Girl talk

Queen Bees and Wannabes

Rosalind Wiseman <em>Piatkus, 346pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0749923644

To read Queen Bees and Wannabes is to be plunged back into the dark state of perpetual watchfulness that is teenage girlhood. At 15, just walking into a room of so-called friends was an ordeal: would there be a sudden silence or an odd look? Worse still, a stifled snigger? By such signs you knew at once whether you were still alive and viable, or whether you had become an untouchable, to be banished to the far end of the homework table. If you were lucky enough to be greeted with a smile, or at least the right kind of nod, then you knew it was OK, at least for one more day. Now your urgent job was to find a sacrificial lamb, someone you could offer up instead who needed to be excluded from the group. Only by pushing another girl out could you be sure of staying in.

Rosalind Wiseman has managed to capture the churning ghastliness of it all brilliantly. In what is essentially a self-help book (the subtitle is "helping your daughter survive cliques, gossip, boyfriends and other realities of adolescence"), she is far more plausible on the problems than she is on possible solutions. In good old women's magazine style, she has identified several broad stereotypes. There is the "Queen Bee", the pretty, scary girl who can make your life hell with a mere flick of an eyelash. She is surrounded by "the Sidekick", who is neither as pretty nor as powerful, "the Banker", who hoards gossip as currency, and "the Pleaser", who is spaniel-y and a bit sad. Then there is "the Floater", who is actually rather cool, and "the Target", who most definitely is not.

By speaking to hundreds of American adolescents and weaving their testimony into her text, Wiseman builds up a frighteningly resonant reminder of life in the seventh grade (that's the third year to you and me). Here are the tiny, vicious dramas of missing invitations, slammed locker doors, the wrong hair, anonymous notes, wretched hints and the aching agony of feeling that you have been excluded from the party (though exactly which party, no one can ever tell you). The only thing Wiseman could have written more about is periods, with their potential to deliver a whole new shrieking register of shame and social humiliation.

What Wiseman forgets, or does not know yet (she is only 30-ish), is that the perplexities of girlhood carry on through middle age and parenthood, and probably right through to the retirement home and the geriatric hospital bed. What she identifies as "the boy mystery" is quite likely still to be going strong even after you've married one and given birth to a couple of others. Neither does the pain of falling out with a good friend stop just because you no longer have any use for Clearasil. The Queen Bees, Bankers and Pleasers in your life may not be running their hand down your spine to see whether you're wearing a bra yet, but they have their own ways of keeping tabs on how you're doing. What Wiseman describes (in a lazy borrowing from John Gray's "Mars and Venus" conceit) as "Girl World" is actually nearer than she thinks.

The untranslated American references in the book do sometimes cause a jolt. Being told that some girls "will have started dating in junior high" is puzzling to a British reader. (Does that make the girls fast or square, and what precisely is a "date", anyway?) Likewise, the intricacies of prom night are probably too culturally specific to be mapped easily on to memories of the school disco or church barn dance. And then there is the problem of these poor girls' names. Just the fact of being landed with the handle "Lupe", "Brianna", "Brett", "Cherise" or "Belle" would, one feels, induce what Wiseman terms "Really Mean Girl" behaviour in even the sweetest of souls.

I may not be much judge, but I can't imagine that any of Wiseman's suggested tactics for keeping communication open between teenage girls and their parents would be much cop. The thought of your mother sidling up and announcing, "Boys can be really confusing, especially as they're usually as unsure as girls" or "Now let's talk about what I need you to understand about sexually responsible decision-making" instantly makes lifelong virginity seem like the only dignified option. Perhaps that's the point.

Where Wiseman's book does score, however, is in qualifying the increasingly overused generalisation that teenage girlhood, especially in comparison with boyhood, is a blessed state of driving achievement, culminating in perfect As, a place in the National Youth Orchestra and a mild bout of anorexia. Wiseman reminds us that female adolescence is, in fact, nasty, brutal and nothing like short enough.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Wrong War