Programmed To Love
Teen girls are the media rage these days -- especially mean ones.
They've been featured on recent cover articles in The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek and are the stars in two best-selling books, "Queen Bees and Wannabes," by Rosalind Wiseman and "Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," by Rachel Simmons. The Washington Post calls nasty girls the "teen-age crisis of the moment." Oprah has done a show on the subject, and anxious parents have been flocking to seminars on what to do about the problem.
Wait a minute. Wasn't it only yesterday that the media was claiming that girls were not aggressive enough? Weren't they wilting Ophelias (so dubbed in the best-seller "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher) lacking in self-esteem, wimpy, unable to stand up for themselves? Didn't worried parents drag their daughters off to "self-esteem seminars" for a quick fix?
Have whiners become bullies and has girl culture turned on a dime?
No, it hasn't. Any female of any age who remembers sixth grade knows all about mean girls. Girls have not suddenly become snarling she-wolves, nor were they ever as deficient in self-esteem as the alarmist books said they were. As Newsweek's Barbara Kantrowitz notes, the mean girls books and articles "rely largely on anecdotal evidence rather than new social science to prove their point." And, of course, you can "prove" any point you want by selecting the right anecdotes.
New Book Claims Girls' Brains Don't Measure Up
But more worrisome than the tomes that say girls are mean or lacking in self-esteem is a new book by a best-selling author that says that girls' brains just don't measure up.
The new book that's selling briskly, "The Wonder of Girls" by Michael Gurian, makes this latter claim. Gurian believes that nature intends girls primarily for having and nurturing children, and that, if they put too much emphasis on achievement and careers, they will suffer lifelong misery.
In January, Gurian told an education conference in Canada that no more than 20 percent of girls can aspire to be engineers or architects, and that women lack natural technical ability. He proffers a theory he calls "bridge brains" to document this notion. He says that only girls with brains that work like boys' brains can understand spatial concepts such as math and sciences. He claims that the structure of most girls' minds make it too hard for them to grasp subjects like calculus and physics. News report on the Canadian conference said that teachers were "lining up" to buy his books.
Gurian, a family therapist, is only the latest addition to a dismal list of people who try to use brain "science" to make sweeping statements about human nature. Most of the time, such statements turn out to be dead wrong.
Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould described how 19th century scientists took skulls, packed them full of lead and weighed and measured them. They concluded that blacks and women had tiny, immature brains and were thus not capable of the higher intellectual functions achieved by white men.
Today, nobody argues that women have tiny brains that make them unfit to go to college. Women fill more college seats then men. But they are being told that their brains are suited primarily to motherhood and relationships and that their whole lives should be geared towards this end. Misery is the price to be paid if they deviate from this path. Gurian presents 30 studies that he says "prove" his thesis that women's brains are utterly different from men's.
But few scientists would agree with such ideas as "bridge brains." Neuropsychologist Doreen Kimura, a researcher based in British Columbia, told the Christian Science Monitor that there are indeed structural differences in the brains of some men and women, but "in the larger comparative context, the similarities between human males and females far outweigh the differences."
Debates over Brain Science Usually 'Prove' Boys Rule
Anyone familiar with the debates over brain science in the past few years may feel like he or she has been watching a ping-pong match. Various theories about brain function were announced with fanfare and then were rapidly abandoned. The left-brain/right-brain debate captured a lot of media attention. Which side of the brain was most important and which side did men and women use?
Of course, whichever side was in favor at the moment, men were said to be better at using it, as psychologist Carol Tavris pointed out in her groundbreaking book, "The Mismeasure of Woman."
Tavris notes that traditionally, the left side of the brain was thought to be the residence of intellect and reason, while the right side was the home of passion and criminality. "Guess which sex was thought to have left-brain intellectual superiority?" Tavris asks. "(Answer: males.)" But in the 1970s, science rediscovered the right brain, now suggesting it was the home of genius, creativity and imagination. Guess which sex was suddenly thought to have better right brains? Men, of course.
The science of the brain is a field where we are early pioneers, and we really don't know that much about this amazingly complex organ. The more we learn, the more we understand that we should not make sweeping generalizations. There is no such thing as a female "bridge brain." Women are not inherently unsuited for math. A recent and well-designed overview of thousands of studies finds that once you take the relatively few male math prodigies out of the mix, women actually outperform men in mathematics.
Girls are not so uniquely wired for nurture that they will be miserable if they delay marriage and children to order to pursue careers and education -- or if they don't marry. Major studies show that single women, especially those in good jobs, are high in self-esteem and happy with their lives. Nurture is critical to the lives of both men and women, but it is hardly the only ingredient of good mental health.
In fact, if we give girls the message that they must be so preoccupied with nurture that they should scale back their dreams and ambitions, we may be setting them up for future problems. Full-time homemakers, for example, report much higher levels of depression and anxiety than do working women. Women are not one-sided creatures who only need to love and relate to be happy. They also need to learn, to accomplish and to achieve, just as men aren't one-dimensional creatures who don't need relationships, but can be satisfied only with achievement.
What happens, one wonders, to the teachers who buy Michael Gurian's book? Will they pay less heed to the academic talents of their female students that to those of the boys, having bought the notion girls are suited mainly to nurture? And will parents discourage their daughters from high achievement, fearing that the price will be an unhappy life?
Pop psychology can be dismissed by scientists as silly, trivial, and inaccurate, but it can have real-life -- and unhappy -- consequences, especially for girls. Seminars about mean girls or about heightening self-esteem are probably harmless, maybe even helpful. But making sweeping statements about female brains is dangerous. As Carol Tavris warns, such misinformation "is silly science and it serves us badly."
Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.