The Downside of Girl Power?
Few would argue that today's girls have a lot going for them. Girls are now more likely to graduate from high school and college than boys, and when they do, the sky is the limit, since few careers or opportunities are off-limits anymore.
But there are signs girls are dealing with a changed world in new, negative ways as well. Just over 20 years ago, for every 10 boys arrested for assault, only a single girl was arrested on the same charge. These days nearly a third of young people arrested for assault are girls. While boys' arrests for violent crimes are going down, girls' are increasing. One example: from 1990 to 1999 the rate of violence involving the use of weapons by girls rose 44%. During the same period, it actually decreased by 7% for boys.
Girls Behaving Badly
According to some social scientists, girls' increasing arrest rates show that more than ever before, girls are acting out at school and home, angrily threatening, harassing, beating and even shooting others.
Some see the increase in indicators of violent behavior by girls as the result of a change in the cultural landscape. Girls' emerging violence is the "crystallizing of this cultural shift away from rigid boundaries for girls," combined with a "socially toxic culture" that increasingly glorifies violence and depersonalization, says James Garbarino. Garbarino is the author of See Jane Hit, which parallels his 1999 book Lost Boys, about boys and violence.
Garbarino says that "the foundation for (an increase in girls' violence) has been being laid down over the last 20 or 30 years." Deborah Prothrow-Stith, who co-authored Sugar and Spice and Not So Nice, agrees that girls are just catching up with boys when it comes to aggression. With all the strides girls have made, she says, "Why wouldn't girls equalize this gap, too?"
Some of the organizations that support girls' healthy emotional development are:
•The Empower Program
•Youth Frontiers organizes kindness retreats and encourages children and young people to treat each other with empathy.
•Peace Zone promotes 'social literacy' for young people.
Childhood Roots of Anger
Rob Fulton is a psychiatrist who once ran a mental health facility and is currently the director of St. Paul, Minnesota's Public Health department. Even so, says Fulton, "I'm no expert on girls' violence. I've just lived it." Fulton's daughters, now in their 30s, were teens at the same time social scientists began to notice an increase in violent behavior among girls. His middle daughter was a violent "ringleader," who instigated, among other things, the gang beating of another girl with a high-heeled shoe. "The way she acted out many times was to be quite violent towards other people," says Fulton.
Fulton's daughters were victims of physical and sexual abuse before he and his wife adopted them. Fulton says he and his wife, who is a social worker, "were naive enough to believe we could do something about the girls' traumatic past. And in fact, their other two daughters navigated adolescence with little outward turmoil. But their younger daughter "was out of control," says Fulton, and was in and out of residential facilities.
Aggressive girls like Fulton's daughter often share similar characteristics with their male counterparts. Poverty, peer conflict, isolation, poor school performance and victimization, particularly due to child abuse and neglect, or the witnessing of crimes at home and in neighborhoods are key features of both genders' aggressiveness.
Internal & External Aggression
Like boys, girls who are aggressive as young children are more likely to be violent as teenagers. But even girls who don't act out may be harboring feelings that can fuel violence. "By age 12, girls have more anger than boys," says Garbarino, who cites a study of 11,000 school-age kids which showed that girls had more aggressive fantasies than boys. "Girls feel frustrated that there are (still) some limitations on them and they also feel angry about this tremendous pressure on them to be perfect," and meet impossible cultural ideals of sexuality and beauty, in addition to being smart and assertive.
While traditionally girls have internalized their anger with depression and somatic complaints like headaches and stomachaches, contemporary girls' internalized behaviors, such as cutting, are much more violent than before.
At its most extreme, this translates into the surprising statistic that fully half of girls who commit suicide do so with a gun, rather than methods such as taking an overdose. That's getting close to the 60 percent rate of gun use among boys' suicides. At Cornell, where Garbarino teaches, a third of female students reported having considered killing themselves, versus 18 percent of male students.
While girls may be more physically aggressive than ever before, they are also more prone than boys to less deadly, but nonetheless damaging "relational aggression," using words as weapons via name calling, rumors and cruel instant messages.
However, boys remain more lethal towards others. Boys are still far more likely to carry and use guns. Seventy percent of murders by boys are committed with guns, compared to 40 percent of murders by girls are committed with guns.
With media images saturated in violence, society is modeling the bad behavior of glamorized tough-girls like the gun-wielding Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame, says Prothrow-Stith. "It is a learned behavior," says Prothrow-Stith, "We are teaching kids to fight."
Joy Longley, a nurse practitioner in New Mexico, believes violent media has influenced her daughter, Megan, who is now 17. Megan has acted out violently most of her adolescence, including by breaking doors and cutting herself, and has been arrested a number of times. "She is fixated on these movies that are so violent," says Longley.
Though Longley won't allow violent media in her home, Megan has had no problem finding it elsewhere. "Your ability to control their access to this is almost zero," says Longley. Parents, busier then ever, "must counter and mitigate marketing of junk on all fronts," says Prothrow-Stith. "I don't want to say it was the good old days, but when I was young, no one was trying to get me to be a hootchie mama or carry a gun."
In some ways, says Garbarino, girls who express their anger outwardly rather than inwardly do better, because "the teacher doesn't notice the quiet girl in the corner," who may be hurting herself, but not others. Longley, whose daughter was only violent at home, agrees. She had to threaten to sue her daughter's school before they finally agreed to help address her daughter's self-destructive behavior. But when asked if he agrees, Fulton pauses, presumably recalling his daughter's many run-ins with the law, and quietly says "I don't know if I could say that."
A Skeptical View
For all the alarm regarding girls' aggressiveness, some say it is not nearly as bad as it appears. While girls' arrests for assault are up, some researchers, like Darrell Steffensmeier of Penn State, say girls' arrest rates reflect overzealous enforcement policies such as arresting girls for altercations with parents that wouldn't previously have been considered criminal.
"If you look at homicide, robbery and sexual assault, the gender gap is essentially unchanged," says Steffensmeier. In fact, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1991 34 percent of girls reported having been in a physical fight in the last year, but by 2001 that figure had dropped to about 24 percent.
Steffensmeier questions the exclusive use of arrest rates to measure girls' violence. "If you include all different kinds of physical acts or threats, scratching, biting it shows that girls are as violent as boys," says Steffensmeier. That's misleading, he argues, because it includes arrests for what used to be called simple assault, including such things as spitting. For example, a 1999 study showed that 67 percent of girls' arrests are for this less extreme type of assault. Meanwhile, among boys arrested for assault, 46 percent were arrested for these types of crimes.
While it may seem any attention on girls' violence, regardless of how big or small the problem, would be good, some think overreacting to it can have deleterious effect. "It creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy," says Steffensmeier. "We become less protective of girls and we are more likely to 'nail' them if they physically attack."
As for media images, aggressive females in film aren't anything new, says Steffensmeier. "I think of the 'Bond girls,'" the ultra-sexy, gun toting women in old James Bond movies, which date back to the early 1960s.
But Prothrow-Stith thinks girls' violence needs to be taken seriously. "If as a society we don't get it, it will be even more blatant than what is happening now." She calls for adults to be more sensitive to girls' struggles and to model good behavior. Regardless of how aggressive girls are, Garbarino says only widespread community support can stop girls' violence before it gets worse. Solutions may be close at hand. "We can look to what we can do with and for boys," to prevent girls' violence, too, says Garbarino.
Some are getting the message. At Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville, Minnesota, educators use 'Kindness Retreats' in addition to teaching problem-solving and restitution methods to help both boys and girls learn to be nice, according to Pam Keuler, the school's social worker.
Such early interventions might have long-term implications. Fulton's daughter has been in and out of prison for nearly 20 years. "It's horrible," he says. But Prothrow-Stith is hopeful: "Change is possible."
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom is a freelance writer in Burnsville, Minnesota.