Watch an exerpt from PsychAlive’s exclusive interview with Dr. James Garbarino.
Dr. James Garbarino on traditional gender stereotypes.
Dr. James Garbarino: Some of this is sort of very traditional gender stereotyping sort of stuff. For example, an awful lot of male self-esteem is built on what you might call almost objective behavior. You may think I’m ugly, stupid, poor. But if I can throw a football 40 yards, that’s it. That’s sort of an objective skill. You can’t unilaterally say that you’re popular. You can’t unilaterally say that you’re pretty. You can’t unilaterally tap into most of the traditional feminine sources of esteem because they are fundamentally, intrinsically social.
And that gives other girls a sort of power over you that boys don’t have as much. Because a boy can go out and say, “Well, you know, but I can run 100 yards in 9 seconds.” A girl can’t say, “You may say I’m ugly, but I’m pretty.” Very hard to do that. And of course, parents may say, “Oh, dear, you’re really attractive,” and so on. But the evidence is very clear. It doesn’t count for much. Those subjective social dimensions require peer affirmation to a very large degree. It’s very difficult and very unusual to be able to transcend that.
Anybody who’s tried to raise a child as, sort of, “gender neutral” knows that so long as you have them under your complete cultural control, you may have the illusion of accomplishing that. But the minute they go out and somebody says, “No, girls don’t do this. Boys don’t do that” you may be back to ground zero.
So I think that there is that special dynamic that makes us worry about girls and cyber bullying because, among other things, research is very clear that when you depersonalize, it reduces the hold of pro-social norms. There’s a very nice study on boys and girls playing a violent video game. Some might say that’s redundant. If it’s a video game, it’s probably violent – in which they’re dropping bombs. So there’s an objective measure of how many bombs do you drop. They had boys and girls play it in two different conditions.
One was very personalized, where they sit close together, they have name tags, they chat about each other’s lives to get to know each other. Then they play the game. In the other condition, it’s depersonalized. No name tags, no conversations, sit far apart. It’s very impersonal. And the finding was that both boys and girls dropped more bombs in the impersonal condition when any norms about nice people don’t drop bombs on people subside.
But the gender difference actually reversed. That in the personalized condition, boys dropped more bombs than girls because everybody knows girls are not supposed to do that. But in the impersonal condition, girls dropped more bombs than boys. And the other thing that’s interesting is that girls were less accurate reporters of how many bombs they dropped. And the boys were more accurate. So the girls sort of knew it wasn’t nice as a girl to drop bombs on people so they fudged a bit on how many bombs they dropped. But actually, they dropped more.
So when you add that to the fact that research by Larry Avery and others have found that negative attribution bias, this attributing negative motivation on the other, is higher in girls than in boys. And he was finding that by age 12, aggressive images were higher in girls than boys, too. So all this has sort of been there and now you give an outlet through cyber-bullying, which is depersonalized and allows girls to say things that are very cleverly cruel, it’s no wonder it’s such a big deal. And boys tend to be more primitive in that sense. And a lot of the messages — even though the messages are being offered to girls –are that physical aggression is better than relational aggression.
And there’s a movie called Mean Girls. Probably a lot of people have seen it. It’s based on a book called Queen Bees and Wanna Bees. It’s a very interesting archetype because ostensibly what it’s about is how bad relational aggression is. And indeed, there’s this queen bee, who’s just a tyrant and tortures all these other girls. And at the end, her reign of terror is stopped and overthrown and she is defeated as the queen bee.
And at the very end of the movie, she is rehabilitated and becomes a good girl again. And the way they do that is she joins the girls’ lacrosse team. And in the last scene, she’s running down the field, whacking other girls with her lacrosse racquet and her peers sort of applaud that and congratulate her and the message is very clear: physical aggression is better than relational aggression. But aggression is still OK [laughs]. So there’s a lot of subtle stuff at work there on this.