Girls getting real

Psychological glass ceiling of goodness holds them down

CorrespondentOctober 11, 2009 

  • Rachel Simmons

    The Penguin Press, 278 pages

Well-behaved women rarely make history. That nugget of bumper-sticker wisdom neatly summarizes "The Curse of the Good Girl." Author Rachel Simmons argues that cultural demands that girls be well-behaved limit their ability to succeed. She tries to help girls escape this curse, but unfortunately she hasn't completely escaped it herself

In the first half of her book Simmons charts the emotional landscape of "girl world." In order to appear good, girls suppress unpleasant emotions and avoid direct conflict; the result is the tangle of cliques, gossip and backbiting that so often dominates the lives of tweens. In her first book, "Odd Girl Out," Simmons characterized this as a "hidden culture of aggression."

She argues that the need to be perfect also leads girls to take constructive criticism as personal rejection, so teachers and coaches tone down their comments and girls miss the benefits of honest feedback. Instead of taking chances and learning from mistakes, they play it safe to avoid criticism.

The result, Simmons argues, is a "psychological glass ceiling." Girls do well enough in school, where their diligence and obedience are rewarded, but they never develop the ability to "self promote, negotiate and absorb feedback" necessary to succeed at work.

In the second half of the book, Simmons shows mothers how to help their daughters break the curse of the good girl and become "real girls" instead. She offers exercises to help girls understand and express their emotions, engage in healthy conflict and accept criticism.

This is probably useful advice, but it's compromised by Simmons' own good girl reluctance to hurt her readers' feelings. Although she insists that real girls need to accept "their real, flawed selves," she's quick to absolve them of blame. This good girl dishonesty requires a complete rejection of biological sex differences. Its improbable corollary is the assertion that the profound evolutionary forces that produced dramatic physical and temperamental differences between male and female animals, and fundamental physiological differences between men and women, somehow came to a screeching halt at the threshold of the human psyche.

Simmons' own book doesn't really support this extreme rejection of biology. She traces many girls' problems to their nature as "deeply relational creatures" who, when faced with a "choice ... between truth and friendship ... often choose friendship, even at the expense of their own needs and values." She doesn't ever really try to argue that this is a result of cultural or parental pressure, but she blithely assumes that a few well-designed exercises can eradicate it.

What we expect from girls has changed radically in recent years, but training them to become pseudo-boys is likely to prove no more satisfactory than the good girl model Simmons rejects.

Clyde Frazier teaches at Meredith College in Raleigh.

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