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'Mean Girls' and Beyond: Is Social Media Killing Female Friendships?

A recent advice column featured a letter from a reader feeling isolated in her female friendship group. Despite the trend for soft-focus sisterhood, her story is sadly familiar.

Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

In this week’s “Dear Polly” advice column in The Cut, a 27-year-old woman writes about how she feels excluded and rejected by a group of longtime girlfriends—not in person so much as in their online communications.

They don’t “like” her Facebook posts and photos with the same enthusiasm as frequency as they do each other’s. Her phone buzzes constantly with their gushing group WhatsApp chats, yet whenever she chimes in they ignore her contributions.

“It sounds like a high school problem,” she writes, “but I pick up bad vibes and feel like they don’t like me...It seems unhealthy. Especially bad since they are old friends.”

And yes, it does sound like a high school problem--like a scene from a Mean Girls sequel set in our digital times. But the dynamics of female friend groups and odd-girl-out syndrome don’t disappear after high school, and communicating in group texts or through messaging apps has added new layers of complexity to traditional female friendship dynamics.

Friendships between women have always come with unspoken understandings and obligations.

Navigating these friendship codes was challenging enough before we started signaling BFF status by how many smiling-face-with-heart-eyes emoji we use when commenting on a friend’s Instagram post. Not to mention all the potential for misreading tone in an instant message or a group text, and the fear of missing out by disengaging that plagues so many teens and young women.

“There are ways that teen girls and women hierarchize friendship, and one of the ways teen girls do this now is by not liking someone else’s post in a passive-aggressive way,” said Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl (her next book, Enough As She Is, is due out next March). “Not only do girls and women have intimate friendships but they spend a lot of time overthinking things. A lot of people who parent and teach adolescents don’t honor these new norms, so they sort of just guffaw when they really shouldn’t.”

But even the 27-year-old woman who wrote to Polly and described herself as having a “successful career as a scientist” is not immune to feeling less-than and excluded in her friends’ group WhatsApp messages.

Polly, in her response, readily admits that she’s not totally immune to it either, though she feels less excluded than annoyed by the incessant, self-aggrandizing messages from friends in group texts.

“I get group texts from truly great friends of mine that say things like ‘Cherry tomatoes from the garden!’ and ‘Another amazing hike in Fiji!!’ and sometimes it’s really nice and I love it,” she writes. “But other times, I want these globetrotting Martha Stewarts to stop interrupting my brainwaves with their incessant own-horn-tooting updates.”

She tells the young woman seeking her advice that “the biggest mistake you can make is to define [your friends’ online behavior] as other people rejecting you. Because, just admit it: The ambivalence is mutual.”

This seems true, to a degree, but it sort of undercuts that she may have plenty good reason to feel rejected.

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The characters in Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters are largely clichés: Vix, the middle-class, average-looking girl with a level head on her shoulders, and Caitlin, the pretty rich girl who is selfish and impetuous.

Yet it was irresistible to me at the age of 16, this story of two girls discovering their sexuality and having summer romances, though with flashes of jealousy and betrayal to round out the darker side of female friendship.

Jane Austen remains eternally instructive. Her world of merry balls and suppers was deceptively genteel. There were so many pressures on her female characters to find a husband and marry rich, and women were always competing with each other.

Now, it’s not just people we’re close with who have to confront us with those pressures, but the 500 people you follow on Instagram, many of whom are only acquaintances, and even that’s a generous description.

The biggest fantasy in Sex and the City wasn’t their Manolos and successful jobs, but how they all remained such close friends and saw each other at the diner to talk about anything and everything, as if they were still in high school: it played into the fantasy that you have such a core group of friends and all the time in the world to catch up with them, and none of you has moved away, or is too busy, or crushed with other life demands.

If Sex and The City told us that female friendships could be sustaining, Girls told us they could also be fractured and poisonous. The key scenes towards the end of the show revealed the friendship group breaking apart, and this was seen as ultimately good and healthy for all.

I’m in a group chat with seven other women in their early 30s, some of us friends from high school and others through more random connections, and at least one woman has expressed to some of us that she feels like others don’t like her. They’ll rant to each other for thirty minutes on a random Wednesday and then she’ll pipe in and a the others will absent themselves from the conversation.

We get together once a month in person, and even then she always feels like two of the more outspoken women in our circle of friends--the Queen Bees, really--don’t pay attention to her. And she’s not just paranoid: the Queen Bees don’t particularly like her, and others who are genuinely close friends with them aren’t sure how to play middleman.

We tell her she doesn’t need to be best friends with them when she counts at least two women in the group as her closest friends. Yet I sympathize with her, because it’s shitty to realize your supposed friends aren’t really your friends, and to agonize over what it is about you that they don’t like.

We’re adults now (some in this insufferable group chat have babies and work part-time; some work full-time and are single) and we’re less inclined to force friendships. But that’s just the problem: the group texts facilitates forced friendships even more than when we meet in person as a group, because the group text doesn’t quit.

It dings at 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM; on weekdays and weekends. And when someone announces something exciting, they’re met with the requisite obsequious response from everyone else (“OMG!!!!!!!!!” “Amazing!!!!” “You look so beautiful!!”). And while it’s mostly genuine, it can’t all be as genuine as our overzealous responses make it seem.

Sometimes one of us gets the news when we’re tearing our hair out on a deadline, or when covered in child vomit. And if our praise is delayed, we really go overboard with the ra-ra stuff--party-hat and star-bursting emoji and all-caps enthusiasm--to make up for our late response.

Some of us feel more pressure to keep up with the group than others, but the fact that we feel pressure at all speaks to the stresses of these modern methods of communicating.

Meriden, a 29-year-old women from Columbus, Ohio, said she and a group of old friends had a dramatic fallout with one of them over a group chat. She described the woman as “responding in awkward ways” to someone announcing that her grandfather had passed away, for example, so the others responded to her less and less.

She wasn’t as close with the others as they were with each other, but she was particularly awkward on the group text than she was when they hung out in person. “One day she flipped out and quit the group text, and said she couldn’t handle the negativity in her life,” Meriden told me.

Now, she said, one of her best friends who is “very sensitive” will get upset when someone in the group doesn’t immediately respond to her messages. It’s almost as if she fears she’s becoming like the girl who dropped out.

“Women have always had a way of indicating to each other who’s in the ‘in crowd’ and who’s in the ‘out crowd,’ and this kind of thing is just the modern incarnation of that,” Meriden said. “It used to be that if you got in a fight with a friend in high school you would go home and at least not see them or talk to them until school the next day. But now you never get a break. You have to see her photos on Instagram or wherever.”

Teenage girls, meanwhile, are creating friend squads within friend squads through the way they comment on each other’s social media feeds, according to Ana Homayoun, whose book Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World comes out next month.

“One of the biggest examples is teen girls calling for ‘Instasupport’ from their friends, which means that if a friend likes their Instagram photo they’ll send her a personal message and ask her to comment on it as well--things like, ‘You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me! You’re the light of my life! You’re the beauty queen!’” said Homayoun. “Adult woman are dealing with the same thing, really. All of this is so interchangeable.”

Perhaps the women and girls who are bending over backwards to meet the demands of female friendships in a digital age will eventually care less about what Polly calls a “fucking nonstop living nightmare of torturous girl-o-rama gushing.”

They’ll find happy mediums where they don’t get anxious when they turn their phones off for a few days or when someone de-friends them on Facebook.

The people who can’t and don’t unplug, who mindlessly scroll Instagram when they’re on the toilet at work and convince themselves that posting selfies is an empowering form of creative expression when it’s also a cry for affirmation, will always be there. And bless them if they can lead happy lives and form meaningful friendships that way.

But I doubt it.