The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, November 25, 2002  

The Enduring Power of Cliques in a Post-High-School World

First names only: Pam, Mary, Cheri, Debby, and Angel.

The five most powerful girls in my senior class. In that order. The five most powerful people in my high school during my senior year. Period.

And before them: Diane, Christine, Debby, Debbie, Carol, Jeanne, Ardith, Debbie, Sandy, and Fay. And after them: Denise, Shannon, and Jodi, and beyond those, the many girls I have forgotten and those much younger than me who I never knew, a chain that no doubt runs up to and including the present day.

All of these girls, during their final years of high school, were members in good, albeit fragile, standing of the most powerful female clique at W.C.S.

These girls could make you or break you: male or female; student, teacher, or administrator; even parent. Your “making” wasn’t always clear-cut. It took a considerable amount of self-confidence to conclude that you had been made and to act accordingly. And even after having been made, your position was perpetually and permanently precarious, and you knew it. They made certain you knew it. And the onus of maintaining one’s made status was on you, not the clique. Oh, but the breaking . . . that’s another story entirely. When they broke you, there was no doubt. Your day-to-day existence was rendered miserable, those you counted as friends abandoned you, humiliation and isolation defined your existence, and your ability to face each new day was shattered.

I was luckier than most of my classmates, female or male. I understood what was happening and I knew Pam, Mary, Cheri, Debby, and Angel had made me, and, even better, they made me during our junior high school years, if not earlier. And only once in four years of high school, and that for just a few months, did I slip.

They made me because I was good-looking, a jock, and a stud. No, not really. I became a jock and a stud later in life. Actually, Pam, Mary, Cheri, Debby, and Angel liked me because I was smart and because I was funny, but mostly because I was funny. And I was funny in a cutting, caustic, and nasty way that served their agenda and sustained their power. It is not without shame that I recall having fed them some of their meanest and most hurtful putdowns.

I loved these girls then, and I love them now, confident they have matured as least as much as I have. (I say at least as much because women are like that: the discussion here notwithstanding, pertaining as it does to the behavior of young girls, women, as a group, are and always will be more mature than men of similar age.) I’m disappointed that my last contact with any member of the group was dinner nearly ten years ago with Pam, who was as pretty, smart, and funny as ever, and probably more so. Oddly, I loved them even when I temporarily fell from grace during sophomore year.

What brought on this wave of nostalgia? A trip through the yearbooks? The yearbooks that we made and that only we could make -- that “we” being comprised of the girls’ top clique and the boys they endorsed. No. In fact, truth be told, I had to dig out my old yearbooks to remember the names of some of the school’s top dogs -- a misnomer if ever I saw one, given their uniformly above-average to well-above-average looks -- who preceded and anteceded my senior year.

What sparked these memories was, of all things, the recent treatment by the media, and in particular by the conservative punditburo, of former Vice President Al Gore.

“Girls Just Want to be Mean”

Watching the media’s unrelenting pig pile on Al Gore in recent weeks revived these teenage memories, many of them unpleasant, even painful. And as I thought about the matter and observed purportedly mature men -- mostly men anyway -- attack Gore with a ferocity I had not witnessed since I said good-bye to the Class of 1980, I thought also of “Girls Just Want to be Mean,” an article by Margaret Talbot in the February 24 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

I found Talbot’s essay spellbinding, fascinating, and extraordinarily accurate, at least with respect to my own high school years and much of what I had heard about kids today from friends and colleagues. I was surprised to see Talbot’s piece greeted in many quarters, the predictable and otherwise, with venomous hostility and transparent denial. In the article, which was based upon visits to several schools and extensive interviews with students and teachers, Talbot identifies the characteristic traits and behavioral patterns of the most selective girls’ cliques, the members of which she refers to as “Alpha Girls” and “Queen Bees.”

Alpha Girls, Talbot wrote, armed with intelligence and cunning, devote considerable time and energy to waging complicated, intricate, and highly personalized battles with other girls of similar age, the intent of which is to damage the other girls’ friendships, relationships, and reputations, all in an effort to enhance and sustain their popularity and status.

The Alphas accomplish their goals through a wide variety of means, including spreading rumors -- some true or at least based on truth, others wildly false -- using the power of information and the means of its distribution to assault their prey. With an uncanny ability to identify and exploit their victims’ weaknesses, their opponents’ most vulnerable Achilles’ heels, the Alphas mercilessly exclude from membership -- or “merely” reduce the social standing of -- those who don’t make the cut.

Membership in the group is uncompromisingly exclusive -- like the all-male Augusta National Club, obvious eagerness to join is certain to result in rejection -- and unquestioning loyalty to the group’s mores and agenda is required for a girl to maintain membership in good standing. Even the most petty offense -- wearing the wrong clothes on the wrong day, eating the wrong food in the cafeteria or even eating in the cafeteria at all, or joining the wrong extracurricular activity, to say nothing of speaking with, or worse, dating, the wrong boy -- is grounds for immediate expulsion.

Alliances, many of them temporary and fleeting, are a critical element of the Alphas’ strategy. When it suits them, Alphas will befriend a girl with whom they would not ordinarily be associated with the sole intent -- not always apparent to the newly befriended girl -- of inflicting revenge and retribution on their latest victim. Although Alphas can be mean and cruel, they aren’t physical; catfights aren’t their thing. Rather than engaging in physical altercations, they rely on words, insults, rumor, gossip, innuendo, and manipulation. And the Alphas use others who are not members of the clique, including girls aspiring to this lofty status, and boys, naturally the most popular boys whenever possible, in their campaigns to ruin the reputations of others they find threatening or morally, intellectually, socially, or physically superior.

(Allow me to interject here that my friends, Pam, Mary, Cheri, Debby, and Angel, weren’t nearly as vicious as the girls portrayed by Talbot. I’m sure it’s because they’re much better human beings, but the school was also too small for them to be that aggressive. After all, a clique with just two members cannot wield much power.)

The Betas and the Gammas

In her Times essay, Talbot identified two other groups in the social hierarchy of high school girls: the Betas and the Gammas.

The “Beta Girls,” or “Alpha Wannabees,” rank just below the Alpha Girls. Although the Betas generally earn better grades than the Alphas, demonstrate greater achievement in extra-curricular activities, and typically enjoy the favor of teachers and parents, most wish desperately to become Alphas. Their self-directed, usually independent, Alpha-directed membership drives can border on the obsessive and even the pathetic. Beyond their quest for membership in the school’s highest-ranking clique, the Betas’ most clearly identifiable motivation is fear of offending the Alphas, this out of a justifiable reluctance to become the group’s latest target.

Finally, according to Talbot, there are the “Gamma Girls,” girls who generally fit the standard characteristics of the familiar label, “Most Likely to Succeed.” These girls, while not the most popular or most successful girls in school, also happen to be among the most well adjusted. They view themselves and evaluate their peers on the basis of their accomplishments and personal qualities rather than their appearance or social standing; they are often the most consistently congenial girls in school, this despite their often depressed self-esteem; they form new friendships easily and end them without conflict or animosity; and their relationships are more circular than hierarchical in nature, a testament to their more advanced mental and emotional development. The Gammas differ from the Betas, however, in that the Gammas profess a complete lack of interest in becoming Alphas, and this lack of interest, sometimes affected by a few Betas, is genuine.

(My own observation, one not developed by Talbot, is that the Alphas, knowingly or not, tend to define themselves in opposition to the Gammas, those who are, in truth but in secret, the Alphas’ most dreaded adversaries. The Gammas, though, are not cognizant of this latent power and therefore are consigned to operating at an unwarranted disadvantage.)

The Mean Girls and the Media

Talbot did not examine or expound upon the social stratification typical of high school boys, this out of a belief that the mechanics of friendship and popularity among boys are far less complex and far less worthy of an anthropological investigation than those of girls. Although high school boys are not blameless in this regard, something of which I’m certain Talbot is aware, I believe her differentiation among the genders is valid. This certainly has been my experience, and, based upon what I have learned from family and friends with children of teen age, I have no reason to believe things have changed much in the last 20 years.

And yet our punditburo, dominated, and heavily so, by men -- I guess because we talk louder, are more interruptive, and are less likely to hear the words coming out of others’ mouths, thus making us more “opinionated” and “provocative” -- shares many of the attributes, features, and pathologies of girls’ high school cliques we learned from Talbot. The media has its Alphas, its Betas, and its Gammas, but the members of those castes are neither uniformly nor even predominantly female. There are in the American media female and male Alphas, female and male Betas, and female and male Gammas, and the hierarchical relationships among them are remarkably similar to the society Talbot described.

Starting from “the bottom” and working upward, it’s sadly obvious that despite the “Most Likely to Succeed” label, Gammas, male or female, do not fare well in the media’s highest echelons. To obtain one’s own column in a major or even mid-level American newspaper, or to win one’s own program on a major broadcast network or somewhere in the upper reaches of cable television’s double-digit land, requires something more than the affable, consensus-oriented, respected-but-not-feared personality that typifies the Gamma. I suspect this will never change.

In the American media, the Betas are legion. It is not without reason that Andrew Sullivan, himself one of the media’s most brazen self-propelled climbers and perhaps the industry’s most desperately scheming and self-promoting parvenu, maintains a “suck-up watch” for his would-be colleagues. Nor is it a coincidence that Sullivan in his insecurity casts “suck-up” aspersions on journalists far more talented than he.

Moreover, the prevalence of Betas, shackled by their Alpha aspirations and their fear of alienating their would be peers, has done considerable damage to the media and its transmission of timely, reliable, and accurate information to its readers and viewers.

Not long ago a newly found colleague, if I may call him that, lamented the harsh tone adopted by many webloggers. (He did not put this comment directly to me, but we both knew he well could have.) My response was that webloggers, some of whom I find smarter, more eloquent, and more perceptive than a sizable portion of their professional counterparts, do not share the punditburo’s status anxiety and do not join with the punditboro in enthusiastically casting aside whatever principles they might have in a craven effort to curry favor with their colleagues.

The media’s Betas, in their quest for higher professional status and a more public personal profile, fear nothing more than alienating the industry’s powerful Alphas. And for this reason, Betas hold back, mute their voices, temper their criticisms. Regularly. Consistently. Shamelessly. The Betas know who the gatekeepers are. They know that arguing too strongly against eliminating the estate tax would hurt their chances of appearing in The Wall Street Journal. They know that any hint of recognition that the Palestinians are human beings and not animals will result in their being permanently blackballed by the New Republic. And they know that expressing opposition to school vouchers or the privatization of Social Security will keep them from securing a plumb appointment in the Bush administration. The media consumer is poorly served by this rampant but well hidden journalistic deceit.

The Blogging of Sally Smith

To explore this further, let’s look at the case of Sally Smith, a hypothetical blogger. Smith, although a conservative Republican since college, nonetheless recently has become a vocal critic of at least two well-known conservatives, one a high-ranking member of the Bush administration, the other a prominent pundit.

The targets of Smith’s ire are Mitch Daniels, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, whom she has described several times as a “a prominent player in the recent Lillygate scandal,” and William Kristol, an occasional contributor to the Washington Post’s op-ed page who is best known as the editor of a still comparatively new Washington-based right-wing magazine called the Weekly Standard.

Smith’s fellow conservative bloggers have chastised her for deviating from the party line. They have called her “shrill” and “emotional,” as well as “unpatriotic” and “an apologist for Saddam Hussein,” the latter two labels coming despite the fact she hasn’t written about the situation in the Middle East since Election Day. Right-wing bloggers are shocked to see Daniels and Kristol, men who normally are treated by other conservatives with kid gloves if they are publicly criticized at all, subject to such scrutiny. Her professional counterparts in the media, a few of whom have considered asking her for a submission or two, are even more mystified. Why is Smith acting like this?, they ask. Why has she strayed from the fold? Is she addled with amateurism? Is she insane? Is she stupid? Or is she just a bitch?

All of these questions are misguided. The hypothetical Smith has a good job, separate and apart from, and wholly unrelated to, her politically oriented blogging project. And she has a full and happy life. It is actually because of this -- not despite this -- that Smith writes with incomparable fervor about Daniels and Kristol, along with a few other conservatives she finds woefully lacking in intelligence and perspicacity, because she believes passionately in the issues she addresses at her site. More important, because Smith has a good job and a full and happy life, one in which her comments on pundits, commentators, and journalists of varying authenticity have no bearing, she has no reason to fear offending Daniels or Kristol or any person, institution, business, or enterprise with which they are associated, affiliated, or related.

Although Smith is a brilliant thinker and an outstanding writer, she cares not one whit about ever being published in conservative magazines like the Weekly Standard (Kristol’s home base, though one it is obvious is the subject of little of his purportedly brilliant mind’s attention), Commentary, the Public Interest, or City Journal (to name just a few of the little magazines where Daniels, Kristol, Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, and their friends have influence). Nor does Smith expect or wish ever to appear on the op-ed pages of the New York Post, the Washington Times, or the Washington Post. However, as a conservative, Smith appreciates the Post’s increasingly evident enthusiasm for right-wing writers, both in the editorial section and even more obviously in the “Style” section -- that portion of the paper that used to be called “the Lady’s Page,” now home to gossip columnist Lloyd Grove and consummate television-watcher Howard Kurtz.

Smith is not bothered that Pat Buchanan might think she’s too much of an internationalist to warrant calling herself a conservative. Or that William F. Buckley Jr. objects to her criticism of Pope Pius XII. Or that Martin Peretz and William Safire are irritated by her favorable remarks about Israeli Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna.

Smith doesn’t care that the Heritage Foundation will never come calling. Or that as a judge in southern Vermont she effected a dozen lawful gay unions last year, acts that forever have rendered her persona non grata to the self-appointed high priests and Pharisees of First Things and National Review.

Smith has no desire to appear on the radio with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, or the incredible-shrinking Laura Ingraham. Nor does Smith worry that because she has a career and only one child that Ann Coulter, who has a career and no children, will question her femininity, disparage her devotion to her child’s well being because she works outside the home, and insinuate that Smith has mothered only one child because she killed the rest of her babies.

And that’s all because unlike her Alpha and Beta counterparts in the media, Smith doesn’t suck up to anyone. She never has and she never will. Her weblog’s readers know this, appreciate this, and respect her for it. On the other hand, the subjects of her recurring critiques, particularly Kristol, will kiss anyone’s ass, at least anyone, in the case of politicians, after whose name the notation “(R)” appears, and regarding Kristol’s friends in the media and at Washington “think tanks,” after whose names it can be assumed the notation would comfortably appear.

Some of Kristol’s readers know this, but many do not. And those who do not apparently are happy to wallow in their ignorance, pleased to view one of the Republican National Committee’s most reliable media mouthpieces as a brave and lonely voice against the alleged power, corruption, and nefarious influence of that straw man to end all straw men, the “liberal media.”

“We are the Alpha Girls!”

In stark contrast lie the Alpha Girls of the media, a clique dominated by preening and presumptuous conservatives. We are all familiar with their names, their visages, their biases, and their enlarged personas. About those that have become veritable celebrities -- all too many, all of them unworthy, I might add -- we know from various reports a great deal more: That Limbaugh, who lives like a fatted calf in Palm Beach, avoided military service during the Vietnam War because of a few troublesome boils on his butt; that the traditional-family-values-defining-and-mandating Schlessinger is divorced, cannot maintain civil relations with her mother or sister, was an unfaithful wife, and gleefully posed for nude photographs; and that Ingraham once shoved a running garden hose through the mail slot of the Georgetown home of a lover who spurned her unwanted attention, pulled a gun on yet another boyfriend who grew tired of her demented obsessions, and refused to let her claimed love for her openly gay brother stop her from engaging in some of the most homophobic and unethical activities of any journalist, real or imagined, of her generation.

The Alphas of the media are the big guys and gals, the heavy hitters, the swinging dicks of popular political commentary, the fever-pitched voices that have developed a supernatural ability to reduce complicated political issues to the distorted and misleading five-word sound bites they use in both their written work and in their seemingly endless television and radio appearances.

As with teenage Alphas, this is a self-perpetuating elite, one that selects and grooms its latest recruits, thus remaking themselves in their own image and likeness, aided by the largesse of cooperative foundations and ideological training camps. Worse, within this clique, nepotism is rampant and the evidence for this is abundant: Witness the otherwise inexplicable status of the unbearably mediocre Tucker Carlson, John Podhoretz, Lally Weymouth, and, of course, the aforementioned Kristol, among many others.

As for apostates, forget it. The few that have dared to break away from the Alphas -- David Brock comes immediately to mind -- are at best given the silent treatment, shunned in an almost officially sanctioned manner just a step shy of that accorded to Jehovah’s Witnesses who leave the fold. Beyond that, the media’s Alpha Girls, adopting the modes of action typical of snotty 16-year-old cheerleaders, subject their heretics to character assassination, scurrilous rumors, and campaigns of disinformatzia that would make the old K.G.B. blush. And, of course, the access of the disloyal to such lifelines -- or gravy trains or pig troughs, if you will -- as the Scaife Trusts and the Smith Richardson, Olin, Coors, Lilly, Murdoch, DeVos, and Bradley Foundations, is terminated post-haste. Only the cool kids get to party with that money!

Membership in the media’s Alpha-Girl clique varies depending upon the subject at hand and the intensity of the public’s interest in the issue, though some Alphas have achieved so much clout that their status is permanent and unquestionable: These are the Über Alphas, if you will. However, based upon the criteria established by Talbot, it’s evident that on the subject of Al Gore, these are the punditburo’s Alpha Girls:

Fred Barnes, Robert Bartley, Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, Maureen Dowd, Paul Gigot, Jonah Goldberg, Sean Hannity, Mickey Kaus, Michael Kelly, Morton Kondracke, Howard Kurtz, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, Peggy Noonan, Robert Novak, Frank Rich, William Safire, Andrew Sullivan, and George Will.

Not all of the Alpha Girls are conservatives and not all conservatives are anti-Gore Alpha Girls. Some right-wing pundits have managed somehow to avoid becoming mired in the Gore Obsession. Others, while critical of Gore in the specious and sniveling form preferred by the Alpha Girls, are merely Betas, still aspiring for acceptance by the nastiest, most vicious, and most self-absorbed coterie of scoundrels the American media has ever seen.

When the subject is Al Gore, each of the pundits named here, each member of this gaggle of giggling geese can be counted upon to reveal him- or herself to be the quintessential 17-year-old Alpha Girl: immature, insecure, dishonest, manipulative, selfish, developmentally stunted, and desperate for the approval and affection of others.

These are the players. These are the purveyors and shapers of opinion today. Enjoy, America, this is your media.

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