This section in particular is enlightening...
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.
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.)