Thursday, April 29, 2004

Art mirrors life: Alpha girls create indelible images
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune

April 29, 2004

The alpha girls are doing what they do best -- taking center stage. You know who I mean -- those impossibly perfect beings who mask ruthless domination with artificial sweetness. They seem to appear out of nowhere in middle school, instantly and infinitely confident and cool, as exotic as another species.

Just as the rest of us feel like a hopeless mess of hormones in the midst of an ever-changing and incomprehensible world, these creatures seem to understand and master whatever they do not actually control.

Almost 10 years ago, Mary Pipher's surprise best seller "Reviving Ophelia" (Ballantine Books, $14.95) described an almost-epidemic among teenage girls of anorexia, substance abuse, self-mutilation and depression. Inevitably, adult concerns that adolescent girls are fragile and even self-destructive have become manifest in our fictional representations of them, both as predators and victims, in comedies and in more serious films.

"Mean Girls," which opens Friday, and several other recent movies give families a great opportunity to examine the way social dynamics change in middle and high school, especially the way alpha girls recognize and exploit whatever ideals of fashion and behavior they happen to be able to pull off.

In the movies, "13 Going on 30" has a 7th grader longing to be one of the "Six Chicks" clique, moaning, "I don't want to be original -- I want to be cool!" In Disney's "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," Lindsay Lohan plays a high school sophomore who clashes with an alpha princess over who will get the lead role in the school musical.

Last year's harrowing "thirteen," co-scripted by then-13-year-old Nikki Reed based on her own experiences, had Reed herself playing the middle school alpha girl who leads the main character into sex, drugs and piercings.

Even those proto-alpha girls, Cinderella's mean stepsisters, are still trying to keep her away from the prince in the most recent filmland version of the story, "Ella Enchanted."

We also see alpha girl behavior in reality TV and the real-life adult world. On television, we have the "Protege Corp." women of "The Apprentice"; we see women on the extreme makeover shows trying to be molded into idealized alpha images. In the gossip columns, Paris Hilton reigns. And let's not forget Martha Stewart, who made a career out of the alpha girl's most important technique for domination: appearing to be supportive and helpful while making everyone else feel clumsy and inadequate.

The source for "Mean Girls," written by "Saturday Night Live" head writer Tina Fey, is Rosalind Wiseman's non-fiction best seller about alpha girls, "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence" (Three Rivers Press, $14.95).

Set in Evanston

In the movie, Fey gives us the aptly named Regina and her two sidekicks who rule Evanston's fictional North Shore High School as "The Plastics." Newcomer Cady (Lindsay Lohan) arrives from Africa, where she had been home-schooled by her zoologist parents.

Since everything about the high school experience is new to her, Cady brings an outsider's perspective to the social interactions of the suburban teenager, drawing a social network map based on the seating selections in the school cafeteria. She compares the Old Orchard shopping mall to a watering hole in the savanna, a site for the various species to observe and interact with each other.

The approach that had always worked for Cady in the past -- assuming that everyone is sincere and means what they say -- turns out to be inadequate.

Even dressing up for Halloween is more complicated than she thought. Regina's social control is so complete that when she ends up wearing a torn blouse as the result of a prank, everyone instantly copies it as the latest fashion.

No wonder Cady is happiest in math class, where everything follows the rules. She doesn't even make sense to herself anymore, admitting, "I could hate [Regina] but I still wanted her to like me."

The movie illustrates Wiseman's descriptions of the way alpha girls establish their power, usually supported by a "banker" sidekick who deals in information and carries messages. Wiseman says she hopes the film will help girls and boys understand that they have choices.

"It shows what girls do. It may make people uncomfortable to see it, but the message is a positive one," she said in a phone interview. "I like it when the teacher explains that saying someone is fat does not make you thinner."

Wiseman says teenage girls will not tell someone who has made them feel angry or hurt how they feel. They use indirection. They tell their friends, inciting gossip and backstabbing. Or they sugarcoat their hostility with poisonous put-downs, pretending to be friends in public but creating "burn books" filled with insults in private. New technologies like three-way calling, e-mail, instant messages and cell phones become weapons of mass destruction of fragile self-esteem.

Based on facts

Wiseman's readers tell her they vividly recall their own experiences. "Adult women still remember the names of the girls who made them feel bad," she said. "One woman who was in her 80s told me, with tears in her eyes, about getting a letter signed by all the other girls in school that they did not want her coming back."

She also hears from former alpha girls: "They write to tell me that my book inspired them to send apologies for behavior they have felt bad about for years."

In their dealings with adolescent girls, it is important for teachers and students to acknowledge two core realities explicitly. First, young women become alpha girls not because they are confident but because they are insecure. Their behavior is exaggerated to cover up their lack of certainty. Wiseman says they always "over-hate or over-love." Their domination is defensive first, offensive second.

Amanda Potts, a teacher at The Field School, a Washington, D.C., private school for 7th-12th graders, said in an interview, "The adolescent sense of `everyone's looking at me' promotes the need to be on top, to get attention by making sure no one else is getting it. The goal in middle school is to hide, and if you can't hide, be on top. So they think they have to attack first."

Second, the techniques alpha girls use work best on the young, vulnerable and confused. This is why early teen alpha-girl experiences remain so vivid for so many of us -- and for screenwriters. But teenagers need to know that while conformity and indirection may go far in high school, it is individuality and the ability to communicate directly that lead to success later on.

Adults can help teenagers notice that after a strong start, none of the women on "The Apprentice" made it to the final episode. Paris Hilton is more punchline than role model. Even apart from her legal problems, Martha Stewart has attracted as much criticism as praise for her "domestic dominatrix" persona.

Help beyond parents

Teenagers usually don't like to talk to their parents about these issues. So movies, television shows, Wiseman's book and even the gossip columns can be a significant tool in showing them how to recognize -- and prevent -- alpha girl behavior in themselves and others.

Wiseman's Empower Program is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that conducts workshops for schools and students to address these issues explicitly and provide tools for more constructive interactions. Teachers play a crucial role.

"You have to be conscious of who the alpha girls are and find ways for them to interact beyond the clothes and the giddiness that they seem to prefer," says Potts, who outside the classroom is academic adviser to the Field School's extracurricular book discussion club. "We try to create social and academic situations where cooperation gets them further than competition."

Potts says teachers can help kids understand that the standards for status that the alpha girls try to establish are not the way to achieve popularity and success.

"I praise the craziness I see to let them know that it is their offbeat individuality that makes them so wonderful," she says.

Once they learn to celebrate that in themselves and in each other, the "mean girl" power of the alpha girls will disappear faster than pizza at a slumber party

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Interview with Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, is very small, with sparkling eyes that seem to notice everything in case there might be something she might want to use in a book someday. Ella Enchanted was her first attempt to write a chapter book, after several picture books for younger children were turned down by publishers. “I was very much a rejected author. When a picture book I wrote was turned down and the editor asked me to expand it, I learned that I was really a novelist.”

Then her first novel began with the idea of the curse of obedience, which added a lot of life and texture to the traditional story of Cinderella. It also made the story much more appealing to modern readers, who are so used to the idea of independent women with a range of choices that they can find it hard to identify with a Cinderella who would allow herself to be commanded by her mean stepmother and stepsisters.

Once Ms. Levine had the idea of the curse, she had to develop a heroine who would respond to it. “Ella is braver than I am,” she told me. “I developed her to fit what I needed when I developed the curse of obedience, someone who could respond to it.” Because Ella must follow direct orders, she quickly learns to think very carefully about language. And so did Ms. Levine. “As a writer I had to be very careful about the commands I gave her. If someone ordered her to ‘be a good person’ it would be overly vague.” Playing with the language was part of what made writing about Ella fun. Every time Ella was ordered to do something, she looked for ways to bend the meaning of the words to give her as much power to decide how she would obey as possible. That may be why Ella became so interested in studying other languages, and so good at it.

Ms. Levine also enjoyed the way Ella’s thinking about the meaning of the words she said and heard helped her to make jokes, one of her qualities most admired by the more serious Prince Char. Ms. Levine said that she wished she could be as naturally funny as Ella. “Her humor comes from my mother and my husband. When I am writing and something funny comes out, I am the happiest person in the world.”

As she wrote the book, Ms. Levine found that it did not always work the way she thought it would. She solved one problem in telling the story with a little magic of her own. Because the story is told by Ella, and we can only find out what she sees, Ms. Levine had to find a way for Ella and the reader to learn about what was going on with the other characters when Ella was not there. That’s how she came up with the idea for the magical book. The problem of undoing the curse was almost as much of a challenge for her as it was for Ella. She took the advice of a writer friend to “overwrite it” -- just to write and write and write until the right answer appeared.

Ms. Levine has enjoyed hearing from readers, including one class that turned the book into an opera. One letter was from a girl who said that she does not resent doing chores as much any more because she recognizes that it is a choice. But Ms. Levine’s favorite letters are those that say “I was never a reader before, but now that I have read this book, I want to read more.”

Her next project will give us another new look at a famous character. This time it will be about Peter Pan’s fairy friend Tinkerbell and her world.

As Ms. Levine looks back on her first book, almost 10 years later, she is proudest of the concept of “big magic” and “small magic.” “I needed Ella to have a friend but I did not want the friend to be too powerful. And I wanted people to think about the way that all of us have so much big power that we don’t think about.” Clearly, both she and Ella understand that humor can be very big power. When I asked her to sign a copy of her book for my daughter, she wrote, “To Rachel – Don’t be TOO obedient!” For a moment, I thought about not giving it to Rachel. After all, what mother wants her daughter to disobey? But then I decided that it was a very good message, just like the story itself. And Rachel and I are both looking forward to big magic in Ms. Levine’s next book.