Anthropology and The Evolution of Mean Girls

By Amanda Grigg

Disclaimer: This post features references to the greatest film of our generation, Mean Girls. If you haven’t seen it what are you doing with your life go watch it right now. If you have, get in loser, we’re going blogging.

The fanciest British journal ever, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published a special issue this fall on female aggression and its conclusions have been making their way across the web. Some of the scholarship applies science to the “mean girl” phenomenon so of course journalists are all a flutter to see who can cover the findings in the most annoying way possible. Contenders include a LiveScience post titled, “Mean Girls: Women Evolved to be Catty?” and The New York Times coverage.

19TIER_SPAN-articleLargeMost of the coverage focuses on a single study from the special issue, conducted by Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma. To learn more about how women react to “rivals” the researchers placed two undergraduate women in a room together, ostensibly as part of a study on female friendship. Then they sent in another young woman wearing either khakis and a crew-neck shirt (Cady pre-Mean Girlification) or a short skirt, knee-high boots and a low-cut top (regulation hottie).

And of course, the researchers chose this model not because she fits a very particular cultural model of sexual attractiveness but because she “embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,” meaning a “low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.” It doesn’t hurt that she’s white, tall, blonde and has perfect teeth. Or maybe caveman were also particular about the hair color and orthodontia of their mates.

As researchers expected, reactions after the young woman left varied depending on the woman’s clothes. The jeans and polo shirt elicited little response. The “sexy” ensemble summoned their mean girl wrath:

They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One asked her in disgust, “What the [expletive] is that?”

…One student suggested that she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another said that her breasts “were about to pop out.”

To explain this author John Tierney turns to evolutionary forces. On the evolutionary incentives to be indirectly aggressive:

“women were not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners and more resources for their children. And now that most people live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men. In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many college campuses with more women than men.”

The piece seems to assume that evolution and primal mating calculi are the driving forces behind the forms female aggression takes, and at whom it is directed. Because science. To which I say, ugh.

Cady: 1 Evolutionary explanations for female aggression: 0

Of course Mean Girls protagonist Cady Heron, being the daughter of anthropologists, understands the role of culture in shaping female aggression. Throughout the film she notes the way things would be handled “in the animal world” but reminds herself, and the audience that “this was girl world.”  When Queen Bee Regina dangles her boyfriend (and Cady’s crush) Aaron in front of Cady to taunt her, Cady fantasizes about violently attacking her rival. But, because “this is girl world” she tells Aaron that his hair does in fact look sexy pushed back and continues to quietly plot (indirectly aggress) her revenge.

While I would be fine basing all of my repudiations of The Grey Lady on the wisdom of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, we can also turn to alternative coverage of the story. From io9

The problem with talking about humans, of course, is that we are not wild animals. As Stockley and Campbell are careful to point out, humans have been so influenced by culture that it’s very hard to tell if a lack of overt aggression among women is an evolutionary or cultural artifact. Because so many women are culturally trained to tamp down their aggressive urges, it’s impossible to call their behavior “natural.”

…or did they?

For their coverage, The Atlantic spoke with Agustin Fuentes, chair of the dept. of anthropology at Notre Dame, summarized here:

though this and other studies show how important physical appearance is to the way women respond to each other, there’s too much cultural baggage at play to say it all comes from our primate ancestors. The short-skirt-boots combo, for example, is already a “meaning-laden image,”

As Fuentes suggests, how women identify “competition” and thus who they direct aggression towards is fundamentally shaped by culture – cavewomen certainly didn’t wear knee high socks.

Though the researcher’s plant has the exact same “evolutionarily attractive” physical features in either outfit, she only elicits aggression in the short skirt which suggests that it’s not primal mating urges at work (or at least not just those urges). The outfit incites “indirect aggression” because it carries all sorts of cultural meanings, which women have been socialized to recognize and criticize for reasons beyond competition for mates.

The NYT piece also fails to note the similarities between male and female aggression. According to Fuentes girls and boys engage in equal amounts of direct aggression until adolescence, at which point it becomes socially unacceptable for girls to do so. And according to David Buss in the Atlantic, studies have suggested that adult men also engage in indirect aggression, especially once they reach the age at which it becomes socially unacceptable for them to engage in direct aggression.

Buss has found that men “bitch” about their rivals, too—they just tend to insult their lack of money or status, the things women traditionally have valued in mates, rather than their physical appearance.

Overlooking the use of the word “bitch” to describe something you’re trying to argue is gender neutral…it’s notable that men insult rivals for lack of money and status. Of course you could argue that cavewomen wanted mates with lots of buffalo-meat in the bank (I’m pretty sure that’s accurate anthropologically) but it seems absurd to try to explain this without acknowledging the social and economic context – particularly that women in recent history have relied entirely on men for financial support and equally troubling, that men have been judged primarily by their economic and professional accomplishments. It’s just as absurd to try to explain indirect aggression between women without at least considering the cultural context.

I’ll conclude with two quick insights from feminist theory. I don’t think either fully explain and they certainly don’t justify woman on woman hate but they do suggest that there is more to these interactions than biology. First, we might look to Sandra Bartky and Foucault, to understand how these responses are part of the process by which the cultural ideal of femininity is constructed. Insofar as that ideal demands the perfect balance of modesty and sexuality (walking the Madonna/whore line which this woman seemingly does not achieve), these responses serve to “discipline” the woman, encouraging her to fall in line. Second, à la Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs we might  consider that women are viewing the sexy plant not just as an abstract threat to their primal urge to defend mates, but as a physical manifestation of the constant pressure women are under to be thin, blonde, beautiful, and above all sexy. “What the [expletive] was that,” indeed.



This Is Your Brain on Books

By Seth Studer

neurolinguisticsEarlier this week, OnFiction published the results of a recent study on the biological effects of reading fiction. Researchers at Emory University used MRI scanners to track the brain activity of nineteen participants, all reading the same novel (Robert Harris’s historical thriller Pompeii). The researchers focused on “functional connectivity,” the degree to which activity in one region of the brain prompts or correlates with activity in another region. Basically, your brain’s ability to talk to itself. Participants’ brains were scanned while reading, immediately after reading, and five days after completing the novel. OnFiction described the results:

[The researchers] identified a number of brain networks that got stronger (i.e., the different regions became more closely associated) during the reading period. They also uncovered a network of brain regions that became more robust over the reading period but also appeared to persist after the participants had finished reading. Although this network got weaker over time after the reading period, the correlations between the brain regions in this network were still stronger than those observed prior to the reading period.

Conclusion? Surprise, reading makes you smarter! Or, reading helps your brain make neurological connections more briskly. Those non-adjacent neurons that light up while you’re reading Starship Troopers are potentially responsible for language and comprehension skills (kinda seems obvious, right?), but the researchers aren’t sure yet: the brain remains too dense and mysterious to definitively map. So some of those neurons might be responsible for something totally unrelated to language but related to fiction-processing. Which, for literary scholars, would be awesome to learn about.

Either way: when you read, your brain lights up.

The Emory study focuses on neurological responses to a single novel. But earlier this month, OnFiction reported another study that seemed to demonstrate a measurable difference between “literary fiction” and pulp: a difference many literary scholars spent thirty or more years dismissing. Two psychologists at the New School for Social Research gave readers a randomly assigned texts – some “highbrow,” others “lowbrow,” others nonfiction – and afterward measured the reader’s ability to empathize with others (aka “Theory of Mind”). Participants who read a highbrow text were consistently more empathetic than participants who read the lowbrow text.

In other words, if you need a ruthless hitman, don’t hire the one reading Anna Karenina.

The results of this study were published in Science and discussed on NPR’s All Things Considered. You can hear the audio clip or read the transcript here (I recommend listening to the audio, to experience the full effect of the Danielle Steele/Louise Erdrich pairing).

Gregory Burns, team leader of the first study, is a neuroscientist who has used neurological approaches to economics and sociology. Now he has his eyes on literary analysis. But lit scholars are traditionally wary of theories and methods that appear too positivist, empirical, or quantitative. (Celebrity scientists who condescend and prescribe cures for the humanities without really understanding what humanists actually do aren’t helping.) Much of this wariness comes from decades of disciplinary isolation: C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” Some of it comes from the academic turf wars and ideological disputes of the 1980s. In the late ’90s, something like Franco Moretti’s amazing Literary Lab would’ve had to been developed slowly and with care, so as not to cause too much of a ruckus. Add a dash of quantitative reasoning in one article, use a database in another, publish a groundbreaking polemic, ensure that you already have tenure and academic fame, and now you’re ready to be semi-empirical without overwhelming backlash!

Of course, so much has changed since the early 2000s. The so-called “Digital Humanities” (a term that seems to mean everything and nothing) has made statistics ‘n’ stuff more palatable to humanists, and the pioneering work of scholars like Nicholas Dames has made science less scary. Today, you can’t go to a literature conference now without a panel on cognitive science and another on economic theory. The “two cultures” are intermingling, beginning with the social sciences, which overlap with humanist concerns more explicitly than, say, physics does. But the studies featured on OnFiction this week should not be dismissed. They aren’t perfect, but their methodologies offer rigorous and robust approaches to literary experience.