LOOK UP THE WORD alpha in the dictionary and there’s a picture of my young friend Peanut, a girl I’ve known by her goofy family nickname—not that one, of course—since she was in preschool.
She was an alpha then, too, the one whose reaction the other kids reflexively checked to see whether to laugh or snicker at a joke. Loud, funny, dynamic, Peanut was a born leader.
In seventh grade she made a new friend and—as with so many middle school alliances—all was well until it wasn’t. Without warning the new friend began to go all “frenemy” on Peanut, dissing her widely and giving no clue as to why. “She’s turning everyone against me!” Peanut sobbed to her mother.
And so Peanut did what alphas do: She took matters into her own hands. She launched a spin campaign on her own behalf, working to regain the favor she’d lost and to defend against her frenemy’s slurs. It didn’t take long for the school administration to get wind of this rip in the seventh grade’s social fabric, and that’s how Peanut and her parents wound up in the principal’s office. He invoked the new B word: “bully.” Was she or was she not trying to sour classmates on a mutual friend? Suspension was considered.
After all, the principal said—Peanut knew the rules. Every kid does. Beginning with Columbine and flowering amidst a tragic spate of teen suicides, antibullying programs have become a regular part of elementary, middle, and high school education. What some adults initially regarded as needless handwringing over an unavoidable rite of passage managed to change minds. The antibullying messages appropriated the basic tenets of human rights—respect, justice, dignity—and applied them to the schoolyard. These lessons are increasingly relevant given their increasingly multicultural settings, especially as counterpoint to a television world that depicts as “reality” Beverly Hills housewives clawing one anothers’ eyes out.
The tenets of antibullying programs I’ve seen are simple and based on this: Dignity is not negotiable. Sometimes bullying looks like fists flying on the playground; more times it looks like girls dramatically stopping conversation when an unwelcome other joins them at the lunch table. Girl culture is particularly rife with this insidious brand of slight.
Last spring SIFF screened a documentary, Finding Kind, about the painful emotional fallout from abuses in the world of teen girls. Next month, timed to the beginning of the school year, the film returns to Seattle. The most powerful parts were shot in a private confessional dubbed the “Truth Booth,” where girls shared their stories before a camera. There, a girl who began composed would crumple as she recounted breathtaking acts of emotional cruelty—classmates sustaining years-long campaigns to shut her out; girlfriends pretending friendship with her only to humiliate her, Carrie-like, in public.
At the screening there were other mothers in the audience, so I was not the only dork choking back sobs. I was heartened to notice that the three 14-ish-year-old girls seated next to me were also surreptitiously wiping away tears. “That’s so harsh,” one murmured.
By the end of the movie, however, my seatmates were confused. In one scene several teenage schoolgirls sitting around a living room denied having bullying issues, but then devolved into teary admissions revealing complex, Lord of the Flies–like social hierarchies and jealousy from those who saw themselves at the bottom of it. The target of their envy, a beautiful blonde, broke down in sobs as she realized and regretted the pain her status had, however inadvertently, inflicted on her friends.
“I just don’t think it was the pretty one’s fault,” one of my seatmates reflected to her friends. “I mean, like, her prettiness wasn’t something she was doing to them,” another agreed. “It wasn’t her fault they were jealous.”
But under the spotlight we’ve trained on teenage power dynamics, the girls could be forgiven for making the assumption that it was. In the movie the pretty girl’s friends felt badly about themselves, that they weren’t as pretty or popular as she was. When seen through the lens of the antibullying message they’d dutifully internalized—that if they feel slighted by someone, it means they’ve been bullied—you could see how they might conclude that the pretty girl was responsible for their pain.
“Aaaargh, that’s absolutely not the point!” cried Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, the non-fiction book that inspired the movie Mean Girls. When I called her she was finishing up an article on how unwittingly misleading antibullying programs can be. Bullying is systematic abuse, overt or subtle, that’s unmistakably brutal. But an alpha whose consciousness has been raised by antibullying programs can end up taking too much responsibility for the inferior feelings of every unhappy girl, a classic female trap of another kind. “That whole ‘nice’ stuff can be so toxic for girls,” Wiseman sighed.
The nonalpha, for her part, can become convinced that she’s being excluded by the mere existence of another pair’s friendship, put down by the simple reality of another girl’s success, or “bullied” by another girl’s higher rung on the social ladder.
Peanut’s parents pressed the principal to meet independently with her antagonists, and that evening her parents’ phone rang. “We owe you and Peanut an apology,” the principal confessed.
Amid the current fervor, even adults can mistake personal power for bullying. What the principal had assumed was Peanut holding her usual sway over her followers was, he discovered, Peanut struggling to make sense of a confusing betrayal the only way she knew how—by processing it with her friends. “She was trying to get her friends to see she wasn’t a bad person like this girl was saying,” Peanut’s mom told me. “And trying to figure out why this girl was suddenly so hateful. I can see where it would look like gossip.”
The meeting persuaded the principal that the real perps were the girl who had turned on Peanut and the kids who joined her—seeking to dethrone the one whose primary sin was being top dog.
Make no mistake—the antibullying crusade adds humanity to our kids’ educations, like service learning (school-based volunteer work) did before it. But bullying episodes are more often sketched in shades of gray than black and white, occurring in social milieus with imbalances of popularity and charisma. Helping our kids wrap language and meaning around these complexities, always expecting fair behavior—that’s the excellent work being done in these programs. Perhaps they’ll also help our kids see that part of the awful work of growing up is learning that not every painful feeling is somebody’s fault.