Civil Liberties

Tough Broads

Girls, violence, and us


The video clip that seemed to play endlessly on the news for a few days gave a whole new meaning to "girls gone wild." Several teenage girls were brutalizing other girls huddled helplessly on the ground, hitting them with fists and objects, kicking them, smearing them with paint, mud, and feces. The attackers were not gang members but suburban high school seniors in Northbrook, Ill., subjecting junior girls to an "initiation" that got out of control.

Some of the victims were reportedly forced to eat mud, raw meat, and dog food; two had broken bones and one required stitches. The fact that girls were involved in this vicious act of hazing has undoubtedly heightened the media frenzy—simply because we are more used to boys pummeling one another, and because on some level, the sugar-and-spice stereotype of girls still endures.

Still, most of the commentary has not made an issue of gender, focusing instead on general issues of youth violence and proper punishment for such acts.

There are exceptions: Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition appeared on a Fox News Network show to proclaim that violence is profoundly antithetical to feminine nature and to lament that because of feminism, we are no longer raising girls to be "women." (Does Lafferty really think that such brutality by boys and men is acceptable?) At the other end of the spectrum, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Debra Pickett sounded almost elated that the girls on the tape "looked just as strong, fierce, and stupid as any guys ever have." But amid these rousing cheers for equality, Pickett could barely bring herself to voice any condemnation of the perpetrators and seemed concerned mostly with the danger of "overpunishing" them.

It's hard to tell how different the reaction would have been to a video of boys pummeling other boys. But one thing is fairly certain: If the tape had shown boys attacking girls, we would be hearing a lot of rhetoric about the way our culture trains boys to be misogynistic brutes.

Not so long ago, the plight of the teenage girl was the stuff of headlines and bestsellers. A bevy of "experts" warned that girls in America were being tragically robbed of self-confidence and self-esteem. In many cases, the finger of blame was unambiguously pointed at boys. Reports on sexual harassment in schools focused almost exclusively on boys abusing girls.

Reviewing Peggy Orenstein's 1994 book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap in The Washington Post, Carolyn See said that adolescent girls are subjected to "ritual societal hazing by their schools, their parents, and especially flocks of ratty little boys," in a systematic effort to "cripple" females and perpetuate their subjection. This was not just one eccentric opinion. After the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., in which the perpetrators were two boys and the victims were girls—and one of the boys was apparently driven by anger over being "jilted" by a girl—Kersti Yllo, a sociology professor at Wheaton College, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that the shooting should be seen as a reflection of "misogyny."

There is no question that sometimes boys viciously mistreat girls (though most of their violence is directed at their own gender). But in my experience, most women will tell you that the worst bullying they suffered as children and adolescents was from other girls. Even at the height of the hysteria about patriarchal abuse of girls, this uncomfortable truth would occasionally leak out.

A 1994 Los Angeles Times magazine story about a high-profile school sexual harassment case revealed that while the victim was suing the school for sex discrimination and her lawsuit focused on boys' behavior, the most egregious abuse she suffered at school came from a group of girls who assaulted her both verbally and physically.

True, the most extreme acts of violence by teenagers, such as mass shootings, are committed almost exclusively by boys. But such acts represent a tiny fraction of violent behavior among children. There is, alas, no shortage of news stories of girls beating, slashing, or stabbing other girls—and sometimes boys or adults.

Federal statistics show that among offenders under 18, girls account for nearly a quarter of arrests for aggravated assault and about 30 percent for other assaults. And while youth violence has been dropping, in recent years the decline has been faster for boys than for girls.

Here's a newsflash: Girls, like boys, are only human. When girls are violent and cruel, we should hold them responsible just as we would boys. When boys are violent and cruel, we should hold them responsible as individuals, not smear an entire gender.