Girls and Self Destruction

Every year after I teach Lord of the Flies–the classic novel about a bunch of young boys who crash on a tropical island and have to survive on their own–I point out to classes that the novel was inspired by the brutality of World War II, in which the author saw the worst aspects of humanity run amok.  In the novel, the boys form a mildly successful society for a while, with authority and chores, but it eventually degrades into savage anarchy and chaos–the author’s grim commentary on his lack of faith in human nature. 

Among other things, since the book is based on unchecked masculinity, I ask students to then consider how they think the book might have been different if a plane full of girls had crashed there, instead of boys.  Their answers always fall into two clearly demarcated camps.  The vast majority of boys, every year, say that stranded girls would just “have tea parties and paint each other’s toenails and stuff.”  Far more disturbing than this simple stereotyping, though, is what an even larger majority of girls almost always says: “No, they’d all kill each other by the end of the first day.” 

A pessimistic confession of their own burgeoning awareness of the social flaws inculcated into their gender?  Hardly.  That wouldn’t explain why most of the girls who say this tend to say it while laughing and smiling, almost proud of their prediction of massive failure.  They practically high five each other while saying it. 

How exactly have we apparently taught our young women to expect so little of themselves, in stark imitation of their masculine counterparts, to the point of competing with the boys for who can be the least successful?  I wonder if this is the dark side of social progress, a worrisome elephant in the room: As we have tried to encourage girls to be more assertive and involved in the public realm over the last few generations, have we inadvertently also magnified within them or brought to the front of their personalities those negative characteristics that we traditionally associate with young men–the violence, thoughtlessness, and nihilism that we’re warned about in Lord of the Flies?

2 comments on “Girls and Self Destruction

  1. Ask any private school dorm parent.

    Boys will fight and get over it and be best friends again by tomorrow morning. Proctoring the boys dorm is easy. Force them together under duress and you get “Band of Brothers” mentality, “Us against the World.”

    The girls dorm is not so simple. Girls forced together in a small, confined location (i.e. dorm) are more mean and nasty to each other, hold grudges and take far longer to relent. That’s if it’s an all-girls school. If it’s co-ed, then you’ve got THAT dynamic, too. If there is a discernible outside threat, girls will band together, but not for as long or as solidly as boys will.

    What’s the Chinese proverb “Hell is having more than one woman in the same house.”

    Sure, this could be stereotyping, but I think your girls may be on the right track. They wouldn’t kill each other the first day, but tensions and factions and divisions would linger much longer than in a similar group of boys.

    Look at the social dynamics of NYC high-society. High-society women are just as mean and petty as teenaged girls. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with current social progress.

  2. Curmudgeon, I can’t argue with any of that. If cultural changes in recent decades haven’t made girls more violent, have they perhaps made girls more tolerant of and willing to display that violent nature, which had previously been better controlled?

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