Bad Girls, Bad Girls, Whatcha Gonna Do?

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Suddenly, the world is filled with nasty girls. “Girls just want to be mean,” the New York Times Magazine announced last year, as catty girls became the latest media “bad” girls.

Then came the ultimate girl fight in living color. Full-scale “savagery in the Chicago suburbs,” Newsweek called it. Junior girls from the privileged Glenbrook North High School paid for the right to be hazed by seniors at the annual powder puff football game last spring. After the beatings and humiliations ended, five girls were sent to the hospital.

The aggression and violence that girls perpetrate on other girls is certainly cause for concern. But the media frenzy that greeted the lurid and voyeuristic video of girls fighting other girls is also worrisome.

Girls’ anger has a long history of being dismissed, and girls’ violence is generally ignored entirely or sensationalized and sexualized. Girl-fighting, in particular, is often presented as a spectacle (consider mud or Jell-O wrestling) enjoyed for its eroticism as much as its entertainment value (think Jerry Springer).

The hazing we watched up-close and personal, over and over, was deeply disturbing, but questions about how and why the episode gripped the nation are at least as troubling. Who was watching the events unfold on the field? Why was it caught on videotape? And what made it national news that needed to be aired repeatedly?

Why, when boys perpetrate 80 percent of serious violence in the United States, is this the story that captivates us and helps define a generation of girls?

The school principal suggests this is just kids with “old scores to settle.” That doesn’t tell us enough, and worse, fudges the real issues.

This was girls fighting over boyfriends and popularity. The seniors used words like “bitches,” “wimps” and “sluts” to shame the juniors into staying on the field. In what many think of as post-feminist America, it’s not popular to raise issues of power and subordination, but the fact that girls are fighting other girls in front of videotaping and beer-drinking boys is significant. That girls used sexist and misogynistic language to control other girls during and after the event, and that their fights were primarily for boys’ attention and favor, is a symptom of deeper cultural problems.

Girl-fighting gets acted out horizontally on other girls because this is the safest and easiest outlet for girls’ outrage and frustration. Girls are essentially accessing and mimicking the male violence they sometimes know all too well. And they are choosing victims that are societally approved – other girls.

Girls’ violence also serves one additional purpose: It’s not uncommon for the targets of that violence to be those members of their own group that challenge or perfect the rigid norms of girlhood. Why, for example, wouldn’t the girl-fighters go after those “girly girls” that the media continuously tells them are weak, vapid and stupid? (Think the evil cheerleaders in popular girl movies such as Bring It On or Lizzie McGuire.)

Girls who take out other girls for being “dykes,” “hos” and “bitches” can prove they are different, worth taking seriously, forces to contend with. No wimps, wusses or victims here. But this posturing is short-lived protection at best, because selling out other girls this way only continues a climate of misogyny, and any wrong move can quickly turn the perpetrator into a victim.

The problem is not girls; the problem is a culture that denigrates and demoralizes women and turns them into commodities, then gets a kick out of watching the divide-and-conquer consequences.

There’s an old saying: “Men kill their weak, women kill their strong.” If we would give girls legitimate avenues to power and value their minds as much as their bodies, they’d be less likely to go down those nasty, underhanded or openly hostile roads, and less likely to take their legitimate rage out on other girls. Let’s face it: “Meanness” and other covert aggressions are, in the final analysis, weapons of the weak, and this sort of horizontal violence ultimately ratifies boy power, not girl power.

When we join with girls to create real pathways to power and possibility, we’ll have a lot less to videotape, and a lot more to be proud of both in ourselves and in our daughters.

Brown, associate professor of education at Colby College in Maine, is author of the forthcoming
Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls. Chesney-Lind, professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is co-author of “Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice.”