An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in
April 17, 2017 4:26 AM   Subscribe

Talking to the Popular Girls, 20 Years Later | "Why we let male attention rule our entire world and why we were so devastatingly mean to each other still confounds me. To them the answer seemed at once utterly obvious and also unremarkable. 'Because we were immature,' Grace said. 'We didn’t know any better.' But I still can’t believe how much I gave up and how hard I worked at becoming cool simply because I had a crush on a Hot Guy in third grade. 'Having the boys’ approval was, like, everything,' Meg said, 'and so the meaner you were, the more attractive you were.' "
posted by I_Love_Bananas (42 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The topic is interesting, but I wish she'd got out of her own head and tried to dig into her friends' experiences more.
posted by signal at 5:02 AM on April 17, 2017 [25 favorites]

I'll take nightmare topics for father's to read for $500, Alex!

Good primer on a very different perspective, but yes, like signal... I'd have liked to have had a bit more of a balance than from just the stuff in the author's head....
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:12 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I feel like the author just assumed that what she thought and went through was what actually happened, when it was probably reconstructed and pieced together after the fact just as much as the other women's memories.
posted by peacheater at 5:20 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

This article reads like it was written by Hannah Horvath.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:42 AM on April 17, 2017 [11 favorites]

I don't know. I am not sure that there's much more to the question of why some girls were popular than that they were the socially adept girls with cool older siblings, and if the author had had the cool older sibling special sauce, she would have been popular, too. I totally believe that the cool girls were not intentionally oppressing her with their Malibu t-shirts. And I am not entirely buying her self-serving narrative that she was just a little too nice to reach the top echelon of popularity, because it sounds like she totally abandoned her Horse Girl friends when it became clear that they weren't going to lead her to popularity, which is not something that a genuinely nice person would do.

I guess I also think that you should try to get over this by the time you're in your 30s. I'm totally here for trying to make things better for current pre-teen girls, but dwelling on 20-year-old hurts seems sort of counterproductive.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:44 AM on April 17, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea that 2nd grade is too old to still like horses.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:47 AM on April 17, 2017 [20 favorites]

.... Or that girls crush on hot guys in 3rd grade.
posted by Karaage at 5:55 AM on April 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

Okay I've been holding on commenting because there was something bothering me about this, and I would re-read paragraphs and mostly be okay with what was said. But! finally figured out what was nagging at me: I don't like her. I would not want to spend time with her. I agree with the other people that she is just way too in her own head. She's so nearsighted. There is, apparently, only one way to do things or reason to want things.

At the time, Ruby and Grace seemed utterly confident — but their later spells of abstinence suggested that maybe Ruby and Grace were responding to discomfort of their own.

It is impossible for girls to not be boy-crazy, says this one particular girl, who is boy-crazy. (I'm rolling my eyes so hard at this fake, self-centered attempt at "depth" that I'm about to be motion sick.)
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:56 AM on April 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

There could have been a lot of interesting writing about pre-teens picking up on media-presented ideas about sexuality and warping them through kid logic, which is not adult logic. But there wasn't. There could also have been some investigation of what cool actually means at different ages (is she cool now? does it matter?) but there wasn't. I really like reading about people's personal lives, but it was even a bit too much of a diary entry for me, so uh I guess, B+ see me after class.
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:01 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've fully finished the article, and good god, I'm doubling down-I really do not like her. The smugness is palpable. This isn't about "exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization", it's just the author reinforcing her own memories and finding ways to make her feel good about herself even though she failed to be popular.

"Hearing that made me feel kind of smug. I had once wished to be more like them, and now, 20 years later, they were wishing that back then they’d been a bit more like me. . .
I’m pretty disgusted by the way we treated one another, but Ruby, Grace, and Meg seemed much more willing to chalk it up to typical adolescent behavior."

She is so, so self-absorbed it is painful to watch her try and listen to other people's lived experiences and then utterly fail to glean any real meaning from them. Then, to top it all off, one of the people she's talking to hits the nail on the head: “Do you guys ever think that we thought we were cool but maybe it wasn’t necessarily like we were the cool girls, it was just like in our minds that was the way it was, but, in actuality, it wasn’t really that way?”, but the author, still preoccupied with being smug, reasserts that her own reality is the only reality, and if she thought Grace was cool, Grace is cool and Grace is wrong about her own life if she doesn't think so.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:09 AM on April 17, 2017 [15 favorites]

She is so, so self-absorbed it is painful to watch her try and listen to other people's lived experiences and then utterly fail to glean any real meaning from them.

Yeah, like I said, it reads like it was written by Hannah Horvath. The author is so tied up in her own self-consciousness/self-absorption she's oblivious to the more interesting story that's right in front of her. She can't get out of her own way, which turns the article more into an exposure of her own psyche than an interesting exploration of the ostensible topic. It's like an episode of Girls without the self-awareness.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:22 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

You guys are so mean.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 6:29 AM on April 17, 2017 [12 favorites]

You guys are so mean.

That just makes us more attractive.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:36 AM on April 17, 2017 [28 favorites]

I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea that 2nd grade is too old to still like horses.

In my day, 2nd and 3rd grade were Peak Horse. The girls brought their horse figures into school.
posted by thelonius at 6:41 AM on April 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

.... Or that girls crush on hot guys in 3rd grade.

my first-grader has a boyfriend AND a secret boyfriend so i don't know how precocious that is.

(i also don't know if her boyfriend and her secret boyfriend are aware of their own relationship status)
posted by murphy slaw at 6:41 AM on April 17, 2017 [13 favorites]

An interesting part of the article is the fact that a lot of the cool kids had slightly older mentors who were able to instruct them in a kindly way about how to act older: passing on clothing tips, modeling cool ways of speaking and being, giving them terminology and ideas that were beyond their current peer group's understanding. That exists within a larger media economy too, so the cools ways of being that the older kids are passing along are backed up by what their peers in school might be seeing (but not fully understanding) on TV.

In talking to her three subjects, she brings up a few times about how they didn't seem to recall or highlight the experience of being cool because they never really thought about it. It seemed to come naturally, so it doesn't appear to be something that stuck in their minds in the same way that striving (and failing, I guess) to be cool stuck in the author's mind. Perhaps, having that peer relationship with older girls made them able to adopt cool behaviors without self-consciousness, so that it then seemed natural to act that way not only to themselves, but also natural to their peers.

That mirrors my own experiences when I have not been cool: when I've been trying, consciously, to fit in. I don't know what it says about American youth culture, but trying (and being obvious that you're trying) isn't a marker of anything other than desperation. A term that's come up within the past 5 years or so is "try-hard" which encompasses that exactly - but I feel like it's just putting words to something that's been a cultural value for a while.

I'm not sure where meanness comes from. I know that kids, being young, are trying a bunch of different things, and meanness is one of them. Being mean is, unfortunately, fun - it might give you your first taste of having agency and control over another being when much of your own life is directly controlled by authority figures. Being in a high position also gives you the ability to experiment with being mean. One can also be mean without intention, simply because you don't have decades of experience with empathy and socialization. Being in a middling position makes being mean even more appealing, since the resource you're fighting for is limited, and taking aggressive action might be appealing as a way to boost status. In the article the only meanness that really gets a name is the author's own cutting of ties with her Horse Girls as a way of boosting status.

Anyway, it was an interesting read, even if the author seemed to prioritize her own direct experience over the data from the interview. It at least made me happy that you only have to go through primary school once in your life.
posted by codacorolla at 6:50 AM on April 17, 2017 [16 favorites]

I'm going through some of my (more adolescent) growing up (as a very abused child navigating the world awkwardly) and not somehow ending up as a part of a horror story even though I did things the exact things that could end one up in a horror story).

This is just naive, simplistic and privileged.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:53 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

my first-grader has a boyfriend AND a secret boyfriend so i don't know how precocious that is.

My kinder-gardener has declared her "wuv" for a boy named "Nowan" (we're still working on 'L's), and apparently it's mutual because he made her a special card with both of them standing next to each other and smiling.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:05 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Of course, six months ago she told us when she grew up she wanted to marry her older sister, so I doubt she has all the particulars down yet.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:10 AM on April 17, 2017 [17 favorites]

I was never ever, not for a single day, cool. I was awkward, nerdy, asthmatic, goth, unimpressed by boys (asexual) and trying to survive an abusive home. I definitely wasn't playing the same game as these girls. I don't even know that I was necessarily aware that a game was being played.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:15 AM on April 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

This narrative is just so foreign to me.

I was never one of the popular kids. My schools really didn't have popular kids in the same way you so often see in the media - maybe they were too big, because we didn't all know each other. But I did know girls who always seemed to have a lot of friends, and ...

... mostly it was because they were fun and nice. It was never the popular girls that were mean to me. The biggest bully I ever dealt with was a girl who wasn't popular at all, who (I learned later) had a lot of troubles at home and more general behavioral issues. There was none of this manipulative meanness with her, just straight mean, not so different than a stereotypical male bully.

Boys was just never a thing. Like, my friends had crushes, and boyfriends, but I can't remember there being any competition for male attention. There were plenty of boys, and they came and went. Of course we all faced gendered social pressures, but it wasn't anything like this.

Like, I don't want to deny the experiences of anyone who has been through something more like the narrative that the author presents. I've heard enough stories that I know it happens. But I do get a little frustrated when it's pushed as the only narrative, as something that is just inherently true about girls. And the author falls into this trap - she can't see past herself.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:23 AM on April 17, 2017 [18 favorites]

this article brought back embarrassing and shameful memories of assholery committed by me and then suffered by me (because that's how this works) in late elementary-early middle school. i am sitting at my desk at work, cringing.

in 4th and 5th grade, we were a girl group we called "the foursome." i don't think we were "cool" in the conventional sense (none of us had boyfriends at this young age, but then again, this was the very early 90s, and no one had boyfriends at this age at our school) but we were definitely mean and we did not care for horses. the memory that is making me cringe is the time we made tshirts that said "foursome" on it. and there was another girl who was in our friend group who we did not deem in the foursome, and she came to the tshirt-making night, and we made her make her shirt say "foursome friend." because she was allowed to be friends with us but was not a full member. and she did it. and we wore them. our mothers were aghast. "why can't you be fivesome?"

a few months later, i was out and she was in, as these girl cycles go, and i was kicked out of their singing group for the talent show. they sang "sometimes love just ain't enough" by patty smythe and i still tic when i ever happen upon that song.

we also once sent a girl home with a permission slip for her mother to sign to let us give her a makeover. the thing about that was i remember having no idea it was mean. some similar makeover incident happened in some book i read and we thought it sounded like a nice thing to do for someone, but we figured we needed her mom's buy-in, so we made a permission slip. for real. i got in so much trouble for that incident and i was confused because i wasn't even trying to be mean that time. i really wanted to help her with her clothes and hair. obviously it was mean, for hundreds of terrible reasons, but kids who are 9 or 10 don't necessarily see the world the way adults do.

in 6th grade i moved away and was the lowest of the low, friends with hardly anyone. kids were more mature at the new school and it was jarring. in 7th grade, i moved back, and the entire social landscape had changed with the ascent to middle school. for high school, i moved again, and became rather goth. the end.
posted by millipede at 7:33 AM on April 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

(i also don't know if her boyfriend and her secret boyfriend are aware of their own relationship status)

Well, Chris Evans is still in denial about me...
posted by praemunire at 7:49 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Millipede, that wasn't mean. Misguided, naieve, possibly hurtful in effect, but not mean. Your desire to help does you credit.
posted by amtho at 7:52 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Millipede, that wasn't mean. Misguided, naieve, possibly hurtful in effect, but not mean. Your desire to help does you credit.

Yep. meanness and cruelty require intent.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2017

I guess kids grow up faster these days

When I was in third grade we were mainly still working on keeping our shoes tied.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:14 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a super-vivid memory of fourth grade, when the cool girl clique had a split of some sort and the two resulting cliques started frantically recruiting the uncool girls, each clique trying to end up larger and with more admirers. At the time our big playground game was "cat and mouse" which was like huge group tag with some cats and some mice. One of the groups' recruitment pitch was that "We're going to play cat and mouse AND DOG" and then they'd all start barking.

It was like the Poochie of elementary school game updates.

(I do not recall who came out on top in this tussle because my friends and I were at the time obsessed with doing back hip pullovers on the playground equipment and so had no time for elementary school Game of Thrones. But it was a smallish suburb, I'm basically friendly with everyone from back then 30 years later, so I guess it worked out fine and everyone grew out of all of it and became pleasant adults.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:19 AM on April 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yep. meanness and cruelty require intent.

I actually think this is a really good point, because I think a lot of even older-years meangirling is mostly about
a) thinking you know how the world works and being super wrong
b) trying to exert any kind of control on anything, except you're 7/17 and see also point a
c) trying to contextualize whatever the hell else might be going on at home and in the extended family, in church, in neighborhood dynamics, and with school-related adults
d) trying to figure out how relationships - all relationships - work, including friendships of choice vs friendships/alliances/acquaintanceships of necessity
e) development of executive function

I think in the older groups, there's definitely more recreational cruelty but they're still not old enough to have fully-ripened executive function or ability to fully comprehend consequences or cause and effect. Also, in girls, there's the stress of sexual maturity before emotional maturity, so there's that plus many other mental health intersections at play there too.

And yes, it is extremely annoying to read an article that's all "I dunno why so mean?" when, like, we have science, we know why. Nobody's really cared enough to intervene much, and with the imminent death of science and research and the educational system we might as well all go back to hitting each other with rocks and stabbing each other with sharpened bones but, for a brief moment there, we were totally working on it.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:34 AM on April 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

A term that's come up within the past 5 years or so is "try-hard" which encompasses that exactly - but I feel like it's just putting words to something that's been a cultural value for a while.

This has been on my mind since my teenage brother and his teenage girlfriend just spent their spring break with me - the word now seems to be "extra", but it's not necessarily a bad thing in a way I just can't grasp yet. Putting a ton of work into curating the perfect instagram feed is "extra" - but that's also the good, right, expected thing (my "nerdy" brother asked me why I didn't put together a more cohesive instagram aesthetic...).
posted by R a c h e l at 8:34 AM on April 17, 2017

Between grades 3 and 12, I went to four different schools (well, five if you count the school I went to in England while my dad was on sabbatical), with three very different social landscapes.

School #1 was small and parent-run. So small that you really couldn't have cliques. You could try, and we did, but it was doomed to failure because at a certain point you'd run out of people to exclude. The big incident I remember there was when I hid in the classroom during recess one day (intending to pop out all "SURPRISE!!!!" when everyone came back in) and instead got to overhear the two other girls in my class (yeah, there were only three of us) talking about the club they were in together which I was specifically mentioned as not being in. That sucks when there's only three of you. But boys were definitely not a thing.

School #2 was a fucking nightmare of social stratification based on wealth (it was the 80s). There were a few kids there who were super mature, clearly wealthy, wore designer clothes, and were definitely making out. Boys were such a thing, which I was really consternated by. I was a late bloomer and mostly I just resented everyone by the end.

Leading to School #3, an all-girls Catholic school where we wore uniforms. I was so burned by School #2 that I came in with a "fuck all y'all" attitude towards everyone and everything. Fuck boys, fuck girls, fuck popularity, fuck clothes, fuck coolness, fuck fuck fuck.

But then School #4 was the result of School #3 closing and merging with another (all girls) school, leading to all of us suddenly being thrust into this brand new situation in a new building with new people and new teachers and something about that shake-up made everyone forget about all prior social distributions. Everyone was forced to just kind of grow up that extra little bit in order to deal with the changes. And all the girls also seemed to en masse arrive at the same conclusion: boys are the actual worst. It was by far the healthiest school environment I'd been in.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:34 AM on April 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

"Popular Girls/Boys/Whatever" always struck me as a misnomer when applied to people like these social hypercompetitive types. I remember that in my high school of 2500+ kides, there were maybe 30 or 40 kids who everybody from the nerdiest outcast to the jocks, to the delinquents all liked, and not because of status, just because they were really, well, likable. That's what I think of when I think 'popular.'

posted by jonmc at 8:59 AM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wish codacorolla had written the article.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:28 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

A term that's come up within the past 5 years or so is "try-hard" which encompasses that exactly

See also: Thirsty
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 9:30 AM on April 17, 2017

I went to private school in grade school. I was the grade's charity case, ( it was a grade of 24 kids seperated into two classes) 6 girls 18 boys. I was kind of like the child equivalent of how you ignore a homeless person on the street in terms of socialization.

As I said before, I was abused. I was socially akward, and in a completely different SES than these kids - and we were in a cohort together from kindergarden through fifth grade. The other parents chalked it off to a very disabled mother, from what understand, and tolerated me just to the point of not being blatantly rude.

I don't remember much - I wasn't quite bullied more so because I wasn't aknowledged. I broke off a relationship with a kid I liked in 3Rd grade a little because he was bullied, and Is decided I didn't want any more violence in my life. He was pretty distraught by that. I kept myself from being locked in closets and beaten afterschool. He moved on, I stayed at the school through 5the grade.

Middle school I went to public school which was a total game changer, though unsure how to socialize I kinda just fell into the first set of people who would litterally talk to me. Which I was quite happy with as I had tons of catching up to do.

As I had I missed out on many of the developmental and social cues- I wasn't able to play around with relationships, I wore school uniforms (I didn't own a pair of jeans until I went to public school much less cool clothes) I had no idea about popular music, tv shows, or other culture.

I was atheletic, and that crowd endured me for talent but I was far to behind socially to be a part of the team.

I changed schools the next year, found a much better group of friends that more fit me. But -

Add in problematic behaviors that began (self injury), my family inability to make commitments, DV in home. Substance use in home, disassociative episodes, ptsd panic attacks, lgbt identity issues, frustration anger, and living with people other than my family including people I met on the Internet across country at 17 years old

I scared the families of my friends and hadn't quite been able to understand why they didn't want me around.

As an adult with lots of therapy, and lots of distance from my abusers (literally and figuratively) I see my socialization in the workplace / my day to day life as fairly normal. It's not this convoluted mysterymeatmess where I'm navigating 9000000 things at once.

It's interesting to read these narratives of others because on many levels I was far too busy surviving to know they existed until after the experiences had ended. I have spent time rebuilding them from memory and trying to learn from others to have commonality in social conversations, but also to understand some of the real value in what I missed.

Oh and the skills that came with those experiences. Turns out I needed to learn those too.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:41 AM on April 17, 2017 [7 favorites]

In some ways, I am still at Peak Horse thank you very much. My Breyer models sit on top of my office cabinet at home. Horses are the best.

I had not thought about "horse girl" as some sort of opposite of "popular" more as just my particular niche interest. Horses aside, I never thought of "popular" as a thing that had anything to do with me. I never thought giving up horses would do anything to make me popular. As it was, attention from "popular" people was to be avoided at any rate; they only noticed people like me as a prelude to saying something spiteful. I mostly didn't care because they were dull-minded and boring. When I felt bad was when I started to believe that my inability to conform to 6th and 7th grade beauty standards meant that I would never be in love or be in a relationship, that I'd either have to be alone forever or transform myself into a pretty asshole.

That feeling lingered all through high school, then I went to college, matured, and everything got better.

I get called "cool" sometimes now because I am a middle-aged lady and standards for middle-aged lady coolness are pretty low. It still makes me a little twitchy, because caring about coolness is a pitiful state to be in.
posted by emjaybee at 9:46 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Millipede, that wasn't mean. Misguided, naieve, possibly hurtful in effect, but not mean. Your desire to help does you credit.

Yep. meanness and cruelty require intent.

I would have to disagree with this. Meanness and cruelty are determined by the victims. Not everyone is 100% nice or 100% mean. Nice people do mean things unintentionally (as millipede did, not that I think you are a mean person). I think intent is better when used to determine whether a person is mean or cruel, not whether the action is.

Racism is mean and cruel. We don't allow the people performing racism to determine if the act is racist. That is up to the victim.
posted by LizBoBiz at 9:46 AM on April 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

Meanness and cruelty are determined by the victims.

There's a distinction between acts that cause harm, hurt, and pain to others, and acting with the purpose of causing harm, hurt, and pain to others.

If someone turns down a marriage proposal, for example, undoubtedly there will be hurt and pain to the proposer. That doesn't therefore make the act of turning down the proposal mean or cruel.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

If someone turns down a marriage proposal, for example, undoubtedly there will be hurt and pain to the proposer. That doesn't therefore make the act of turning down the proposal mean or cruel.

This is not a fair analogue to what LizBoBiz was saying, however.

When well-meaning white people blinded by white supremacy and a total lack of information vote for a bill that is packaged as "empower our PTA!!" but which actually means "defund other schools attended by PoC children", the fact that they are not aware that they are hurting children doesn't make their decision to hurt children un-cruel.

Maybe the difference here is actually between cruelty (often unthinking, sometimes accidental) and sadism.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:13 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I went to go see Heathers with a horsegirl. It was an early show and everyone else in the theater had come directly from Georgetown Visitation Prep so we had 5 years on the oldest of them. We were the only people laughing.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:19 PM on April 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

A term that's come up within the past 5 years or so is "try-hard" which encompasses that exactly - but I feel like it's just putting words to something that's been a cultural value for a while.

I remember that term from much further back; maybe it went away for a while but I don't think it is actually very new.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:48 PM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Try-hard was common in Australia in the 90s. It shifted into "striver" and after that I have no idea because I get all my slang from sci-fi now.
posted by harriet vane at 2:35 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


I've been at Peak Horse all my life, so you used-to-be-popular girls can all just be jealous. Even better, I'm starting to get into being an OMG.*

* Old Mule Gal

I may get another one, then I'll be working on Peak Mule!

(emjaybee--When I did endurance, I was a fool for Arabs. I'm old enough to really enjoy and love my Fox Trotter, but let me tell you, mules are a hoot!)
posted by BlueHorse at 8:38 PM on April 18, 2017

« Older The Soviets Made A Real Doomsday Device In The...   |   The art of constructing an entire fictional... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments