By Shannon Clarke
The elementary school is just down the street from my high school. Stepping off the bus one day with a girlfriend, cutting through the side streets to get to class on time, I looked through the chain link fence at the kids playing in groups; groups of boys, small groups of girls, running and standing around together. I felt no trace of nostalgia or envy or warm fondness for my grade-school days.
Instead I wondered what kind of psychological damage was occurring in those small groups of girls.
“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”
Elaine, the fictional narrator of Cat’s Eye, a novel by Margaret Atwood, is relieved when her daughters reach adolescence. Little girls, she explains, are sweet and innocent to their parents and teachers but to each other they can be cruel.
In Cat’s Eye, Atwood examines the complex and often destructive social politics of female relationships. The closest of girlfriends can be the worst of enemies, inflicting the unkindest treatment under the guise of friendship. The phrase “for your own good” is a popular one in the novel. The stony silences, exclusion from secrets, rankings of friends, best friends and very best friends and the betrayals are hard enough–it is the subtle and covert ways in which they are employed that make the bullying so hard to detect, and so long-lasting.
“When their friends arrived at our house to play, I scanned their faces for signs of hypocrisy… I thought I would be able to tell. Or maybe it was worse. Maybe my daughters were doing this sort of things themselves, to someone else.”
Cat’s Eye acts as Elaine’s memoir. A renowned artist living in Vancouver, she is summoned back to Toronto for her first retrospective by a small art gallery run by women. Her feelings about the trip (and city) are made clear from the beginning–fear, anger and dread. Toronto, to Elaine, represented years of suffering at the hands of Cordelia, her best friend and chief tormentor. When she arrived in the city with her family, Elaine was thrust into the complicated world of grade-school friendship. Having grown up with a brother and his friends and constantly moving from one place to another, the social order of female relationships turns out to be confusing.
Atwood poses questions to her readers through a brilliant, eight-year-old Elaine, who innocently acknowledges the differences between boy friendships and girl friendships. As a reader it is clear: these girls, Grace, Carol and Cordelia are little bullies disguised as pals. But when I think of myself as an eight-year-old, with my own Grace, Carol and Cordelia, I never would have considered myself a victim of bullying, and wonder, like Elaine does about her daughters, was I ever the Cordelia in someone else’s memory? I may never have punched or kicked anyone, but relational aggression among young girls is so much more complicated than bodily harm.
It almost seems wrong to call Cat’s Eye a work of fiction when so much of it is relatable. I, like Elaine, envied the boys, whose games had clear winners and losers, said exactly what they meant and never seemed to hold grudges. Grade eight graduation wasn’t sad and the prospect of starting high school alone, with no old friends, wasn’t scary. I was relieved.
At the heart of Cat’s Eye is the issue of women and competition
“I got ten out of ten, again, and Grace only got nine. Is it wrong to be right? How right should I be, to be perfect?” asks Elaine.
Even as I moved on to high school, and found other “brains” and “nerds” to befriend, there existed the idea that to compete with your girlfriends, to be openly proud of your accomplishments was arrogant. There was no line between being proud and being boastful, being smart and being a know-it-all.
And the older I got the more complicated it became. You can be pretty but you can’t know that you’re pretty. People can like you but not too much. You can be right but you must always apologize for it. Humility was stressed among the girls. It was something which, if it wasn’t inherent, must be taught. For the boys, arrogance was a quirk, even charming.
My circle of friends, to observers, seemed to ignore these rules. We stuck together, loud and opinionated, always having each other’s backs. It was a sisterhood like the many others that existed at my high school (I found out later that the boys thought we were “stuck-up bitches who didn’t date because we thought no boy was good enough”).
But these rules existed for us too, and they existed for every other group of girls who appeared too close to have any problems. The fractures and the tension were there; if anyone looked close enough, but it would’ve been difficult to break us because no one would ever admit it to anyone.
As Atwood writes: “Whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important… to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin.”
Atwood’s novel isn’t condescending, judgmental or particularly moral. There is no hidden message condemning readers who put up with the bullies for so long. Cat’s Eye isn’t a how-to novel so much as a how-come. We kept the secrets of our hostility, dealt with the gossip and friction because girlfriends are sacred. No matter how difficult and stressful our relationships were, we put up with it because these were our best friends and no matter what your best friends did they loved you. At least that’s what I told myself.
The groups eventually split apart, including mine, after high school. I made new friends, with the experience to choose relationships that were healthier and without rules or hierarchies. I was lucky, I realize, to have escaped elementary school and endured high school unscathed. It’s hard not to wonder though about the others who may not have gotten over the weeks of being ignored by so-called best friends and ridicule for being too smart, too pretty or too proud. The thought of fourth graders with Facebook and cell phones and other new, more high-tech ways to torment each other, is a scary one.
We are fascinated with female friendships and for that reason pop culture is permeated with them. Some celebrated and portrayed endearingly (The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)–others, disturbingly dysfunctional (Gossip Girl). As Atwood illustrates, the rules which make these friendships so complicated start much earlier than high school.