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In defense of feminist cliques


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At The New Inquiry, Alana Massey dissects the almost universal hostility towards the tight-knit groups of typically female friends known as cliques. Under the surface of this hostility she finds an anti-feminist suspicion of women who consort without men and who seek to exclude the outside world. Here’s an excerpt from Massey’s thought-provoking piece:

This moment illustrates one of the fundamental aspects of the mystique of cliques: outsiders are preoccupied with how the members of the clique perceive them, while clique members are not preoccupied with outsiders at all. This asymmetry of concern is at the core of how cliques are commonly understood, as inherently vicious and exclusionary. Cliques are the scapegoats for all behaviors perceived as negative by those outside of it. Parents blame cliques for replacing the family’s value systems with those of the peer group. Teachers blame them for elevating socializing above academic learning in school. Peers blame cliques for their lower self-esteem because they feel rejected by the clique, whether or not an outright rejection has occurred at all. While social scientists, according to the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, use clique to describe “a grouping of persons who interact with each other more regularly and intensely than others in the same setting,” laypeople tend to use it to describe a “social grouping of persons that exhibits a great deal of peer pressure on its members and is exclusive, based on superficial differences.”

I contend that the latter definition does not take into account the gendered nature of our social distaste for cliques. It’s no surprise that Gossip Girl, given its high school setting and exaggerated teen hierarchies, would offer an especially instructive moment demonstrating the social dynamics of the clique. What is surprising is that the moment consists of an exchange between two young men. Though the most common stories of sadistic hazing rituals on high school campuses feature young men’s sports teams, it is young women’s lunch tables that bear the brunt of most critiques of traumatizing adolescent social behaviors. In the public imaginary, cliques are almost universally characterized as not only female but as hyper-feminine, and they are held to demonstrate the absolute worst that young women have to offer: cattiness, exclusivity, cruelty, and ruthless social ambition …

“Clique-y” is the pejorative used to describe young women in a friend group that is perceived to be exclusionary. But this dismissal dehumanizes them and disregards their personal reasons for maintaining a tight-knit circle of friends. The suspicion aimed at cliques targets female intimacy, particularly when it shared between women with social capital. My friend and fellow writer Rachel Syme once noted, “Two powerful men being friends is an inevitability. Two powerful women being friends is a conspiracy.”

Women who orient their social lives around a select group are held in distrust, as if women’s duty is to cast their friendship nets widely and superficially. The expectation that they do so signals that a woman’s social life is not considered her own: it must be arranged for the benefit of the family, of strangers, anyone really besides herself.

Image via New Inquiry.