I’ve been thinking about the girls of this world by Ali Benjamin
I’ve been thinking about the girls of this world.
I’ve been thinking, for example, about a moment, not so long ago: it happened during one of those “What To Expect Now That Your Child’s in Middle School” programs — the sort of occasion where parents and teachers talk anxiously about how to guide kids through these painful, beautiful, impossible years. From the back of the room, a father raised his hand. He glanced around tentatively. “How do you deal with…” he began, then frowned. When he continued, his voice was a little harder. “…with mean girls? You know, queen bees?”
The other parents nodded, leaned in, listened closely. The implication was clear, as was the “correct” answer: girls can be dangerous. There must be consequences for such dangerous girls.
I’d probably have joined in the nodding, the consequence-seeking, without second thought, but for this: I’d recently been reading my own middle school diary. When I discovered the diary (spiral notebook, blue cover, the words “DON’T READ” scrawled across the front) some three decades after I wrote it, I was giddy. I started flipping through the pages, eager to reunite with my 12-year-old self. I knew exactly who I’d find behind all that chicken-scratch handwriting, too: a nice kid. Nerdy, awkward, messy, distracted…definitely in over her head in this new world of adolescence, but ultimately kind.
Except….that’s not what I found. To the contrary, the pages are filled with nasty jabs and endless complaints — about my peers, my teachers, my family. I describe interactions with classmates that literally make me cringe today. In over 100 pages of writing, I barely say a genuinely kind word about anyone beyond (a) unicorns, (b) E.T., and (c) whichever kid I happened to have a crush on at the time.
Worst of all, I appear to have been interested — obsessed, actually — in exactly one thing: where I stood in the middle school hierarchy. At one point, I write, “I am becoming POPULAR!!!!!!!! From now on I play to win.” This was the 1980s, mind you — decades before Omarosa or Make it Work, or any of the Real Housewives from Anywhere. Yet somehow I sound unnervingly like a reality TV star making a grand entrance, declaring defiantly that “I’m not here to make friends.”
From now on, I play to win. What exactly was I playing, I wonder? What did I think I could win? And what might that anxious dad from the middle school meeting, or any of the equally anxious, nodding parents, have said about my 12-year-old self?
Was it consequences, above all, that I lacked? Maybe. But I’m not so sure. Because between all that lashing out at others, I see glimpses of deep confusion, real loneliness, and a profound sense of powerlessness.
I’m so dumb, I’ve written at one point. I’m lost, at another. At others: My so-called friends kept teasing me…they wouldn’t stop…I wish I had a best friend I could share things with…I feel like I’m a joke and everyone else is the joker….Sorry diary, I’m dripping tears on you.
Through my adult eyes, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening: I didn’t much like myself, didn’t have any faith in my own power, so I handed over all my self-worth to some external measure (i.e. becoming “POPULAR!!!!,”). Desperate insecurity and desperation to be liked are flip sides of the same coin.
(And in fairness to 12-year-old me: why would I assume that I’d ever achieve any real power? At that time, in the early 80s, women comprised just 2% of the U.S. Senate, 4.8% the U.S. House of Representatives, 0% of governors, and 0% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There was not a single field in which women comprised the majority of managers — not even in majority-women fields like education or healthcare. Society’s made plenty of gains since then, but we’ve got a long, long way to go. I won’t spend much time cataloging the data; if you’re interested, you can start here or here or here or here or here or here or here or here, then you can keep going forever, and yes: all of this is made much, much worse by racism, homophobia, transphobia, and religious bigotry).
So here’s the thing I’ve been wondering lately: what if girls believed, deep down, they had real power? I’m not talking about the power that comes with popularity, or even with getting straight-As in school. I’m talking long-term, authentic power: the power to control their own stories, to have real, tangible influence on the world. Truly confident people, after all, don’t need to put others down.
In the book, seventh grader Caitlyn Breen has moved, against her will, to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. In her old school, Caitlyn had covered up her vast insecurities with some mean-girl behavior; turning someone else into an outcast was her way of reassuring herself that she wasn’t one. On the first day at her new school, Caitlyn lifts her chin, tries to harden her insides, and reminds herself that she’ll be okay; after all, she knows the “rules” of social hierarchy.
But this new school is…different. Classes are held in a falling-down mansion with a haunted house vibe. Older students are expected to care for both goats and kindergarteners. There are just ten other kids in the entire seventh grade; most have known each other forever. These kids have grown so comfortable with one another that they don’t bother trying to hide the quirkiest parts of themselves. And not one of them seems to know the social rules that Caitlyn takes as gospel. Worst of all, they only want to talk about some kid named Paulie Fink, the former class prankster. Paulie hasn’t returned for seventh grade, and nobody knows why. But they figure out pretty quickly: Caitlyn is no Paulie Fink.
It’s only when the class decides to stage a fake reality TV show to find their “new” Paulie— and they place Caitlyn in charge — that she gets her first dose of real power. She doesn’t always wield that power wisely. She makes mistakes. Then she learns from them. As she keeps trying, she begins discover her own authentic power and voice. The more confident she grows, the more she connects — meaningfully — with the people around her and the more she begins to enjoy herself. By the book’s end, Caitlyn’s world is both richer and a heck of a lot more fun.
In The Next Great Paulie Fink, I gave to Caitlyn what I wish I’d had myself at that age. It’s the same thing I’d give to all girls if I could: a deep sense of their own self-worth, of control over their worlds, as well as a heavy dose of good ol’ un-self-conscious fun. With those things, perhaps, they’ll turn on each other a little less.
So, let’s give girls real power, shall we? Let’s imagine, then create, a world in which all girls are free to wield their power in meaningful, constructive, and long-term ways.
Personally, I can’t wait to see what they do with it.
Ali Benjamin is a New York Times bestselling author and National Book Award Finalist for The Thing About Jellyfish, and the co-writer for HIV-positive teen Paige Rawl’s coming-of-age memoir Positive as well as Tim Howard’s national bestseller The Keeper. She lives near Williamstown, Massachusetts.