Mean Girls: Why Teenage Girls Can Be So Cruel


Jo is a fifteen-year-old girl. She is average at her high school work and she is involved in school tennis in summer and netball in winter. In the past, she was well accepted, having a close group of friends and getting along well with most of her peers. After a day off with illness, she returns to school to find that things have changed. She walks over to her usual group but when she tries to talk to any of them, their responses are abrupt and unfriendly. She tries to catch the eye of her friend, Brooke, but Brooke avoids her gaze. In first lesson, she sits in her usual seat only to find that Brooke is sitting with someone else. At recess time, she joins the group late but just in time to overhear one of the girls bitching about her… (from ‘You just look at them and give them daggers’: Adolescent girls use of nonverbal aggression. International Journal of Adolescence, 10, 353-372. As cited at Scientific American)

If you have ever worked or lived with teenage girls the above story will sound familiar. The movie Mean Girls drew attention, in a slightly overstated way, to a reality that appears to be played out in school yards every where.

Is it true? Are girls really mean to each other?

The research tends to suggest that yes they are. Social or relational aggression as it is known is definitely more common amongst adolescent girls than boys.  Behaviour such as social exclusion, spreading rumours or lies, dirty looks, or critical words are much more likely, though not exclusively, to occur within girl-to-girl relationships, than amongst relationships between or with guys.

The research has also found that this type of indirect bullying gets less attention from teachers and adults tend to have less sympathy for victims of this type of treatment. Guys can be mean too, but their agression is often more overt and observable.

So why are girls like this? (Let me say upfront I realise not all girls are like this, but it does happen.)

What Makes Girls & Boys Different?

A rather obvious question, which ironically would take a long time to answer properly. Suffice to say that when considering the differences between male and female we are taking into account two different sets of factors, internal factors and external factors.

By internal factors I mean our biology.  There is an obvious genetic difference between males and females that are there from birth.  Hence our bodies look different and we have different bits.  It is our biology that determines our sex, makes us male or female.

Besides having different bits, and girls being generally prettier and boys generally taller, the other significant difference between the sexes is the brain.  While there is still much we don’t know about the brain, we are learning somethings about how male and female brain differ.

Research has shown that different regions of the brain develop in a different sequence in girls compared with boys.  Some research suggests Girls are hardwired to care about one-on-one relationships with their best friends while the brains of boys are more attuned to group dynamics and competition with other boys.

However the difference between males and females is also the consequence of external factors.  Our gender, as opposed to our sex, is determined by how we are treated by the society we grow up in and the way we conform to the cultural expectations of being a “man” or a “woman”.  This process is referred to as socialization. It is a learning process that begins from the moment we are born. Much of what we learn we are not conscious of, nor are those teaching us aware they are teaching.  It involves acquiring the thousands of subtle, and not so subtle, cues and clues about how society expects us to conform to the gender specific behaviour.

Working out which behaviours are biological or sociological is a task far too big to cover on this humble blog.  The point is that boys and girls are different for a variety of reasons, both biological and social.

These differences are notable in the way girls and boys form and behave in friendships.

Boy Friends & Girl Friends: They are Different

From the early age of 4 boys and girls will start gravitating to single sex friendship groups.  They will maintain this gender separation until well into middle or late adolescence.

  • Boys and girls are attracted to playing with different things, they have different styles of play, and observably distinctive styles and means of relating emerge.
  • Boys tend to interact in larger, more publicly visible groups. Girls tend to choose smaller, more intimate groups of shifting alliances.
  • Boys take up more space, are more active, and rougher in their play. Girls are more likely to gather in smaller groups and engage in conversation and/or less active play.
  • Girls are less competitive and engage in more collaborative discussion and turn taking. Boys engage more directly in competition with one another (fifty per cent of the play time, versus one per cent of girls’ play time).
  • Boy groups are also more clearly hierarchical, with defined leaders. Girls tend to organize themselves into pair groups of “best friends” linked in shifting alliances.
  • Girls tend to be more interested in forming intimate relationships and communicating their feelings. This interaction helps to teach the creation and managing of relationships. Boys learn how to interact in structured organizations where there is a clear hierarchy. They learn competitiveness, assertiveness, and aggression as tools for success.

Girls and Their Friends

Understanding the unique nature of female friendship groups goes a long way to explaining why girls can be so socially mean. Fitting in with peers is a basic need of all adolescents, male or female. How girls mange their need to fit in is the key to explaining their social aggression.

The chief commodity in the girls’ community is intimacy. Girls monitor their friendships for subtle changes in alliances amongst the group. For this reason they need to constantly be checking that they are okay and acceptable. Hence girls will gossip as it is a way of reinforcing what is acceptable or normal. This explains why relational aggression – they are protecting their place in the group and confirming that they are okay, that they are normal.

Author Nicole Landry in her book about relational aggression amongst girls the Mean Girl Motive interviewed numerous teenage girls to explore the nature of social aggression.

Some of her conclusions are:

  • Popularity is the primary avenue to power available to girls
  • Popularity is highly correlated with “desirable” feminine traits, such as white skin, a thin body type, and good hair
  • Girls use meanness to obtain power and position within the group. Behaviours such as shunning and humiliating serve to reduce another girl’s power
  • Popular girls were the most likely to be mean
  • Lower status girls were more likely to use niceness to improve their standing in the group
  • All girls are subject to constant scrutiny of their femininity, in terms of behaviour and appearance, by other girls and adults

Rather than teenage girls being inherently mean Landry helpfully defines social aggression as one of the few tools available to girls to help them navigate their social world.

Being a teenage girl obviously isn’t easy, but it helps if adults have an understanding of what is going on. Of particular importance is adults recognising that the behviour happens and it can do real harm to young girls.

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Showing 11 comments
  • don't want to tell

    Hi this is a really good blog, but it doesn’t say how to be around mean girl’s and I really need that because most my friends (6/7) are mean to everyone. I just sit there.

    • doctorderp

      Just ignore it. Or stop hanging around them; you’re better off in the long run.

  • Lexi ∞

    i just dont understand why my friemd went off on me the other day. i texted her and told her i was depressed about what had happened that week. a lot of drama happened that week. She just started yelling at me about how she doesnt want to hear it and she wont always be there for me when i am upset because of some other girl, i just dont understand why i have to do with that girl and why she went off , and now shes acting like nothings wrong, but i wont talk to her , please tell my why shes acting like this..

    • Mel

      Hi lexi, sometimes when you are experiencing problems, friends don’t always know the right answers to your problems, and this can upset them, they can feel helpless and frustrated, and in turn they can sometimes respond to you in this way. It sounds like your friend really likes you, she may just not know how she can help you. you might like to talk to an adult or someone who has hindsight and past experiences, and maybe have fun with your friends. .?

  • Pam52

    You are not alone Lexi…this is a growing trend in today’s teen world. You must be strong to have other friends and interests. Eventually the friend comes around, because they want what you have instead of being sad and miserable like them. Don’t let this happen to you. Stay strong and talk to your parents, trusting adults or counselor. Don’t let yourself become a victim, because of someone elses poor behavior.



  • schoolproblems

    I have a big problem in school. Theres two girls in class and one of them is a girl i used to hang out with, she came to talk to ME from the beginning(I didn’t even know she was there before she came and talked to me and asked if I wanted to hang out) Now shes the popular kid and then the other girl who’s nice when Girl A isn’t around but if Girl A is around they are so mean. A few days ago some of the guys in my class played poker, which I can play. I listened to them play and started thinking about something else for a while and then when I came back from my session of thinking I asked what they were talking about (apparently i was listening a little so i knew they were talking about the best hand in poker) Then Girl B said
    – Are you stupid?! don’t you know how to play poker?
    Well I got once another comment like that when we were in class and my desk was really broken so i asked if I could change it and I was about to change it when Girl A says:
    – It’s not broken are you really that dramatic theres not even a scratch on it (actually the desk had a big hole in it and it didn’t stand still) After the desk incident people have been laughing behind my back and every day they treat like a idiot. This may not sound bad but it really hurts me and my confidence is low already from elementary school. My mum says i’m just an easy target and my brothers girlfriend had the same problem because she had a lot of designer clothes. I forgot to mention that Girl A is a runner and she’s really thin and she once said to me that i couldn’t be a model and i said to her that my mother was a model from 5 years old to 30 years old. And I really want to prove to her thats she’s wrong that I am not stupid and i could be a model! I’ve been thinking whit my mum about home school…

  • me

    Ugh, teenage girls. Particularly the younger ones. The freshmen in our school are crazy. So much relationship drama, so many one week relationships with dramatic breakups. I didn’t even talk to guys until sophomore year, this all looks incredibly immature and weird to me. I’m a senior now. There is this cute emo guy in our school. I’m a goth, the only one in the school, and I’m at least decent looking, I keep in shape through various sports and I don’t wear tons of weird makeup or anything. I’m no beauty, but I am getting some attention from guys this year, a newish and awkward experience for me. Anyway, this emo guy and I have sort of become friends, and he is really sweet to me. Kind of flirty, but he is like that to everyone, though a couple of friends say he is more so around me. I don’t know if it is going anywhere, I’m very busy in tons of academic clubs and APs, so relationships aren’t my priority. Well, this pretty emo freshman girl used to date him, and I don’t even KNOW her, but she is saying bad things about me behind my back. She says I copy her clothes, wearing similar stuff to her the next day after I see her, and something is wrong/weird about me. First of, I’ve been dressing alternative since way before I met her. Second, she is the type of emo who only wears hot topic tees with skinny jeans/leggings, always with nerd glasses, a beanie, off the shoulder suspenders and flats. And sometimes a hideous drug-rug. I make my own clothes and jewelry often, I wear corsets with dress clothes and occasionally a cape dress. I weave steampunk gears in my hair and wear various black heeled boots, and never hipster stuff. Sometimes I wear rivethead fashion or men’s clothing. This random girl is telling everyone I copy her, when we look nothing alike. I was shocked to find out, since she seems like a sweet person. I’ve never done a thing to offend her, unless you count talking to a guy she used to date back before I knew him. Freshman girls are insane. Glad I’m going off to college next year.


    Hey everyone! I’m in eighth grade and I wanted to know what your group of “mean girls” at your school is called, or was called. I’m doing a story on this in my writing class and I don’t want to use my schools because my teachers would be upset. Thank you for reading and please reply asap!! thanks again!

  • Red

    “Behaviour such as social exclusion, spreading rumours or lies, dirty looks, or critical words are much more likely, though not exclusively, to occur within girl-to-girl relationships, than amongst relationships between or with guys.” Nonsense. I’ve seen this behavior among middle-aged men, and it’s embarrassing and pathetic. I am beginning to think this kind of petty game-playing is more or less evenly distributed between the sexes.

    I also dispute the idea that females are non-hierarchical hardwired to care about interpersonal relationships. I can’t count the number of domineering, ruthless, cutthroat women I’ve met who only pretend to care about interpersonal relationships in order to manipulate and use people. Of course, men are not always different in this regard either. Let’s face it, the world is full of cold-blooded, amoral human beings of both sexes. Both males and females are competitive because they only care about themselves. It’s that simple.

  • Leea

    A lot of teenage girls are like this, but not all. Some teenage girls can be pretty nice to others. The mean ones are the ones who weren’t properly taught to act civilize and respectful. I see girl often teasing or gossiping about people and then get into fights. Society is pressuring these girls to become like this. My theory is that if a girl who is insecure about herself or pressured or influenced, she makes other people feel bad by picking on them so she can feel superior and cooler than everyone else.

    A girl was bullied me just because I was bigger than her. She still loathes me to this day. I don’t pity her. at all She had no reason to bully anyone just because she felt like shit on the inside (I’m assuming). She wanted to make herself look like the bigger and better person but she never was. Maybe she was just jealous of me. She will never learn. Girls do become nasty or salty if they’re jealous and take it out on innocent people. A girl got mad at me because I finished a test quickly. Jezz, mean girls are easily irked.

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