Have Girls Really “Gone Bad”?

rachel hansenThis week I would like to welcome a talented new program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health. Today I am featuring as a guest blog a condensed version of her paper “Have Girls Really Gone Bad?”, which 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.

5 thoughts on “Have Girls Really “Gone Bad”?

  1. Ella says:

    Interesting. I read this thinking “yup, girl violence exists, but it has nothing to do with me” and by the end of it, I realised that it does. 9 years of anorexia and bulimia have been my way of getting angry at my body. Make no mistake that bulimia, self harm, etc. are some of the most violent ways to inflict harm on one’s body. Thank you for enabling me to see that. It makes me wonder; perhaps instead of addressing self harm, etc. as such – we should be using violence and anger management strategies to assist people in recovering and prevention? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. Sylvie says:

    “At what age does society stop blaming the situation or the parent, and start demonising the child?”

    This reminds me of the case of 16 yr old Cassie van den Dungan, contestant on Australia’s Next Top Model who was publicly mocked by the media and some of the show’s judges for being a “bogan” as she had been violent on the show, was a chain smoker, was in a relationship with a 25 yr old man… what shocks me is that throughout all of this, she was still just SIXTEEN.

    While everyone undoubtedly needs to take personal responsibility for their own choices, demonising a child or teenager doesn’t help. Publicly humiliating them and making them out to be some “BAD” person doesn’t help. We need to stop attacking and start taking more of a supportive, empathic role so that when girls are in trouble, they don’t stay there for long.

  3. Catherine says:

    Girls Gone Wild/Girls Gone Bad…Aren’t these girls a product of their environment? It’s ironic that the media/pop culture promotes the idea of overtly sexual, aggressive girls, but then treats them like some kind of freak show when they do act out. If we say ‘girls have gone bad’, we have to acknowledge that society has gone bad – ‘we’ let this happen! In an ideal world, everybody – incl the media, would take responsibility for the wellbeing of all children/teenagers and work towards saving them from self destruction. However, in a world full of rampant commercial exploitation, this is unlikely to happen, but at least reading great posts like yours Rachel, and Ella’s above (thanks for sharing Ella), and the work of Enlighten Education and others ‘awakening’ our younger sisters, we can hopefully have a big impact and help turn things around.

  4. Kelly Valder says:

    Great post Rachel. First class honours – woo hoo – what an asset to the Enlighten team. I couldn’t agree more that young women need our support. Our girls are looking for support/help/guidance – the girls choose to take notes during our Enlighten presentations (especially during the workshop on friendships and personal safety) and then write paragraphs about what they’ve learnt and how supported/loved they feel in their feedback to us and on our Enlighten Facebook page. The generalisations about ‘kickass’ girls are so toxic, in my experience our girls are trying their best to navigate their teenage years with the skills they have. I love that the Enlighten programme provides girls with more skills or ‘tools’ for their ‘toolbox’. What a lovely idea of ‘communities overflowing with support’…not just for our teenage girls but for everyone 🙂

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