January 30, 2010
I’ve never been much of a joiner, but lately I’ve been considering joining a women’s club in a neighboring town. What does that mean? Well, for starters, joining such a group represents my desire to socialize with other members of my sex. I haven’t always been very good at that. Nursery school teachers remarked at how I would play alongside other children rather than with them. But joining a women’s club would also mean the opportunity to participate in organized charity work, book club meetings, yoga, etc. without having to take the initiative to find these activities on my own.
Sounds like a plan. I’ll join a women’s club.
In college, I didn’t pledge sororities, which in principle should offer the same comforts: friendship, challenges to one’s altruistic nature and motivation to be active. I had a couple of girlfriends from high school who went to the same college and decided to pledge a sorority to enhance their social circle so that they wouldn’t rely on only each other for company. Good idea. I think they endured some hokey initiation ritual and then became fast friends with several young women in the sorority and even roomed with them for their remaining three years.
Meanwhile, over in my dorm building at Boston University, my neighbor cried herself to sleep several nights in a row because a high school sweetheart of hers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) had drunk himself to death while pledging a fraternity. We on that specified subject floor all silently concluded that the Greek system was flawed – especially for young men – and inwardly congratulated ourselves on being film geeks, often-blocked writers and dark artists instead of joiners. We certainly weren’t headed for sports teams, the military or even religious cults…yet. We were safe from hazing. And as a woman, even knowing how shallow and vicious girls could be – threatening to beat me up because my sweatshirts were Hanes® and not Champion® brand, and calling me names because I was chubby, and telling me that they’ll “be (my) best friend” in exchange for secrets that they then blabbed all over school, etc. – I felt certain that hazing was a male problem, something women are exempt from.
But let’s be clear about the word “hazing.” It doesn’t simply mean prerequisite achieved or initiation performed. According to Dictionary.com, hazing means “subjection to harassment or ridicule.” And in some cases, that harassment and ridicule has resulted in death. While a boy I knew had pledged a fraternity and was beaten with a paddle until his ass cheeks were bright red and blistered, so much so that he couldn’t sit or lie down for days; the MIT chap had passed out in a drunken stupor, vomited in his sleep and choked to death…all in the name of acceptance.
According to StopHazing.org: “Hazing is an act of power and control over others – it is victimization. Hazing is pre-meditated and NOT accidental. Hazing is abusive, degrading and often life-threatening.” And hazing is a problem for women as well as men.
The New York Times reported in “Girls Just Want to Be Mean” that psychologists have traditionally assumed that boys are more naturally aggressive than girls, and therefore more prone to engage in hazing.
That consensus began to change in the early 90’s, after a team of researchers led by a Finnish professor named Kaj Bjorkqvist started interviewing 11- and 12-year-old girls about their behavior toward one another. The team’s conclusion was that girls were, in fact, just as aggressive as boys, though in a different way. They were not as likely to engage in physical fights, for example, but their superior social intelligence enabled them to wage complicated battles with other girls aimed at damaging relationships or reputations – leaving nasty messages by cellphone or spreading scurrilous rumors by e-mail, making friends with one girl as revenge against another, gossiping about someone just loudly enough to be overheard. Turning the notion of women’s greater empathy on its head, Bjorkqvist focused on the destructive uses to which such emotional attunement could be put. ‘Girls can better understand how other girls feel,’ as he puts it, ‘so they know better how to harm them.’
So, while we should be warning our daughters about the risks of rape, date rape and other forms of violence from men, we should also be warning them about the emotional wounds that women can and do inflict. And if we know girls who possess “superior social intelligence,” we have to teach them not to be mean.
Remember Jesse Logan’s story? She was an 18-year-old high school senior who sent a text message containing nude photographs of herself to her boyfriend. But after she and that boyfriend broke up, he circulated the pictures to high school girls knowing that they would be cleverly mean about them. True to form, those girls were mean; and poor Jesse hung herself at home in the lonely privacy of her bedroom. Armed with plenty of ammunition – the secrets and insecurities we wish to hide – mean girls can and do fire again and again at will.
It would seem that boys can also be vicious – the boyfriend instigated the taunting of Logan; and after a recent incident of sorority hazing at my second alma mater Rutgers University in New Jersey, it would also seem that girls too can be violent. This month, Rutgers suspended the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority and authorities arrested six members after severe hazing was reported by several pledges. The claim: hazing included beatings with a 1′ x 6″ wooden paddle, and starvation. One pledge was so badly injured that she ended up in the hospital. The six members who have been charged with aggravated hazing, an indictable offense, are free on $1,500 bail. They are all adults and could face up to 18 months in jail if found guilty.
Make no mistake: this is not an isolated incident. Recent hazing incidents have been reported at Drake University in Iowa and Rider University in N.J., to name a couple. And according to HazingStudy.org’s “Hazing in View: College Students at Risk,” 55 percent of college students experience hazing and, in 95 percent of said cases, the hazing goes unreported. Like in instances of rape, women (and men) must be encouraged to speak up about hazing. It is harmful and possibly deadly.
No matter how badly you want to be accepted – and as women we know from fashion, television and movies that to be part of an elite group (the skinny girls) is something we think we need because the alternative is so rarely spoken of or even seen unless it’s full of ridicule (witness a bloated Kirstie Alley on magazine covers, for starters) – we cannot allow other girls and women to encourage us to be victims. We have to learn to love ourselves as we are. And if necessary, we have to feel empowered to be alone or to start our own groups based on the aforementioned positive tenets: friendship, altruism and well-being.
I’m excited about the prospect of joining a women’s club for those healthy reasons, but I’m not bleeding to get in. The minute a wooden paddle comes out or a snicker is made about my clothes, I’ll be headed for the door.
November 8, 2008
Over the past couple of months – as I have let the frequency of my posting slide some owing to a hefty workload at my new job and a stressful PhD application process – I have spent my leisure time observing the antics of one delightful Tina Fey. A fan of 30 Rock and Mean Girls, I usually think of her as Liz Lemon, feminist television writer/producer extraordinaire, or the encouraging high school math teacher with a second job as a button-wearing bartender at the local mall; but in the last few weeks, I have gotten to know her as an Emmy winner, a Sarah Palin dead ringer, and as a pair of sexy legs sprawled out on the “Weekend Update” desk on the Saturday Night Live television set.
Those are great legs! But what we all really love about Fey is her shtick: a wry and bold sense of humor that appeals to everybody: from 10-year-old boys who love fart jokes, to girly girls who laugh at pop culture satire. She is beloved for her brain in the way, historically, so few women have been – and that’s what makes her special.
If I went to a party and we decided to play the game in which everybody announces the five people, living or dead, they’d invite to dinner, I would definitely choose Tina Fey as one of my guests. True, she’s alive and the possibility does exist that our paths might cross and I would get to ask her a thing or two about how she started her career as a writer and eventually became a renowned film and television personality. But I don’t want to risk it: so she’d be my living guest sitting next to other famous women who lived and achieved notoriety in an earlier time.
During this game, somebody would of course say “Jesus.” “I would invite Jesus for sure,” he or she would announce. Then, the rest of us would sigh because our choices are less noble.
“Hitler,” one would shout. I’d frown. “Abraham Lincoln!” Hmmm…okay. “Julius Caesar.” I like that last one to be sure.
But alas, my choices would be: Lizzie Borden, Joan of Arc, Edith Wharton and Heloise, wife of Peter Abelard and brilliant scholar by her own merit. Having dispensed with the delicious appetizer (fried mozzarella or an insalata caprese – whatever has cheese), we’d get right down to business. “Ms. Borden, did you really kill your father and stepmother with a hatchet?” I ask.
“And Joan, was it hot under that armor as you marched into battle, driving the English out of France?”
“Ms. Wharton, do tell me whether or not you intended readers to derive a moral from the story of Ethan Frome?”
“Heloise, was the sex with Abelard really that good?”
Yes. Yes. No. Yes. But what I really want to talk about is Tina Fey and her rise to stardom: “How were you able to cultivate a successful Hollywood career and be mother to a beautiful female toddler at precisely the same time?”
“What do you really think of Sarah Palin?”
“Describe for me your take on feminism: are we beyond needing it or is there still a reason to stand up and fight for equal rights, equal pay and control over our own bodies? Do you think women are our own worst enemies?”
“And do you really hate flip flops (because if I had my way, I’d wear flip flops all the time)?”
When I think of Tina Fey carrying that cardboard tray of hot dogs in the series opener of 30 Rock, I can’t help but grin. I remind myself by a handwritten post-it stuck on my computer screen: “Don’t buy all the hot dogs,” it reads.
See, Liz Lemon was standing in line to buy a hot dog from a street vendor one day when somebody cut in front of her and she got so mad that she bought the entire cart of hot dogs just to maintain the integrity of the principle of the thing. That’s something I want to do everyday – more or less – but I don’t because I have the post-it. “Don’t buy all the hot dogs”…even if you really, really, really want to.
So, once I pay due attention to my favorite serial killer, warrior, author and romantic, I want nothing more than to split the warm, flour-less chocolate cake with the woman who has broken almost every barrier and every mold. (Perhaps I should have asked Hillary Clinton instead of Joan.) But no, I’m talking about Tina Fey and her wonderful, crooked grin that seems to say, “R*****, I know exactly who you are, because I’m just like you…and nobody understands you better than me.”
Then, we have a good Scotch, a good cry and a good hug. And I thank her for giving little girls somebody warm, strong and funny to look up to. Because, when you think about it, there really is noone else who doesn’t make them feel fat or stupid if they let them. Tina Fey helps us feel comfortable in our own skin.