BOSTON - You have to hand it to Ally McBeal. In with the zeitgeist, out with the zeitgeist - and without ever gaining an ounce.
Oooh, was that mean? Well, never mind. Meanness is the point. In the final episode of the series, everybody's favorite neurotic was driven out of town by a pack of 10-year-old girls. Ally gave up her job, her friends, her apartment to rescue her daughter Maddie - product of a college egg donation - who was being tormented by classmates, otherwise known as the RMGs: the really mean girls.
Does this final twist of the plot sound like something lifted from the latest media mania? It should. For the past several months, mean girls have been everywhere. On best-seller lists, on talk shows, in magazines. We've been inundated with anxiety about Alpha females, queen bees, girl bullies and RMGs on a rampage of "relational aggression."
Three years ago, right after the Columbine killings, everyone seemed to be worried about the schoolboy culture. Now suddenly everyone seems to be in a panic about the schoolgirl culture.
That girls can be mean to each other has been designated "news." The power of girls to harm each other has been dourly and duly described as "on the increase." Ted Koppel even put this revelation on Nightline, proclaiming, "I am just fascinated by this."
Frankly, I doubt that this is news to any woman past fourth grade. Margaret Atwood described this girl world first and best in a her novel Cat's Eye. When Patricia O'Brien and I went to write about women's friendships in I Know Just What You Mean, we saw that "cliques are to girls as bullies are to boys." It's out there.
But maybe there's a new, or at least revisionist, subtext to this bad-girl news. See, girls aren't all empathic; they're also vicious. See, girls aren't victims; they're perpetrators. See, girls don't lose their voice at adolescence; it just turns to whisper campaigns. See, it isn't just boys who are aggressive; so are girls. Girls just do it with words instead of their fists.
Bingo. Boys and girls are the same. They may be awful, but they're equally awful. Case closed.
I think it's useful to hold the adolescent culture up to the adult light. But it's also useful to keep a little perspective.
When Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, told Oprah Winfrey that being shunned was "meaner" than getting hit, I wanted a time out. Wasn't Columbine worse than a cruel instant message?
More to the point, this isn't a contest. Sexism, if I remember Women's Studies 101, doesn't only affect women. Both genders are pushed into narrow, constricting roles. And bullies, of the male or female persuasion, are the gender police.
Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation, notes that girls turn on each other just as the boy-girl thing clicks in. They look at the world and find that their mothers and other women aren't really in charge. If they can't have power upward, she says ruefully, "they control downward." She adds, "It's the way boys are masculinized and the way girls are feminized that turns some of them into bullies."
Think of it as "informal initiation rites," says psychologist Carol Gilligan. In her new book, The Birth of Pleasure, Ms. Gilligan observes that boys begin this initiation as young as 5. "The cultural force driving this initiation surfaces in the often brutal teasing and shaming of boys who resist or do not fit cultural codes of masculinity."
At adolescence, she adds, girls "experience a similar initiation into womanhood ... manifest in the often vicious games of inclusion and exclusion." Ms. Gilligan has compared adolescent girls to "sheepdogs." When one moves out of the pack, they herd her back in line. Girls are forced to toe the line, especially in sexual behavior and appearance.
But why, she asks skeptically, has the old-girl culture come into the spotlight now? It's good to talk about what once felt shameful. But there's no proof that the old-girl culture is stronger today.
The "mean girls" media mania, says Ms. Gilligan, "gives it a feeling of inevitability. I don't think it is inevitable. "
As parents, we also have initiation rites when our children recycle our own experiences. It's only inevitable if we decide boys will be boys and girls will be girls. They will be, unless we step in and create new ways for them to feel strong and safe.
Ally McBeal's law firm always did seem like a bad high school. Now she ends her run by giving up to the RMGs. Too bad for her - and for her daughter- that she didn't stand and fight.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe whose column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.