The Evolution of Aggression in Girls

Written by Amanda Loch on . Posted in Writing

In the last twenty years, “sugar and spice and everything nice” has become an outdated term. There used to be a time when the school principal’s office was frequented by bloodied boys who’d let their “male instincts” get the most of them on the playground.  Even the more violent crimes; acts of pure aggression and gang-related violence, were associated with boys. Girls played house and jumprope, talked quietly in groups, and were generally better students and polite young women. Now, with great strides in gender equality, influential fighting female sex symbols in the media, and the influence of boys and even well meaning family members, girls are becoming increasingly more aggressive. Receiving so many mixed messages about empowerment and sexuality, many girls are becoming physically violent at alarming rates, confusing school officials, parents and the media.

This is not to say that girls have never fought until now. In fact, “traditional” girlfighting (which uses rumors and other social weapons to isolate victims, sometimes for years) is arguably more brutal and widespread than fistfights between boys. The reason the new trend is getting so much attention is best explained in the book Girlfighting by Lyn Mikel Brown: “It’s not that girls are fighting more, but that it’s not so hidden, not so pressured to go underground” (Brown 18).

While boys have resorted to physical violence to settle their problems and are not as prone to hold grudges, one disagreement or even a simple discrepancy between girls can cause years of psychological torment that infects the victimized girls’ self-esteem and social life. Girls manipulate and bully almost silently, often behind a two-timing smile that may show intentions to their classmates, but allow them to hide from adults.  Brown tells us that, “in fact […] the goal is to hurt another person in such a way that it looks as though there has been no intention at all” (Brown 16). Spreading rumors and labeling each other with derogatory names like the bitch, the slut, fat, ugly or stupid are attacks that can’t be easily cleaned up or forgotten with an apology.

These brutal assaults are evident on school playgrounds, locker rooms, and even history books. During the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century, three young girls accused other women and girls in their town that they did not like of being witches and casting spells on them. Other women began faking the same types of fits that the original accusers suffered, and blamed women they had grudges against, claiming they were witches too. Sadly, this out-of-control war led to the trials and executions of 19 innocent people.

Although the Salem Witch Trials are an extreme example of how girls can be aggressive toward other girls without hitting, the same kind of day-to-day torment prevalent in middle and high schools today is still incredibly scarring. Girl fighting perseveres because the aggressive actions use the community as a weapon. One girl saying something nasty to another does not do the same amount of damage that a vicious rumor circulating around the entire group of girls at a school does.

This underhanded and cruel torment is nothing new to young girls. However, after hundreds years of existing in its original form, girl fighting has begun to evolve. Where there were only words before, now girls are raising their fists to fight as well.  The numbers of girls resorting to this new method are alarming. Brown reports, “[…] even if the total number of girls committing violent crimes is still small compared to boys, physical girlfighting and girl-initiated violence have increased exponentially since the mid-1980s or so” (Brown 16). Additionally, statistics from an article from MSNBC “Bad Girls Go Wild” tells us,

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number of girls 10 to 17 arrested for aggravated assault has doubled over the last 20 years.  The number of boys arrested for weapons possession rose 22 percent between 1983 and 2003, while girls increased by a whopping 125 percent.  Today, one of three juveniles arrested for violent crimes is female. (Schelfo 1)

What has led to this increase in physical violence?  What causes girls to be so aggressive toward each other in physical and psychological contexts?  What can be done to curb this behavior before it escalates any further?

One of the best and most shocking examples to bring the upswing in violence among girls to light happened at Glenbrook North High School. In 2003, at the annual (non-school-sponsored) “Powder Puff” football game held among the junior and senior girls of the school. However, when the invited junior girls arrived, they did not play football.  Instead, they were cornered, seated in the middle of a field, and covered with paint, urine, feces and animal guts, as well as being beaten, kicked and shot with paintball guns. Many of the girls needed medical attention after the incident was over.

The hazing might never have seen the light of day had it not been for a video being taken by several of the participants, showing the entire event unfolding. In a bizarre turn of events, the guilty party posted the video on the internet, probably with the intent to humiliate the hazed girls, but instead only incriminating themselves. Over 30 girls were expelled for taking part in the horrible hazing.

Another story featured on the evening news within the last few years happened in Crystal River, Florida, where a 13 year old girl was attacked at a sleepover by girls she thought were her close friends. As their average slumber party began to wind down, some of the girls had other ideas. They beat the victim up, threw her in a closet and put itching powder on her face, while threatening to kill her. Her attackers also videotaped the abuse, and posted it on MySpace. Several of her other friends at the sleepover did nothing to stop the incident.

Two trends are visible in these stories, as well as others like them. First, the abuse was premeditated. The attackers planned to humiliate and hurt the other girls, who had come to the events with no idea their friends were plotting against them, for reasons unknown to the victims. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes the Crystal River attack: “The ambush, like most of those described by violence-prevention experts who work with girls, appears to have been well-planned and rooted in the same kind of emotionally charged insecurities over frayed friendship familiar to anyone who has passed through adolescence.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2).

The second thing that is evident in both examples is the attackers’ arrangements for the event to be documented on film, which they then posted the video online for others to see, incriminating themselves along the way. In fact, when these cases made the news, it was the attacker’s own footage that was used to show the world how violent and unforgiving they were.

Obviously, this proves that the girls are not just adopting fighting from the boys, they are adapting it as well, adding the psychological torment they are so fond of to the new world of physical violence. But why are girls attacking each other? Brown asks, “So what moves high school girls to fight? Clearly a lot of things, most of which arise out of a desire for control, power and visibility–jealousy over boys or over how other girls look or dress or act, competition for attention and approval, betrayal and backstabbing behavior, gossip and spreading rumors, disrespect of any kind.” (Brown 156).

In other words, nothing terribly new. The only variable is the kind of warfare: primarily physical or mental. In an article by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer entitled “Violence among girls on the rise,” the difference between gender fights is explored further: “Girls fight for different reasons than boys do. For boys, it’s ‘you have something I want and I’m going to take it.’ With girls, it’s usually expressive of emotional unhappiness or uncertainty. Counselors who work with girls often say they’re surprised at the complexity of the relationships” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2).

Who or what is to blame for this alarming rise in violence among girls? Is it possible to blame anyone? Why do girls suddenly feel the need to be even meaner to one another?

The answer seems to lie in the rapidly shifting gender roles set out for girls.  It is no longer stressed by parents that a girl be quiet and compliant; instead, girls are encouraged to have a voice, and told they can do whatever boys can do. As more and more opportunities are opening up for young women, they may be grasping for some less desirable traits, like violence.  But what influences are helping them find violence as an answer?

One grandfather suggested that perhaps sports may be adding to the dilemma: “I was at a JV lacrosse game, watching my granddaughter. We cheered like hell because she was being aggressive on the field” (Schelfo 2). In a world that encourages women to assert themselves like men, one can’t be too surprised that the door to violent behavior has also been opened. Especially in sports, where success is measured by successful aggression.

Another possible suggestion is that the media is to blame. In the article “Bad Girls Go Wild,” Julie Scelfo reminds us “Now girls are barraged with images of ‘sheroes’–think Sydney Bristow on ABC’s ‘Alias’ or Uma Thurman’s the Bride in ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 2’–giving them a wider range of of role models and tacit permission to alter their behavior” (Schelfo 1). It is true that increasingly, women’s characters in action movies are aggressive and powerful, which usually means they are also violent. Other examples include “Xena: Warrior Princess”, “Charlie’s Angels”, and the women in “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” However, these “sheroes” all share a common trait: they are good looking, clad in suggestive clothing and may even resemble a “dominatrix” in their actions, dress, attitude or a combination of the three.  According to Brown, “Because fighting among girls or their adult women counterparts is considered at once shocking, shameful, and funny, it’s laced with eroticism and becomes the fodder of sitcoms, talk shows, and soap operas” (Brown 17).

With the amount of sex appeal found in these powerful characters, it lends itself to the question: are men helping to perpetuate girlfighting? “Sheroes” are after all marketed toward the young male demographic. Brown interviewed two high school girls who reported, “‘guys invented the concept of jello-wrestling’ […] so they could watch girls fight,’” and “‘guys see two girls fighting and think they’re getting passionate and maybe the girls might start kissing and the guys can get in on it.” (Brown 17). Indeed, it seems possible that some girls may consciously or subconsciously be more susceptible to fight because they know that it can excite the men who are there to watch. In many of the online videos of girls fighting that can be found on YouTube, male voices are easily heard, yelling out encouragement or saying suggestive things. Whole websites exist, full of girlfighting videos, with derogatory titles and captions advertising for men to watch the videos of the women attacking each other.

If this is the case, then girls that are striving for equality with men are going about it all wrong by engaging in physical fights. If men are getting off on girlfighting, then is it actually demeaning to women instead of empowering? And if the women know that the men are enjoying it at an erotic level, are they perpetuating their own inequality? It is sad to say that this may be the case, as unfair as it is.

But with a strong emphasis on positive equality, it is hard to block negative unforeseen side effects from slipping through too. In comparing and explaining violent boys and newly violent girls, Schelfo says,

We rely on boys to get out there and block a football, go in the Army and defend the country, carry guns and be cops. One of the side effects is that some boys take [physical aggression] too far. Now that girls have the same opportunities, they can encounter the same blurry boundaries. (Schelfo 2)

It is hard to blame the shift women’s power for female-to-female violence, because the women’s movement has done so much good in every other way.  However, it can’t be assumed that all good things have no bad results, and in the case of equalizing gender roles, it looks like girlfighting is going to be one of the consequences. In understanding the confusion and pent up aggression that girls possess, perhaps something can be done to stop this epidemic from spreading further, and possibly the best way to end girlfighting would be to stop the source – boyfighting. If girls are taught that they are equal to boys, and boys are allowed to fight each other without being looked down on by society, the same should be true for girls. However, perpetuating violence is not the answer, so obviously the solution would be a both or not at all scenario.

Additionally, psychological warfare should not be overlooked when dealing with physical violence, because it is often just as harmful or worse when it comes to those who are victimized. Still, the danger in girlfighting comes from the joining of the psychological and physical trauma, resulting in extreme bullying that is not as prevalent in boys.

One thing is for sure: the sweet stereotypical school girl is a thing of the past.  Teachers, counselors and parents must now focus on making sure their students and daughters grow into the strong, empowered women they should be without resorting to hurting each other physically or mentally. Teaching them to recognize the demeaning flaws in “empowered” women on TV, as well as the primitive nature of physical aggressiveness, and standing up to the desires of chauvinistic men is the best way to achieve gender equality while keeping our girls intact.

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Amanda Loch

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