It’s a Girl’s World: Comments on an NFB film about bullying

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I made my daughters  watch an NFB documentary about bullying last night, (that is National Film Board of Canada for all those of you who do not live in this great nation of ours) entitled, “It’s a Girl’s World.”

Why? I couldn’t say exactly. Some of the teachers at my school were using it in their classes and told me that it was about Grade 5 students in a school in Montreal. Close to home much?
Okay, that’s not exactly truthful. The real reason is that my oldest daughter is part of a group of girls a lot like the one in the movie. They have been together since they were little, there are some very strong A type personalities as well as a lot of only children in the mix (not to generalize, but it has been my experience that siblings are great humility factories – you know. They keep you real, yo.) They are experts at shunning, at manipulation, at intimidation. They can be mean girls.
This documentary looks into the group dynamic of a Grade 5 clique.  It is clear from the beginning the leaders of this group, the ones that decided who is in and who is out. They talk behind their friends back, they turn the others against one, they make scathing, little comments.
All this I’ve seen before, I’ve read about before and I witness with my own daughters’ friends. What was interesting about this doc though, was that they also show the parents’ reactions to their daughters’ roles and behaviours within the group. The two main bullying girls’ parents had very different reactions. The first girls’ parents had begun to notice their daughter’s behaviour early on and were on it. They were comfortable talking about it and under no illusion about what their daughter was doing. They seemed to be a driving force in getting the other parents together and talking about it. (An interesting side note- this girl’s father was the only father to appear in the documentary- where were the others?)
The other girl bully had a mother who had no idea about her daughter’s behaviour. Although trying her best to address the issue, she made some selfish and ultimately uncomfortable choices when it came to making her daughter redress her wrongs.
Another interesting aspect of this documentary was the appearance of Odd Girl Out author Rachel Simmons. She comes to talk to the girls as a group. The talk is filmed and the parents are watching their daughters’ interactions on a TV in the kitchen. What comes out is that they don’t know how to tell people straight up when they’re mad or hurt. Their impression is that if you get mad, you’re no longer “sweet.” So they find all sorts of other ways to express that anger: talking behind someone’s back, making up stories about them, shunning them. One of the girls demonstrated the “mad smile”, the smile used when you were not pleased with someone. It sent shivers down my spine.
Whoah.  Is that what we are telling our girls? Is that the message we’re sending them?  In this age where teenage girls take their rights for granted and the word feminism is synonymous with a hairy arm-pitted ranting lunatic shouting out irrelevancies (trust me-I’ve had this discussion with several students), are we teaching our girls that it’s okay to be a bitch?  Because if getting mad  will get them in trouble, but subtle behaviour like “accidentally” pulling the skipping rope tight in order to trip a friend or “accidentally” erasing someone’s work on the computer can not only pass under the radar of any adult present but also win the guffaws of your friends, what are they going to do?
Not to mention the fact that being a strong, opinionated woman has been warped these days into this mythologizing of the bitch. I see it at school all the time. They don’t want to seem soft so they take on the role of snarky banshee.
Luckily, I can feel pretty smug about the example I give to my kids. I get mad all the time. (facetious alert) But that’s just what was so fascinating about this documentary. The kids were perfect mirrors for their parents’ attitudes. Even the couple trying so hard to show their daughter the right way to behave. The man took charge right away and took it upon himself to tell the other mother all about her daughter’s behaviour. However, most parents, when it wasn’t their child being bullied, took on a false sympathetic note to the parents whose children were being bullied but offered nothing in the way of recognizing their own child’s role in this toxic situation.
Now what role does my own daughter play in the drama in her class? When I ask her, she says she rotates. She goes from group to group, and is accepted pretty much by each group but not more than that. Since her best friend left in September to be homeschooled by her father, my oldest doesn’t go to sleep-overs. She is not invited out much. She doesn’t invite anybody over. I worry that she’s lonely, but I can’t see any hard evidence of it. We received her report card last night and saw that several subjects have taken a dip. In the comments section her teacher remarked that she seemed very anxious this fall and attributed it to the whole process of applying for high school (which would make sense).
I wonder now though, if it isn’t a combination of things? Her best friend left, and even that relationship got hard at points. She is one of only 4 girls in her class and they are constantly embroiled in fights. She is planning on going to school in a language she knows well but has never been schooled in, in an environment completely different form what she’s used to. Not to mention that it is an all girls’ school.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried. 
And what role do we as the parents play in all this? Are we as blind as some of the parents to what our children are going through? Do we not want to see what’s going on? 
That’s the whole problem with love- it kind of blinds you.  I’m hoping some genius parent will invent a pair of child decoding glasses so I can know what the hell is going on.

9 thoughts on “It’s a Girl’s World: Comments on an NFB film about bullying

  1. I was bullied for all my elementary school and most of high school, bullying much worse than that experienced by anyone else I know. In my case, I grew up in a culture that does not want to face problems of any sort, preferring to paper it all over with a hard smile (like you describe). My parents knew what was going on, although probably not the extent. Partially they thought I was exaggerating or overreacting, and partially that it was good for me. I had what is called “an artistic temperament”–meaning extremely sensitive. I think they figured I would learn and toughen up. The kids doing the bullying had parents who thought their daughters were the sweetest things in the world, and would never have believed otherwise. I'd say that your daughter probably is being bullied and probably figures she has to deal with it on her own. But that is extrapolating from my experience, so may be inaccurate. In the end I never toughened up. I did, however, become a social activist and tend to have strong affinities with gay men. So good can come of evil, in the long run.

  2. Like Adrienne said, I'm also a very sensitive person and have never toughened up. I did however, learn to be the “good girl” when any adults were around.
    I've seen that film as well, and I have to say it shocked me. I don't recall any serious bullying when I went to school, but all my kids experienced it when they went to public school after homeschooling.
    I'm sorry S is having a lonely time this year. Maybe the change will be a good thing for her. She may blossom in an all female atmosphere where she doesn't have to worry about what the boys think.
    I've been wondering if bullying is on the rise or if we're hearing more about it now. Are there so many kids out there coming from a place of pain or lack of compassion?

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Adrienne – I am very sorry to hear of your experience. It's funny, the people I've talked to with the worst bullying experience are the ones you'd never expect- as adults they are cool and confident.(or at least seem to be.) I ask my daughter every night about her experience at school. Last night she says she plays mostly with her younger sister and her friends, which is telling I think. Although I might be completely blind to what she is going through (though we talk enough about it for me to feel pretty confident that she would mention it to me if something was really wrong), I think she's just tired by all the drama. I remember that as a kid- the most tiring part of school was witnessing those moments of cruelty and feeling like you are having your courage and your principles tested all the time, and most of the time failing. IT leaves you feeling pretty crappy.
    Is bullying on the rise? That's a hard one. I do feel like girls especially are in this weird transition phase- as if feminism has been dumbed down to the maxim that “it's cool to be a bitch.” But I think we are working against hundreds of years of women only finding power through the back door. I don't know- just spitballing here. We are teaching our girls that they can be anything, and yet we are sending them the mixed message that it's not “nice” to fight, or get mad or covet. So they go underground with these feelings and they come out all warped. I don't think it is anything new. What do you think?

  4. I have an aversion to gender issues, so I'll ingeniously avoid that topic… but I was bullied quite a bit as a boy. This was in no small part to my mom's insistence that she make my jeans for me with a tag proudly stating the fact. I was an easy target.

    Other than the occasional dog pile, which I feared, the real bullying was not that different than with girls… in that it was subtle enough that teachers would always miss it. And it was the mind games that were the worst. Nothing like losing your cool in front of your taunters to utterly destroy your reputation.

    I don't really think that a zero tolerance to bullying is a good idea and here is why: you learn an awful lot more from things that go wrong than when everything just breezes by. None of the bullies I feared are in my life or my thoughts anymore. Also, I learned to run really really fast for a long time.

    Of course, that is ridiculously easy to say from the distance of time. Learning that the world is unfair and that not everyone is immediately drawn to being nice is quite brutal, but that lesson has served me well in standing up to the bullies in my adult life.

    I would certainly never be able to offer S any solutions (other than how to kick an ass or two) because I don't have any. The “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” saying is utterly useless as a comfort, because the words do hurt worse and there is no evidence to point to when looking for someone to intervene. And that did get me laughed out of the school yard when I chose to say it aloud. I suppose it is true in principle, but I'd still rather take a punch to the head.

    I also can't say that things get better later on, because some people are just assholes and it seemingly can't be helped. Perhaps it gets better in terms of being able to control your environment a little more and avoid bullies…. ah, I got nothing.

    I do believe that being the target of bullying can make you a kinder more compassionate person in the long run.

    Send S my love. Junior High is possibly the most brutal learning process of all.

  5. Tom and I were talking about this last night, and he pointed out that maybe the dads were missing from the doc due to a choice by the producer or director… or maybe the footage with the dads (if any was shot) didn't make it to the final cut.

    Unknown biases of the doc makers could have slanted the whole thing, too.

    I don't think bullying is on the rise, at all. The methods are changing, but it appears that every generation seems to think “the kids these days” are lacking manners, intelligence, work ethics… whatever is being complained about.

    Is it possible for your library to subscribe to BUST magazine? It very proudly declares itself to be feminist. Maybe it might help the students to look at labels in a different way, if they truly do think feminism is an archaic, man-hating, armpit hair issue… which again, is nothing new. That's how feminism was presented to me 20, 25 years ago. Though now that I think about it, BUST has a feature called “one handed reads” and a sex column… I bet some parents at your school would freak out at the idea of their girls (gasp!) masturbating or (gasp!) having sexual thoughts.

    I have much more to say about this, and I also have some theories regarding S's possible estrangement from her peers and the fact that her best friend isn't around (if the friend is who I'm thinking of, her strong personality and S's allegiance to her may have done some damage in the mean girls group over the years).. and I think you have something there with the mixed messages girls & women are constantly exposed to.

    Strong, opinionated women have always been called bitches — that certainly isn't anything new – a few hundred years ago we were called witches and burned.

    One last thing I can't keep my yawp shut up about: there's no way to determine if having siblings or not is good or bad. Everyone has unique experiences. It's like saying that a two-parent family is better… no way to measure each unique family. Sometimes having no siblings is great, sometimes having only one parent is much better than having two. Depends on who the parents are. Depends on who the siblings are. No way to determine the future. There is no “best way”. No “ideal” either. And a perfectly happy family can implode/explode into a completely tragic mess, given enough time. And vice versa.

    Good blog post, Lina.

  6. There are a lot of very wise people responding to this blog. Tom, I think you're right about bullying not being a gender issue, it's just that this particular documentary focused on girls.
    I also agree that junior high is brutal. But I still think that parents need to be aware of what is happening to their kids at school and are available like L & J are. If a child is having a hard time at school, they need a safe haven. Maybe it does make a child more compassionate, but any kind of adversity will do that. A child doesn't have to be destroyed by their peers to become a better person. I'm sure bullying and isolation play a part in the rising suicide rate amongst teenagers. More constructive ways can be found for kids to learn how to look beyond their own little social circle to the world beyond. For instance, 2 of my kids made visits to third world countries and worked on worthwhile projects. It was life-changing for both of them (and their mother).
    There just seem to be so many different factors at play here. Do these kids feel marginalized? Do the girls still feel stifled? After all, the positions of power in our world are disproportionately held by males. Anyway, I think you are handling the problem the best way you can. S knows she can come to you any time because you have been open with her. That's good parenting in my opinion. I guess there will just always be the nice people and the a**holes and high school is not the real world. Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves and our kids that “this too shall pass”.
    Loving thoughts coming to you all.

  7. Is the suicide rate amongst teenagers truly rising? Perhaps our perception is that it is rising, due to the sheer speed and accessibility of news stories around the world, but I don't know if it really is.

    Suicide statistics are next to impossible to accurately measure — many suicides are, and have been, passed off as another type of death.

    Police departments don't release suicide stats, journalists rarely report on them: when folks here in Vancouver jump from the Lions Gate or the 2nd narrows bridge — traffic disruption, yes, suicide: no mention. There's a huge fear of copycat deaths, so I don't think we really truly knew how many people kill themselves, kids or not.

    I also disagree with Tom and Diane that bullying or adverse situations breed compassion. Okay, I don't totally disagree, sometimes it can, and sometimes it just breeds hate, and the bullied become the bullies.

    Another cheery comment from carrie, the lady with the super positive outlook on life…

    oooh, one last: high school IS the real world. It always drove me nuts in university when people would say “when you get out there into the REAL world….” If university isn't real, or high school, or junior high, how do you explain that to a kid (or adult) who is truly suffering? Saying high school isn't real is dismissing someone else's very real experiences and emotions. It's pretty damn real when you're living through it.

  8. I'm not saying that the experiences aren't real or hurtful. I'm not denying them their emotions. Of course it hurts. Of course it feels awful to be the outsider. But often the quirky, unusual teenager becomes the successful adult when the star athlete never leaves home and flips burgers for the rest of his/her life. The popular ones in high school are not necessarily the most successful. I recently visited a friend from high school who was thought to be the height of nerd-dom, but is now a very successful university professor. I also have a niece that found high school excrutiating, but is very successful as an adult. I know many examples of this. When you are in the thick of a problem, it's often hard to recognise that it won't last forever. That's what I was saying.
    Also, I didn't say that bullying breeds compassion, but I do think a little adversity does. That's just from personal experience.
    So maybe teen suicide is not rising (I'll have to look it up) but it is the second most common cause of death in teenagers which I find a very sobering fact. I have some personal experience of suicide and I know that to get to that point a person thinks there's no other alternative. If they knew that the torment wouldn't last forever, maybe it wouldn't happen so often.

  9. A note on suicide rates from the World Health Organisation:
    “…rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of all countries.”

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