The Mean Girls Conundrum

“What comes to mind when you think of female friendships?” my gender studies professor asked our thirty-person intro class last week.


“Mean girls!”



You get the idea. Few people seem to have a positive view of female friendships – particularly when it comes to larger friend groups. In my gender studies class, we discussed possible biological and cultural explanations for this phenomenon, including the idea that women have historically competed amongst each other to attract men as a means to attain the resources necessary for childrearing.

There is likely truth to this genetic explanation. However, we must remember that biology and history are not prescriptive. Just as we can recognize and move beyond other selfish predispositions (e.g. the urge to take the last piece of cake), we are perfectly capable of viewing our fellow women as friends, not competitors.

Friend groups always start out innocently enough. You befriend a girl who is friends with another cool girl who happens to know someone in your dorm and BAM you have a friend group. You are blessed with a reliable circle to go out with on weekends, veg and watch Netflix, and vent about your day and other personal issues. Typically, you are very close with a few members of the group – maybe not everyone – but these individual relationships become some of the most important bonds in your life.

Yet, inevitably, someone gets annoyed with someone else. They confide these feelings of irritation in another group member, sides are taken, and things become strained. Strong friend groups can move past these moments. Many do not.

I find this pattern deeply troubling. It’s demoralizing to hear of friend group drama time and time again, to hear guys dismiss close girl friends as “frenemies” as if it is inconceivable that we could genuinely care for each other. I am saddened every time I hear a girl say “I hate being friends with girls” or “I hang out with guys to avoid stupid girl drama.” My question is why? Why does this idea persist? Why do we allow it to?

I was still musing on this subject a few days after that gender studies class when I happened across David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water.” In his famous address, Wallace contends that the primary benefit of a liberal arts education is that it moves us to recognize our default setting of self-absorption and to realize that we can freely choose to live otherwise. He says, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” – the constant knowing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Watch DFW deliver "This Is Water"

David Foster Wallace would consider the routine descent into cattiness to be lazy and disappointing, but not at all surprising. After all, it takes very little effort to oblige our default-settings. However, he provides a simple, brilliant, and easily achievable solution. We can freely choose each day to respect each other, to value sisterhood, and to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we see in popular culture. Does anyone really like dramatic face-offs with friends? The behind-the-back nonsense? Minor moments of discontent forever destroying deep connections? I never have.

The good news is, we can opt out. We can work on ourselves. We can make each others’ lives easier. As David Foster Wallace said, “The only thing that is capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”


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