In 2014, a teacher at my high school decided that issues surrounding feminism, gender and consent needed to be talked about more with young people. So, she created what was known as the “Girls Group”. All students from Year 7 to Year 12 were able to join. Students met once a week during lunchtime and a Facebook group was created to facilitate discussion online. Although initially intended for girls, boys at the school were able, even encouraged, to participate.
The idea was a good one. Our ideas may not have been the most sophisticated, and discussions of intersectionality were regrettably far beyond our reach, but it was a solid start. Yet after a speedy descent into personal attacks and a torrent of complaints and reports of “cyber-bullying” from aggrieved parents, the Girls Group was disbanded and the Facebook page deleted within six months from its inception.
Where did it all go wrong?
Despite its good intentions, the Girls Group was born with some fundamental flaws that can be traced to its downfall. Students across all year groups were thrown into a Facebook group and power imbalances attributable to age differences quickly emerged. The older girls dominated the group and younger girls, like myself, were terrified (although utterly intrigued). There was a significant knowledge and maturity gap between the members – and a few of the older students weren’t afraid to point it out – the tone would quickly shift from educative to belittling, insulting and accusatory. A void of empathy and disregard for people’s level of previous exposure to such issues ran rampant. Without parameters or structured topics for discussion, the group actively invited pandemonium.
At 14, my understanding of gendered issues and feminism was rudimentary at best, derived from the instructive teachings of tumblr and John Green. But this lack of knowledge was not limited to me; it extended to the vast majority of the group. It exacerbated tensions that already existed – a fatal flaw that the education system remained unwilling to confront. Nothing I knew of feminism had been taught to me in my ten years of formal education.
Interestingly, this problem wasn’t reflected in the weekly meetings held at school. While the Facebook group spiralled into mayhem, the meetings remained civil and uneventful. This may point to the difficulties of relying on online communication. It is hard to use a platform that lacks structure or moderation to start a dialogue about important issues, where there is a lack of prior solidarity between its members, and particularly where power imbalances exist.
Perhaps most shockingly, there was a critical failure to engage half the school. Being at a co-educational high school, not everyone took the Group and its aims seriously. The boys were indifferent at best, and antagonistic at worst. These attitudes undeniably rubbed off on those who were curious, yet unsure, about participating in the Group.
The Group’s tragic demise tells a tale that appears crucial to today’s society. A safe, supportive space is critical for young people to learn new things and, even more importantly, to make mistakes. Young people need to feel supported and able to discuss their opinions with others, without the fear of being attacked or belittled. If early engagements with feminism are negative, toxic and downright scary, people will not only be intimidated, but may feel ostracised – and it may be really hard to get them to re-engage.
In light of current events, an adequate conversation about introducing young people to feminism and gendered issues is long overdue. Yet this must be done in a way that is thoughtful and responsible. Take heed of the fate of the Girls Group and its important lessons on what not to do when attempting this vital task.