Remember that scene in 2004’s "Mean Girls" when Tina Fey leads the gym full of high school girls in a raise-your-hand exercise and everyone realizes (in a movie ah-ha moment) that they have all been both victims and perpetrators of girl-on-girl meanness?
Sure, we’ve all laughed and smiled at that scene—unless you were in elementary school in 2004 and/or have never spent an afternoon watching TNT at any point in the past 10 years—but have you ever thought about the real-life version of that exercise, the your-life version?
(Yes, this article will be about girl-on-girl troubles. If you’re not into reading about that, here’s another Tina Fey gem, a sentence from her book "Bossypants," in which she describes a co-worker she once had at a Chicago YMCA: "Donna was an enigma wrapped in bacon wrapped in a crescent roll." You’re welcome.)
Recently, I was thinking about my own participation in the mean girls culture, playing both victim and perp, as I read an article by a woman who also was cast as a little of both in a very public, late 1990s scandal: "Shame and Survival" by Monica Lewinsky.
The essay ran in Vanity Fair’s June issue of this year and caused a bit of a stir. I had my own apprehensions before I read it.
The timing of her first major interview/public comment in 10 years so close to when Hillary Clinton might or might not announce her 2016 campaign seemed dodgy. I couldn’t remember ever actually hearing her speak, either, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Lewinsky talked about her good times and bad since 1998—her struggles to land a job and build a life, her experience at grad school in London and her mother’s fear that the 20-something would be "humiliated to death." She shared her thoughts on public shaming in the age of the Internet and our culture of rewarding the ones doing the shaming and her misgivings about the upcoming election season should Hillary run. She affirmed that the relationship was and had always been mutually consensual.
I was pleasantly surprised by a good read, one that added another, interesting voice on the affair. But one point Lewinsky made shocked me and brought the mean girl culture, pre-"Mean Girls," home.
She is no-holds-barred when it comes to indicting women, the feminist crowd in particular, for not offering a counter to her slut shaming that spanned from Kenneth Starr’s report with its detailed parsing through of her "intimate sexual activities" to the Fox News poll that asked Americans to chose between "average girl" and "young tramp looking for thrills" to describe the then-intern, all of which led to the modern-day hangover of her cultural position.
Lewinsky cites an article published in the New York Observer. It features the transcript of a roundtable discussion between 10 New York women, a kind of who’s who in the literary world of women and sex around the turn of the century.
It’s pretty disappointing. The worst of the cattiness is the proposal that instead of writing a book or fading out of the picture, Lewinsky can "rent out her mouth."
My turn as the target was far less crude. At the end of May, after all the spring semester grades were filed, we received our student evaluations. Most of mine were a breeze; only one was painful to read. This student accused me of treating the class like kindergarteners, of being an awful teacher and of nearly provoking her to speak with the head of the English Department multiple times.
I recognized this student’s handwriting and remembered the trouble we had had throughout the semester. I won’t go into defending myself or explaining the situation.
I’ll simply say that the student was rude to both female teachers who subbed for me during the semester but responded very differently to a male sub. In fact, by his report, she was attentive, participated and was never on her phone.
I wonder why she and I, out of ALL my students, had a problem.
On the other hand, I know very well why I have a problem with one fellow MFA student, which, unfortunately, brings us back to the kind of vulgar talk involved in the New York Observer discussion.
This woman, with whom I took both workshops last year, spends an inexplicable amount of time on uncomfortable and unnecessary sexual conversation. There was the whole bikini on a motorcycle episode, references to her male friends and gestures just as explicit as her language.
For the record, this is my objection: We are in a fully funded grad program, so do the work or allow someone else to have this opportunity. Don’t read you peers’ writing and then waste time in workshop with pointedly disrespectful comments ("I don’t give a f$#* about the name of the street.") or snooty mentions of typos. Be professional. Use the time.
On my end, I work extremely hard to be professional when it comes to her writing. I read her stories thoroughly and offer helpful comments in written feedback and in workshop discussion.
But, personally, I really drop the ball.
When I’m around my friends, especially those who have also had class with this woman, I am 100 percent a mean girl. I have things to say about her eyebrows and the way she talks. I have imitated her worst moments in class verbatim.
I’m not proud of it.
What it means is that while she frustrates everyone in a professional setting, she can also claim my personal time and bring out the cattiness in me.
I do believe I wouldn’t ever throw her under the bus professionally, but I have to recognize my "Burn Book"-worthy jokes to my friends, and I need to work on that.
Otherwise, I’m no better than Regina George or the New York supergals.
Because Charlie Barley Behringer could not simply disappear from Nooga.com, Mountain to Mountain will follow her and her mother's adventures, dispatch-style, in Morgantown as they tackle graduate school, first-year teaching and living in West by-God Virginia. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.