discipline and more opportunities for support from parents than the majority of its actual pupils. That the differences in school attitude and skill were conceived as related to ethnicity, might limit the pupils’ possibilities for conceiving alternative trajectories for oneself. In the particular meeting between different forms of belonging and becoming, and as a manifestation of Norway’s official gender equality aim and its coexistence with changing demographics, the study describes a girl position that defies the common media image of quiet, even oppressed, ethnic minority girls. Measured against Norwegian equality aims, many ethnic minority girls challenged gendered borders in the school’s classroom in terms of visibility and aggression, but they simultaneously limited girls’ possibilities in terms of sexuality. For them, a perceived lack of institutional power and group homogeneity seemed to be rectified in the enactments of local power and the construction of a morally better group than the ethnic Norwegians, especially regarding sexuality. On the other hand, the most typical female ethnic Norwegian sexuality appeared more legitimate in relation to the school’s teachers and curriculum.
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