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Book Review: Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons

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Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons is about the "hidden culture of aggression in girls." The main theory that the author is exploring is how girls use isolation, manipulation, and backstabbing as a means of bullying each other because overt hostility and physical aggression are socially denied for women.

While reading this book, I've had a lot of different thoughts. Some of them are about the book itself and its contents and others are more personal. One immediate thought that I couldn't help but have was that the type of bullying that girls engage in according to her book is exactly the type of bullying that is pandemic in Japanese schools. That is, the worst thing one can do to a member of a group is ignore and isolate him or her. 

In her book, Ms. Simmons says this cuts deeply because being denied relationships is the worst punishment that can be meted out to people who value their bonds with others very highly. I found it interesting that her musings applied cross-culturally (and actually across genders).

Unfortunately, a lot of Ms. Simmon’s work is flawed in the same manner that many books written by those studying psychological issues are flawed. She starts with a theory and only focuses on the experiences of girls who help reinforce the validity of her theory. While one might expect that any study of bullying among girls would focus on the socially ostracized ones who are most often isolated, her analysis is zeroed in on first and second string popular girls and how they feel and act. In fact, unpopular girls and how they bully or feel about being bullied are in almost completely absent from consideration in her book except as temporary friends for the popular girls who have been cast out of their cliques. She doesn’t provide any information on the “unpopular girls” and they seem to be inconsequential extras milling about in the background while the popular girls play center stage.

Since the basis of her theory is that girls channel their negative feelings such as jealousy and anger into acts of cruel manipulation, gossip, and selective isolation, she focuses on the group most likely to behave in this way and ignores the ones that may refute her theory. Popular girls are often jockeying amongst themselves for alpha female status, so their cliques represent the most fertile ground in which to plant her theory. She doesn’t even explore the possibility that unpopular girls may value their friendships with each other more because they can’t risk losing what little they have and choose not to turn on one another at the drop of a hat. We cannot even ponder know this may be true or not since this group is woefully neglected in Ms. Simmons's talks with schoolgirls.

In the girl's world painted in Odd Girl Out, small groups of girls are judging each other based on appearance, popularity, wealth, intelligence, and appeal to boys. When one girl has an abundance of anything and seems to recognize it, the other girls both want to be her friend and secretly hate her for a variety of perceived slights which are based (mainly) on jealousy and resentment about the power the lead girl has over others. Other girls want to both be her friend and take her down a peg. Ms. Simmons's concludes that girls have a set of ideal characteristics and anyone who isn't demure enough, doesn't put the needs of others first, or is too bright or athletic isn't going to fit with the feminine ideal and will be rejected. She concludes that female stereotypes hold back female aggression and that's why girls behave the way they do.

On this point in particular, I believe the author is either dismissing or ignoring some other important possibilities. It isn't the fact that girls are girls which causes them to dish out their anger and aggression in an underhanded and indirect way, but the fact that girls value relationships more than boys. If boys are egotistical and behave in ways that alienate their peers, they aren't risking deep relationships or intimate connections. Most boys don't have deep bonds based on trust and intimate knowledge of one another at a young age. They tend to form relationships based on less personal bonds like sports or hobbies. If one boy acts too arrogantly or aggressively and this bothers his friends, they are far less likely to see it as an attempt to compete on a personal level and write it off as showing off in a generalized fashion. The thing that binds boys, common interests, isn’t likely to be broken by arrogance or jealousy.

In Ms. Simmons's view, girls are hamstrung in expressing their aggression because they have had a restrictive imprint made on them by society so they attack in whispers, glances, and with silence. In my view, girls do this because they tend to form more complex, deep, and intimate bonds than boys at a younger age and would prefer not to overtly alienate their peers. They learn to maintain deniability so they can keep their relationships intact in the event that their perceptions are wrong. Simply put, boys remain blissfully oblivious of the complex nature of relationships and value their own egos more than until a later age relative to girls. I don't believe this is a function of society's sexist imprinting as much as developmental differences between genders. In other words, the same thing that has girls shooting up and getting taller than boys also has them forming deeper relationships earlier.

Of course, I have no way of proving my theory. If I were to follow Ms. Simmons’s lead in Odd Girl Out, though, all I’d need to do is go around and ask the kind of questions that would elicit the answers I’d like to hear in order to support my theories at a statistically insignificant number and highly biased sampling of schools. I’d wager it’d be just as easy to support my theories by asking boys questions about the depth of their relationships (or the lack thereof).

While Odd Girl Out is a very interesting book, it exhibits tunnel vision in how it explores the topic of female aggression. In order for her theories to carry more weight, Ms. Simmons needs to broaden the range of girls she speaks with as well as explore the possibility of other explanations aside from the one she seems emotionally invested in.

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  • teonna

    this book is a good book that they should read in high school because it is true that high school girls are this way and if they read this maybe they will get an idea of not being the way they are now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!