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[whitespace] What About 'Carrie'?

Emily White shines a light on the dark side of women

By Traci Vogel

EMILY WHITE'S BOOK Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut (Scribner) has been lumped in with the Mean Girls trend. But rather than treat girl culture as an amorphous whole, White details one aspect: the power of an insult to shape girls' self-esteem and consequent life stories. White was inundated with these stories after placing an ad in Dan Savage's sex column "Savage Love" requesting responses from women who were labeled the slut of their high school class, whether they "earned the reputation or not." Based on interviews with over 150 women of all ages and social strata, White distills this aspect of female experience into a rigorous and vivid study.

To what do you attribute the recent bubble-up of academic and media interest in "girl culture"? Why all the books simultaneously? I realize I might as well be asking you "what causes a zeitgeist," but do you have any theories?

WHITE: The best explanation of the perennial bubbling-up of girl/gender books was in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by a writer called Carol Tavris. She liked my book, which of course made me like the article even better. My theory is that the "mean girls" trend is a response to the romanticizing of girls and women which occurred in the mid/late '90s--a whole "save our daughters from the cruel world" mentality. The culmination of this trend was a book called The Wonder of Girls. I also find Reviving Ophelia, a huge bestseller, to be a very sentimental book. Although one of the "Mean Girls" authors is actually part of the Ophelia project, I do think the appeal of this stuff is the ways in which it's different from what has come before. Similar to the way we want rock music after too many years of pop and techno. It represents a shift in tone; a much less romantic view of girls. The bubble occurred because many authors, including me, started to ask: But what about the cruel, evil side of girlhood? What about Carrie, for Chrissakes?

A lot of your book deals with the notorious territory of high school. What did you learn about the way girls treat one another during these years? Are girls really more mean than boys?

I did indeed hear many girls tell me that "girls were the worst" about spreading rumors. But I also heard stories of rape and physical abuse at the hands of men, so I wouldn't say one gender is less cruel than another, based on my interviews. The thing is that sometimes we assume that because girls are the less powerful sex, they have no power. The power games which high school girls play give the lie to this. The hunger for power and control--it's a pretty amazing thing to document when you are investigating the world of high school girls.

Do you think "slut" continues to be as powerful an insult, in the aftermath of supposedly more liberal sex education and Third Wave feminist fashion that encourages girls to literally wear labels such as "Princess" and "Girl Scout Drop-out" on T-shirts?

Yes. I think despite the culture of irony there's still a visceral response to being labeled a slut. But I think ironic attitudes toward being a "bad girl" are a good sign. Maybe irony is the beginning of the end of a certain kind of shame, but it doesn't bring about the end immediately.

Some have suggested that the interest in "mean girls" or girl culture may be a way to break away from the stereotypes that women are passive or "good," and to offer a more complex image of women in society. But at the same time, mean girl stories seem to reinforce the cliché of the "cat fight," or women as passive-aggressive. What's your opinion? Is it possible to define women's culture when it exists within the large context of a male-dominated culture?

I don't think there's such a thing as women's culture. Because there is not one monoculture so there could never be a women's culture. What I can say for certain is that as a topic gender is inherently interesting; the difference between men and women is interesting. Society will always be interested in discussing it. And just when it becomes most interesting, it will get dumb. I definitely think a lot of the conversation surrounding the Mean Girls trend is incredibly dumb and irritating. I heard one talk show host pose the question, "Are lesbians mean?" I mean, what kind of question is that?

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From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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