This post might overlap a little with some of the other topics already discussed, but I really wanted to share one of my recent experiences.
As an extra-curricular, I volunteer for about an hour every Thursday at one of the local elementary schools in a grade 6/7 split-class. It’s in an area where most of the children come from lower income families. Needless to say, so of the kids don’t have the luxuries of someone of middle-upper class. Not only does this include brand name clothes, but unfortunately confidence as well.
My story is from one afternoon’s volunteering session. As I walk into the classroom, I notice that one of the girls had her head down on her desk and was disengaged from the lesson. Once the teacher was done explaining the exercise, she came over to me and asked if I could partner with Ashley* for the activity and keep her company. Of course, I did what I was told without question.
Walking up to Ashley, I could tell she wasn’t having the best of days. I asked her if she wanted to be my partner. She responded with resistance. After a few minutes talking with her and building that trust, she eventually complied.
We left the classroom to work without the distraction of others and to have a little privacy. I figured she probably didn’t want to do the activity right away, so I tried to spark conversation. Initially, she was shy and didn’t share much. By the end of the afternoon, we were talking as if we were best friends.
I learned that she was a lot like me. Her parents divorced at an early age. Her dad spoils her rotten even if it’s giving up everything he has. She has younger siblings that annoy her. She’s a “tomboy.” And her best friend is a boy.
She finds it frustrating how other girls in her class give her a hard time about the last two points. Ashley, admittedly, hates participating in the drama and gossip like the other girls. She’d rather play sports. As a result, she is bullied because she does not fit the norms of what society deems to be appropriate activities for girls.
Similarly, her best friend, Jake*, receives the same criticism from his other guy friends. The other boys pressure him by saying, “Why do you hang out with her? Come play with us!” Sometimes he gives in, sometimes he doesn’t. The other boys tease him for being a compassionate and caring friend to Ashley. After all, boys aren’t supposed to show emotion, right?
The dynamics on the playground support society’s pressures to conform to socialized gender roles. What I witnessed that afternoon was shockingly similar to scenes from Mean Girls. There are defined groups within the class, which are organized into an unspoken social hierarchy. Ashley and Jake remind me of the characters Janis and Damian from the movie. They are confident in their own skin, but are ridiculed by those with greater social influence.
Similar to the creation of the hierarchy in Mean Girls, those with “power” were girls and boys who fit hegemonic masculine and emphasized feminine roles. In addition, these groups were also white and of upper class (relative to those at the school). These invisible privileges have been used to exert power over those with less social influence. Those who deviate from what is perceived to be normal are bullied and put down by others. It is disheartening to see that Mean Girls, a movie that exaggerates every high school stereotype, is influencing and reinforcing power differences at a young age.
However, there is hope in the younger generations. Those like Ashley and Jake are comfortable expressing themselves and are not afraid to speak up. Although one might be pressured to conform to social expectations, like Kady from Mean Girls, happiness is found when one is confident enough to be comfortable in their own skin.
* Names changed to keep identities confidential.