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Review of "Girlfighting"

By Lyn Mikel Brown
New York University Press, 2003
Review by Kevin M. Purday on Aug 30th 2005

The thesis of this book is that 'girlfighting' is a result of girls having to live in a patriarchal society where male authority is everything and femininity is trivialised. As a result, boys are subjects who view girls as objects and girls are persuaded to treat both themselves and other girls as objects of the male gaze. As part of the objectification process, girls classify one another as popular or unpopular, as nice or sluttish, as smart or nerdish or dim, as part of the in-crowd or as outsiders. Deprived of an equal role in society and conned into thinking that women do not contribute to Western culture, girls are condemned to fight one another to preserve some sort of status. In the lower grades of school the author maintains that girls fight to maintain that status largely within a girls' world while keeping one eye on the reactions of adults especially parents and teachers. At the top end of school, boys, always there previously but in a peripheral role, now assume more and more of a central role as girls fight less for pure status as such and more for romantic relationships with boyfriends and, ultimately, husbands.

The author is Associate Professor of Education and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Colby College in Waterford, Maine. Her viewpoint is strongly feminist and in the eyes of many readers this will be regarded as a strength. The book paints an unremittingly glum picture of life as a girl in the introduction and first five chapters ('Bad Girls, Bad Girls, Whatcha Gonna Do?'; 'Good Girls and Real Boys: Preparing the Ground in Early Childhood'; 'Playing It like a Girl: Later Childhood and Preadolescence'; 'Dancing through the Minefield: The Middle School Years'; and 'Patrolling the Borders: High School') before coming up with a series of positive suggestions in the final two chapters: 'From Girlfighting to Sisterhood' and 'This Book Is an Action'.

The book is based not only on the author's personal observations but also on an analysis of interviews with four hundred and twenty one girls undertaken as part of various psychological studies carried out between 1981 and 2000. There is a good bibliography, detailed endnotes and a workmanlike index. It has all the ingredients of an excellent book.

However, the constant feminist analysis provoked in the reviewer (yes, I am a man!) the feeling that the feminist perspective on 'girlfighting' does not exhaust all the possible angles and leaves one particular and important viewpoint all but untouched. The author shows that she is aware that she is very much working within a Western cultural perspective (p.131) and that the Western developed world has problems with its values (pp.123, 133, 172 and 191) but she does not take that last step of asking whether 'girlfighting' would stop if women achieved total parity with men, all the glass ceilings were removed, a woman was president of the U.S.A. and all the other feminist aims were achieved. This reviewer thinks that the answer would be 'no' quite simply because a lot of the problem of 'girlfighting' is due to the hyper-competitive nature of the capitalist society we live in. The author is conscious of the media -- films, television, books and comics -- and advertising and of the influence they have on young people. Yet, in the reviewer's opinion, she underestimates the capitalist society's influence on all young people -- girls and boys -- through the media and concentrates too exclusively on the patriarchal strand of influence. Competitiveness as a way of life is part and parcel of living in a capitalist society and competing with others or, at the very least, keeping up with others is the lifeblood which keeps the shop tills ringing. The author, in the last two chapters of the book, rightly urges girls and women to move from 'girlfighting' to 'sisterhood'. She is correct in identifying solidarity as a way of combating the problem but is it not social solidarity -- solidarity between everyone in a society whether male or female -- that we need? She is aware that Olweus-based anti-bullying programmes are of limited use but will 'sisterhood' be a solution to the "convoluted ways power is experienced, desired, expressed, and channelled in a sexist, racist, homophobic society" (p.200) without addressing the fact that in a capitalist society - such as that in the developed part of the Western world - we are all being manipulated by big business? This is linked to another problem alluded to but never overtly discussed by the author -- the problem of values. Western capitalist culture is so individualistic and so competitive and puts such a high value on wealth and appearance that the old-fashioned values of kindness, humility and compassion are in danger of disappearing. We all have to construct ourselves, our views and our values out of the raw material with which we are confronted during our years of childhood and adolescence. Yet, fewer and fewer children are presented with any values other than those of the ultra-competitive capitalist society. It is no wonder that in the U.K. the gap between the richest and the poorest is now as great as it was in the Victorian era. It is also no wonder that girls use any means at their disposal to claw their way to the top of the pile. In the reviewer's opinion, tackling 'girlfighting' simply as a feminist issue is like treating a symptom rather than the cause of an illness.

The book is a good contribution to the discussion so please, kind reader, do not be put off by the reviewer's reservations. Buy or borrow the book, read it and make up your own mind.


© 2005 Kevin M. Purday


Kevin Purday works at The Modern English School, Cairo, Egypt, and has a Master's degree in the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health from the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.

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