Rebecca Kennedy: The Subtle Art of C**t Warfare

When I was a teenager I belonged to a clique, group, gaggle, whatever it is you call having more than two or three friends at one time. Even now, I find it is hard to articulate how it felt to have such friendships and harder still to explain their complexity.

Some of the stereotypes ring true: Yes, there was bitching. Yes, we took savage swipes at each other’s self-esteem. I can recall circulating a rumour that one of my oldest friends could eat an entire stick of butter in one sitting. Why? Because I was an asshole…and Ellen really loved butter. That’s one of the lessons you learn when studying the subtle art of cunt warfare. A good rumour has an ounce of truth to it. You must witness what other people see and expand upon it. Lie, but don’t work too hard. Make it believable.

The complexity derives from attempting to unwind the frayed cords of feeling that these friendships inspired. Reading over the journals I kept in adolescence is an unpleasant albeit mortifying experience, as they read like diaries kept simultaneously by both Jane Bennett and Cersei Lannister. But this is the crux. On one hand I loathed these girls from the very bottom of my foundation-lashed pores. And why wouldn’t I? We routinely instigated vicious little crimes against each other’s humanity.

But, on the other hand, I loved them. A deep, affectionate love that never failed to return once drunken apologies were made or adequate revenge had been sought. The loyalty and sorority you feel towards the girls in your clique are unimaginable unless you experience it first-hand. I held their hair as they vomited in bushes, searched for the faint pink line on pregnancy tests when they were too frightened to look and lied to their poor, naïve parents for them. We cared for one another as sisters might; deeply disturbed sisters, granted, but sisters nonetheless.

I remember the pivotal week that my friends and I transformed from awkward, acne-plagued adolescents to fully fledged teenagers. It was the early ’00s and we were enrolled in a summer camp programme that allowed our parents to be free of us for a week. Ellen, Shauna, Bernadette, Charlotte and I had spent the majority of the summer up until the camp doing what most coastal kids do. We had adventures. With wetsuits and a few layers of puppy fat to keep warm, we took to the sea. Our days were spent at a small pier renowned for black waters and cliff jumping. Whatever there was to do, we did it:  swimming, surfing, hiking, basketball, football, anything to pass the time. My memories of that time are sun-kissed and hazy, the way only nostalgic memories of childhood summers are. A few stray snapshots of that summer are still mounted in my old bedroom at my parents’ house. In the photos we are pals. We smile with crooked teeth, arms wrapped around each others’ shoulders, eyes squinted against the sun. Then we joined the summer camp and it all went to hell.

For thirteen-year-olds who attend all-girl catholic schools, the discovery of boys is always a startling affair. The boys at camp were older than us, two or maybe three years. We cackled amongst ourselves about how repulsive they were, yet we followed them from room to room. These boys made excuses to touch us: we were constantly under siege from pinches and supposedly playful punches. We feigned disgust but never quite strayed far enough from reaching distance. One irritated councillor remarked that the summer camp had become a regular Carry On film, although the reference was lost on us.

Like syphilis, the boys invaded our flesh and then our collective minds. They quickly became the centre point of every conversation. In their presence, we experienced the first, fizzy onset of hormones and like Coke bottles shaken too hard, we were ready to explode.

As the week drew on I noticed that my friend’s appearances began to radically change: Shauna’s unibrow vanished overnight, in its place were a pair of hastily plucked eyebrows, giving the impression that two perpetually angry fadas had settled on her head. Ellen’s constellation of whiteheads was ruthlessly lanced and Charlotte’s tracksuits were abandoned for corset tops and low-riding denim flares. Gone were the days of idle adventure. Outdoor activity is a logistical nightmare for any image conscious teenage girl. Swimming became the enemy when it threatened to undo the hours it took to iron our frizzy, Celtic hair in those pre-G.H.D. days. Hiking was out of the question too, as sweating only served to exacerbate the biscuity odour of our fake tans. Football was banished as it was considered an exclusively male sport and basketball got the shove as well because apparently, boys don’t like to lose.

Gone were the days of idle adventure, as many outdoor activities are known to be a logistical nightmare for any image conscious teenage girl. Swimming became the enemy when it threatened to undo the hours it took to iron our frizzy, Celtic hair in those pre-GHD days. Hiking was out of the question too, as sweating only served to exacerbate the biscuity odour of our fake tans. Football was banished as it was considered an exclusively male sport and basketball got the shove as well because apparently boys don’t like to lose.

That was the same year that Tina Fey’s Mean Girls hit the cinema. The film’s gang of petty, manipulative Plastics became the blueprint from which we envisioned ourselves. We became just like Regina George and her glamorous army of loyal skanks only we were Irish, poor, overweight and ugly. We even went as far as owning our own burn book which was later destroyed during an official gang meeting around the back of the youth centre, as it contained dangerous evidence of how cruel and unoriginal we all were.

Every clique has its queen and ours was Shauna. She was by far the most handsome of us and had a way of manoeuvring her newfound sexuality to her advantage. Charlotte was a close second but didn’t possess the confidence to pull off Shauna’s deviant charm. Bernadette was the master of self-depreciating humour, while I took the position of the sullen, moody friend. We functioned well in our designated roles with only one exception, Ellen. It became apparent that Ellen was going to be a problem. Her laugh, the same honking laughter that once endeared her to us irritated Gary, the lad that Shauna coveted. So, in a bid win his affections Shauna decided that Ellen needed to be ousted – but to do so she needed the majority vote. Charlotte, the spineless submissive, backed her instantly but Bernadette and I refused. Mass rejection is a common tactic in cunt warfare; it leaves one in a state of social exile, forever tainted by the scarlet “L” of loner.

Bernadette refused because she feared she would suffer the same fate and by saving Ellen she secured her vote if the tables did ever turn on her. I wouldn’t oust Ellen because she was my friend, I had brought her into the clique and attempting to remove her was not only a horrid thing to do to Ellen but a mark of disrespect against me. Having lost out of the majority vote, Shauna unleashed a campaign of merciless bullying against Ellen in an attempt to make leave of her own accord. She could make boys do anything, our Shauna. And so began the onslaught of abuse that constituted Ellen’s life for a year. My friend, the same friend whom I had shared birthday parties with became a collection of mistakes, oddities and offences: her nose was too big, her teeth too crooked, her hair too bushy, her dress sense too slutty; she was too fat, too loud, too spotty, too talkative.

But Ellen wouldn’t go. In fact, the more humiliating treatment that Shauna subjected her too, the more Ellen grovelled in submission. It turned my stomach to watch. I told Ellen what earnest teenagers tell each other in times of trouble. I told her to stand up for herself but she brushed it all off, insistent that it was only banter. I remember the day it came to its dreadful conclusion.

At this point, I had developed a habit of deceiving my way out of social occasions in order to distance myself from the clique. This ranged from harmless half-truths to bold faced lies. For a while, my peer group was convinced that my parents’ had adopted a strict disciplinary view on raising their daughter. They simply wouldn’t allow me to go anywhere. No one could quite understand the turnaround of my once liberal parents’ behaviour but I explained it all away, blaming it on the influence of American culture via the Sky box. 

You know, the thing about parents is that they are very impressionable.

It was one of those wet, grey Augusts when the weather decides to end the summer holidays prematurely. The other girls no longer answered Ellen’s calls so she rang me and begged me to call Shauna. I refused in the beginning but eventually relented as Ellen’s style of pleading was to basically torture you until you agreed. We arranged to meet the rest of the girls down in the old school shelters. The moment we arrived I could tell that something was off. Shauna, who had finally succeeded in seducing Gary, was lounging between his knees on the cigarette strewn concrete. She looked to us both upon our arrival but only greeted me. This small act of rejection made Ellen desperate. “Hey Shauna,” she said, very loudly but her voice wavered, breaking somewhere in the middle. The boys were quick to jump on this. They mimicked her, “Hey Shauna, Hey Shauna, Hey Shauna.” Ellen did what she always did when she was being mocked, she laughed along.

Gary grimaced, “What are you laughing at you fat cow?”

Ellen looked to Shauna for rescue but none came. Our Queen looked positively bored by her jesters. I was static. Never before had the bullying been so direct. It had all been very passive-aggressive but this, this was aggressive-aggressive.

“Why are you always following us around? No one wants you here you ugly bitch.”

“Just fuck off and leave us alone. Can’t you take a hint?”

Soon they were chanting a chorus of thick, clumsy insults. Ellen was rooted in the spot, attempting to laugh along with a chuckle that was rapidly dissolving into sobs. Her glassy eyes searched Shauna for some hint of emotion but she was met with cool indifference. Ellen stood motionless, listening to words that seeped beneath her skin and infested her mind, disfiguring everything she ever valued in herself, distorting her self-image into the horrifying reflection of a fun house mirror. Tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, I snapped.

I want to tell you that I screamed at them, that I told them all to go fuck themselves, but I didn’t. Instead, I grabbed Ellen by the arm and dragged her out of there. As soon as we had reached the mud road beside the school she broke, bending at the stomach and roaring. I can still remember the way that her tears pooled on the dirt, clear droplets that somehow reminded me of blood.

Ellen didn’t want to go home. She believed that it would be the real defeat, to return home crying over the girls that her mother had warned her about. Instead, I arranged for us to meet another friend. For those unfamiliar with how cliques operate, possessing friends outside the circle is a must. If the underlying threat of displeasing your faction is social exile then having friends that don’t belong to the clan is an insurance policy of sorts. You may find yourself cruelly exerted from the clique but you won’t be completely alone.

For those unfamiliar with how cliques operate, possessing friends outside the circle is a must. If the underlying threat of displeasing your faction is social exile then having friends that don’t belong to the clan is an insurance policy of sorts. You may find yourself cruelly exerted from the clique but you won’t be completely alone.

Sophie was a good-humoured English girl who cared for little beyond listening to Linkin Park and acquiring the occasional shift. Careful not to further inflame Ellen’s wounded pride, I mentioned nothing of the afternoon’s humiliation to Sophie. We formed a triangle along the footpath with Sophie and me in the lead while a silent Ellen trailed behind. Somewhere along the road, we crossed paths with a walker and their sausage dog. I made a crude remark about the dog’s phallic design and Sophie giggled. Right then, Ellen closed the space between us and swung for Sophie, slapping her hard across the face. I can still remember the way Sophie’s burgundy hair fanned across the air, whipping around her head and hitting her reddened cheek.

We all know the theory of how bullies are created.

Ellen never did apologise to Sophie. She mumbled something about believing the poor girl was laughing at her but that was about it. As far as Ellen was concerned the only apology she owed was to me. I was the only witness and could spin it whatever way I saw fit.

I shook her off and walked Sophie home, leaving Ellen with only her anxiety for company. Of course, I informed everyone as soon as I could, if you lay with bitches you will get up with fleas but you never can predict the way that things will turn out.

Upon hearing of Ellen’s volatile outburst Shauna decided to forgive her of whatever infraction she saw her guilty of. Physical violence had never been part of our world; only rough girls allowed themselves such aggressive freedoms. Having a girl around who shamelessly wielded the threat of a slap was very handy for intimidation. The two became quite a pairing. Shauna remained queen and Ellen was rebirthed as one of the most prolific bullies our school had ever seen, gleefully carrying out Shauna’s dirty work with all the starry-eyed devotion of a Manson family member.

Make no mistake; Shauna continued to treat Ellen like a human chew toy. This ranged from but was not limited to: instigating a mass walk-in on Ellen’s first sexual encounter, convincing her to throw wild parties that destroyed her mother’s house and circulating compromising photographs that Shauna had taken of Ellen while she was passed out drunk. Ellen would be horrified by these incidents but all could be remedied and glossed over by Shauna’s soothing insistence that Ellen was her “best friend.” I was no better a friend to Ellen during these years. 

If the sinews of war are infinite money, then the muscle of cunt warfare must be secrets. They are the currency of a clique and like any currency, secrets gain interest over time. When you tell a friend a secret you are investing in the friendship, strengthening the bond, testing the trust. The secret can purchase you attention, glory, power or a swift kick in the arse, dependent on who you tell.

When I was fifteen I was told a secret. It was a substantial deposit in my Bank of Undisclosed Truths, given the scandalous nature of it. The other secrets I held were positively mundane in comparison; Charlotte compulsively conditioning her pubic hair and Bernadette’s confession that cocaine had disastrous consequences for her bowels at Oxegen had nothing on this. Shauna, who had continued her relationship with Gary far past its sell-by date was stepping out at night with a small parade of Gary’s closest friends. The informer told me because he was wracked with guilt and mistook me as a person who might wield enough influence to make Shauna confess or stop.

I did neither in this case. As far as I was concerned, it was not our business what Shauna had done with her own body. The notion of policing each other’s sexuality had always made me uncomfortable, long before I ever heard of feminism. The word ‘slut’ was thrown around flagrantly in those days, much as it is now. My Aunty once told me that to earn the title of ‘slut’ back in her girlhood; one had to have a penis inserted in every orifice and eight between the toes for good measure. Safe to say, in my Aunt’s day, you had to work hard to earn yourself the title.

Now, it can be doled out as an indicator that your behaviour towards the opposite sex is perceived as overtly friendly, your dress sense is too revealing, the way you dance is too sexual and so on. The word ‘slut’ is no longer just a definition of a woman who has multiple sexual partners but it still holds the power to ostracise those who are labelled with it, particularly in a small town.

So I kept my mouth firmly shut, but was unable to curtail local gossips relaying the rumours to Bernadette and Charlotte. They were easy to silence, both having been victims to slut-shaming previously; they were unwilling to watch Shauna suffer through the same ordeal. The only one who could be dangerous if the information was to fall within her grasp was Ellen. 

Eventually, Shauna did relent on her ill treatment of Ellen. By the time we were selecting prospective colleges there was an immense sense of relief in the air. While most groups were beginning to mourn the enviable loss of their schoolyard friendships, we were secretly joyous. For the first time in our history, there was a socially acceptable way for us to escape each other. We moved, physically and mentally, as far away from one another as the island would allow. With the exception of Shauna and Ellen, who choose to attend colleges in the same city.

As the years went by it became apparent that despite declarations of undying love, Ellen had a layer of festering resentment towards Shauna concealed behind her cheery smile. The pair had chosen to live together in their third year of college and judging by some hastily deleted Facebook posts, all was not well in paradise. By then the rest of us had all but fucked off. I was pretending to write my thesis, Bernadette was studying social care and Charlotte had finally found a boy who appreciated the unusual silkiness of her lady bush. We had gained new friends and were learning how to navigate healthy, trusting relationships with other women. How very grown-up we had all become, venturing home for the holidays sporting clothes from exotic lands like Cork, Dublin and Galway.

It was on one such holiday that I received a call from Ellen. I had just arrived at the house; my poor mother had barely finished harassing me about my weight when the phone began ringing. As soon as I picked up, Ellen launched into an interrogation, not even bothering to feign a welcome home. She wanted to know if I was aware that Shauna had been cheating on her boyfriend and if so, for how long. It turns out that one of Gary’s friends had joined AA and part of his 12 step programme was to make amends for all the wrongdoing he had committed. So the lad travelled across the world to tell Gary that he had slept with his significant other and beg his forgiveness. Unfortunately, he chose to do so in the pub before an audience that included both Ellen and Shauna.

I pretended to think about it, knowing that Ellen was seething on the other end of the line. I could imagine her, clutching a glass of red wine and doodling furiously on the message pad her mother left on the counter. She practically howled when I informed her that I had known for quite some time. As someone who was not counted among Shauna’s best friends, it seemed like blasphemy to Ellen that I knew before her. When she pulled herself together she asked me, very delicately, why I did not tell her.

“Because I didn’t think it was any of our business,” I said.

“But Rebecca,” Ellen countered, “she’s my best friend.”

Best friend. Best Friend. Best friend.

Like blood shed for religion, I thought about all the tears I had seen fall in the name of friendship. Ellen relayed the details of Shauna’s very public shaming with all the suspenseful pauses and melodramatic dialogue you would expect from someone who exclusively readsMills and Boon novels. She saved the best for last, savouring the delicious moment when Gary called Shauna a “little fucking whore” and walked out, leaving Shauna to face a glaring jury of her peers. Just as I had known she would, Ellen, at the ripe old age of 22 was attempting to instigate a mutiny in vengeance for the humiliations she suffered as a teenager. She blabbered on about how we needed to cut ties with Shauna, that our reputations were now sullied by our association with her. Ellen even went as far as to use Gary’s subsequent heartbreak as a shield for her own motivations.

All the while I listened I was filled with a growing sense of déjà vu. It was like I had taken a step back in time to when we were thirteen and apparently the same rules still applied. Ellen was calling me to see if I would grant her my vote. She wanted to punish Shauna for her indiscretions by initiating her exile on Christmas Eve. Shauna was barely cold in her metaphorical grave and Ellen had already assumed her royal duty as event manager. She was organising a wine and cheese night (no Shaunas allowed) but she wore the role badly. She was imposing a strict dress code for the evening; goofy Christmas jumpers, black skinny jeans and high heels. Ellen had obviously gone mad with power. If this was a glimpse into her rule, I can honestly say I would rather have held court with Joffrey Baratheon.

“So the rest of the girls and I are not talking to her,” Ellen said, “What are you going to do?”

I thought about all the things that we had done to one another; Blackmail, back-stabbing, stealing each other’s gay boyfriends, a never-ending list of petty little stings and betrayals. It occurred to me than that one arena in which we truly failed was mercy. We were so quick to judge and punish, never taking a moment to consider what lead us to act the way we did. I had always held the belief that being part of clique was inherently complex. It was, after all, a clashing of personalities, girls who had started out as genuine friends, banding together to weather the storm of adolescence, perhaps past the time when these friendships would have met their natural end in other circumstances. But what bonded us now that we had finally reached the clear, grey skies of adulthood? Nostalgia, affection, our present geography or maybe the fear of who we were without the carefully cultivated identities we had within the clique.

While Ellen detailed the story of Shana’s fall from grace it was clear what she wanted me to hear. She was painting Shauna’s portrait as one of a wayward harlot, portraying herself as a faithful girlfriend whilst betraying her loving partner and closest friends. I had outgrown that narrative. Instead, I heard the story of teenage girl who was in a relationship that perhaps she was too frightened to leave; stuck in a small town where the walls whispered, with urges she couldn’t act upon openly without fearing the brutal retaliation of what her so-called friends named justice.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “I’m not doing that.”

“WHAT?” Ellen panicked, the vision of her wine and cheese coronation ceremony vanishing before her eyes, “Well, if you’re going to speak to Shauna I just want to warn you that me and the rest of the girls won’t be talking to you either.”

“Rightio,” I said, “I’ve got to go. I have to call Shauna. Merry Christmas!”

When I called Shauna; her voice was meek and fearful. The public-shaming and subsequent break-up had obviously taken their toll. She was worried that I would question her, demand a thorough explanation but the only question I asked was if she would like to accompany me on a mission to get absolutely slaughtered drunk. The night was a great one from what I remember of it, I know that we talked about our friends and our shared experiences but we left out the tumultuous teenage years, instead we waded through our happy memories of the days before the summer camp. Back when it was perfectly acceptable to languish in the same tracksuit bottoms for a week and outdoor activity was the main call of the day.

These are the hard-won lessons of clique friendships. They teach you that searing hate and burning love is nearly the same thing. They exist parallel to one another, separated only by a thin veil that can be snatched away at any moment. While adults are quick to impose upon teenagers that the turbulent emotions felt and problems faced in adolescence are not forever, I would argue the opposite. The scars we carry from our teenage years are notoriously permanent, but what if they have use? What if the correct way to learn what healthy friendships are is to spend one’s teenage years learning what it is not?

I was baptised by fire in the brutal battle field of cunt warfare and I survived. I learned to recognise genuine friendship when it came along in adulthood and to treat those friends with the respect, love and trust they deserved. While I always held the belief that clique friendships were inherently complex in hindsight I now know that is not the case.

Friendships are not complex, people are. Friendship is easy. It’s as easy as picking up the phone.

Rebecca Kennedy is a fanatical reader, writer, doodler and feminist.

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