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The artful menace of female bullying
As a breast-feeding battle reminds us, women have their own rules of engagement
Toronto Star, by Cathal Kelly, March 28, 2009
When I was 10, a classmate named Dino would terrorize me after school each day. It became a tired ritual. Dino would wait just off school property. Despite my feeble attempts at evasion, Dino would spot me and chase me down. Once caught, I got a drawn-out beating and went home snivelling.
Eventually, word filtered up to my mother. She tried the new-world way by talking to teachers. When that didn't work, she retreated to territory more similiar to someone raised in rural Ireland: violence.
She held one small fist up to my face for emphasis and said, "When he's not looking, jump him and kick him senseless." Fear of my mother trumped fear of any bully. I worked myself up into a teary frenzy.
When Dino innocently passed in my general direction, I turned on him like a rabid squirrel. More on account of surprise than fighting ability, I found myself on top of him. I grabbed two handfuls of hair and pranged his head into the playground asphalt until I'd opened a good-sized gash. Dino and I were never exactly friendly after that, but we had established an understanding.
This is the sort of aggression men recognize. And because physical confrontations will eventually lead to serious bloodshed as boys grow into men, it tends to taper off. So what is it, we men wonder, with women?
They chip away at each other in ways we find hard to fathom. Here are some nuanced and original ways in which men might handle the sorts of bullying women face:
Bad-mouthing my parenting skills to the neighbours? Punch-up in your driveway.
Insinuating to the boss that I'm unstable? Jump you in the parking lot.
Telling the guys in the softball league that I'm impotent? Punch-up on the diamond. And by punch-up, I mean me sneaking up behind you with a bat.
Women? No punch-ups. Just years of politely tolerated mental anguish.
Hanna Rosin wrote recently in The Atlantic about the ostracism her clique of upper-class-aspirant friends practise on women who choose not to breast-feed their newborns.
A student at a posh Connecticut all-girls prep school is suing after she was driven out by a clutch of classmates who called themselves the Oprichniki, after a Tsarist death squad. What these mean girls have in common is social advantage. They aren't down-at-the-heel outsiders or callow followers. They're opinion leaders.
Women understand all this. But for men, it defies our own well-defined rules of engagement.
Most of the problem, it would seem, is down to form rather than content. Bullying can be an art. And women do it better.
University of Albany anthropologist Daniel D. White has studied the role bullying plays in evolutionary terms. "It's a subset of the sort of aggressive behaviour that's normal," he says. "It's part of an ability to get the resources and attention that you need."
White and his colleagues divide bullying into two types: physical and relational. The fist upside the head versus the reputation-destroying rumour.
In primate populations, physical bullying isn't tolerated for long. Either the victim turns on the bully in lethal combat or the group forms a coalition to force the bully out. Think well-aimed coconuts instead of playground asphalt.
"True violence - that doesn't work," White says of his studies among humans. "But a moderate level of (bullying) can be very successful." White envisions the 13-year-old who is simultaneously the teacher's pet and a terror when teacher's back is turned. More often than not, that cunning manipulator is a girl.
"Boys are easy to study. They're classic and clear," White says. "Girls are tougher. They're really good at dealing in the social environment and they tend to be morew verbal."
Further, socially aware bullies tend to be successful people.
"They're not odious," White says. "Many of them tend to be very good at communicating."
As children hit puberty, bullying ceases to centre on resource hoarding and switches to the Read More ..ngerous ground of sexual competition. Being smarter, women won't see much potential in the 23-year-old guy who's still putting his competitors in headlocks. But men can't quite get past the queen bee. Worse, they'll be put off the queen bee's victims, who, rumour assures them, are women of loose virtue.
And so bullying morphs as it hits adulthood.
This doesn't preclude men becoming relational bullies. However, women are imbued with the emotional arsenal to do it more effectively and, apparently, more often.
A U.K. study of bullying in prison paints the picture in an admittedly extreme environment.
Maybe it's all those reruns of Oz, but we collectively imagine all-male prisons as a seedbed of Hobbesian horror.
However, the researchers found that female prisoners tended to be victimized more often than their male counterparts - both physically and relationally. Let's try and guess which end of that spectrum Martha Stewart fell on.
Strangely, the scientific data do not tend to include unincarcerated women in their 20s and 30s. White couldn't think of a single study done on adult female bullying.
This leaves men casting about for ways to protect the women they love from their enemies. Boxing lessons might be a start. Or maybe I could introduce you to my mom.