This article featured as a guest post on Enlighten Education's blog a few weeks ago. The article deconstructs the media’s portrayal of violence committed by girls and asks us to focus on the real issue: that girls and young women urgently need our support.
Periodically the media will seize upon an isolated incident or two and make sweeping generalised statements. In recent months, we have seen a lot of the tried and tested “girls gone bad” story, focusing on girls’ violence and bullying via internet and text messaging.
No one will deny that the “girls gone bad” headline is a great attention-grabber. Girls engaging in violence challenge society’s fundamental beliefs about females as nurturers, protectors and as victims of violence.
Yet in emphasising cases of girls’ violence more than boys’ violence, the media perpetuates the notion of the “bad girl” epidemic. This in turn legitimises violence as an option — “Other girls are doing it, why can’t I?”
Social anthropologist Dr Donna Swift believes that:
"the media . . . is creating the image of a new feminine epidemic of mean girls. Similarly, kickass girls, as I call them, are being promoted by the entertainment industry as the new role model for girls. This is a role model that promotes sexualised aggressive behaviour and rarely is our society countering this by teaching girls that assertive behaviour is an alternative option. Sadly, many young males find girl fighting titillating and some girls turn to this behaviour as a way of attracting male attention."
Professor Kerry Carrington, from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Justice, said a simple internet search yielded 73 million hits for girls’ fighting, compared with 31 million for boys. There were 24 million girl-fight videos on YouTube – eight times more than those featuring boys. I propose that girls aren’t engaging in more fights than boys but that because female fighting breaks traditional norms, society is fascinated by it and gives it much more attention than male violence.
An example of this fascination is the beer advertisement from the USA in which two women with plunging necklines have a minor disagreement. They begin to wrestle and as they do so, they discard their clothes, revealing sexy bodies in skimpy lingerie. They end up writhing and moaning together in wet concrete. At the end, two men imply that such a fight scene is every man’s fantasy: “Who wouldn’t want to watch that?”
Focusing on the real issues
What the “girls gone bad” sensationalist headlines don’t mention are the triggers and history behind girls’ violent offending. Focusing on hyped-up incidents sells newspapers because it shocks readers. It also makes it easier to ignore the real problems young women are facing. Dr Donna Swift is leading a research project in New Zealand that looks at violent and anti-social behaviour by teenage girls. Initial findings from the project indicate that of girls engaging in violence towards others, approximately 70% were not attending school, 60% were self-harming, 50% had experienced text bullying, 50% had run away from home, 40% had witnessed domestic violence, 30% had been raped and 30% had taken a drug overdose. Such findings are backed up by numerous international studies.
At what age does society stop blaming the situation or the parent, and start demonising the child? As other commentators have noted, we need to remember that the violent girls we demonise in the media today are the abused and neglected children we read about with such compassion yesterday. More often than not, the demonic “girl gone bad” is a child who is actually desperately in need of love and support.
Sensationalist media stories that focus on the negative exaggerate the problem of girls’ violence in the public’s eye and in doing so create a monster out of the teenage girl. This further demonises young women and creates a disconnect between them and the community – a community full of people who could potentially act as friends, mentors and advocates for the very girls that they are demonising.
Increasingly, girls are engaging in other types of violence that very rarely hit the headlines:
"Many young women are growing up with the societal expectation that they can do anything and must do everything. According to females portrayed in the media, girls should be brave, independent, strong, smart, savvy, athletic, and able to kick ass as well as being beautiful and sexy, be wanting and waiting for a relationship with Mr Right, able to produce adorable children, keep a perfect house and be ready to climb the next step on her career ladder. Girls who can’t compete for this reality take out their anxieties about personal inferiority or anger of rejection on themselves." – Dr Donna Swift
Tragically, for many girls, acts of violence towards themselves, such as cutting and bulimia, are an everyday reality.
Focusing on the positive
We need to look beneath sweeping media generalisations about girls and violence. We need to celebrate the fact that the vast majority of our girls will never choose to engage in violent acts. We need to understand that the girls who do usually have long histories of victimisation and need the full support of the community. We need to focus on giving our girls the tools and the confidence to face up to the challenges of teenage life today. We need our communities to be overflowing with support for our girls. Only then will we be able to start turning the tide against self-harm, depression, bullying and violence.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.