By Bailey Shoemaker Richards
If there’s one thing I was tired of the first time I ever heard it, it’s the tendency of writers with no scientific background to categorize observed behaviors as “inborn,” “genetic,” or “hard-wired into DNA” without any reason to believe that’s the case. More often than not, behaviors are formed by culture, parenting and exposure to similar behaviors.
That’s just one reason an article in The Stir sent me scurrying up the nearest wall. In “Are 3-Year-Old Mean Girls Proof Women are Born Wicked?” author Ericka Souter has decided that hearing about admittedly unpleasant behavior from toddlers means that “catty” behavior starts from the minute girls “come out of the birth canal.” That’s a rosy view of your fellow women, isn’t it? And her justification for believing that women are genetically predisposed to be bitchy even in preschool? The girls she heard about have “pretty cool” moms and no older siblings from whom they would have learned to shun other girls.
I guess that’s all the avenues of explanation for why young girls might be mean, then, right? It simply must be genetic. Please. I’d love to see the bitch gene, or a good evolutionary explanation for why Souter thinks women are predestined for Mean Girl behaviors. Without it, I’m just going to have to call this an example of lazy thinking, and a really unfortunate piece that relies on sexist stereotypes to make an un-funny joke at the expense of children.
Parents and siblings are not the only ways kids learn behavior. This is something a lot of people forget when talking about kids and how they act. Culture, television, movies, commercials, even toys – all of these things have a huge impact on how kids treat one another, and that impact is sometimes greater than the positive behaviors parents try to instill in their children.
Leaving out an analysis of what environment these toddler “Mean Girls” are playing in, what shows they watch, and how kids establish a pecking order to jump right to the “it’s genetic!” canard is not only lazy thinking, it’s insulting. Girl hate is a problem of culture, not of gender. Saying it’s inborn and that women are just “wired” that way is an excuse for justifying and perpetuating that stereotype.
Women, like men, are not born with behaviors stamped into their brains. Girl hate is learned through exposure to it in the culture; it’s not something inevitable or genetic. Saying women essentially can’t help being nasty to one another doesn’t help anyone challenge that behavior or help girls who are actually affected by bullying.
Souter’s article is a classic example of assigning a specific set of behaviors (the “Mean Girl” trope) to something inherent to being a woman. Not only does this reinforce sexist stereotypes about women and girls, it also resorts to mean girl behavior itself, picking on children too young to understand the ramifications of their childish cruelty, and extrapolating the behavior of those children to represent women everywhere. This type of internalized misogyny and girl-hate isn’t genetic, but it’s definitely an epidemic, and it’s something we need to stop doing.