We Heart Katniss

Is Tough-Chick TV Creating Violent Girls?

A new generation of kick-ass heroines has experts worried about a rise in teen girl violence. But are their fears overblown?

Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

A friend confided in me recently that she was worried about an incident involving her daughter. After unrelenting and hurtful taunting by another ninth-grade girl, her daughter whirled around and brought her hefty chemistry book down squarely on the nose of her tormentor.

There was blood, a suspension and threats of a lawsuit. There was also a two-week grounding and smart-phone confiscation— which was considerably more painful than the grounding.

My friend was angry—but not overly worried—about her daughter’s behavior. She’s not a bully, and was sorely provoked into a one-time incident. What has her confused was her own response. “We’ve raised our kids not to be pushed around,” she said. “So I’m not entirely sure what she did was wrong. And I’m even less sure I wouldn’t done the same thing.”

While time and reality may have brought parents to an uneasy detente with the idea of girls and sex, the line between assertive and aggressive still seems lightly penciled in. When it comes down to an unavoidable choice, should girls get physical?

If media affects young female behavior, then that question has been asked and answered.

The vulnerable female waiting for rescue by a man has long ago faded from plot lines. In her place are women who will happily kick your ass. Lieutenant Ripley is a muscular space Marine who kills aliens. NCIS has a former Israeli Mossad assassin who killed her own brother. Homeland’s CIA officer Carrie Matheson called in a drone strike that would incinerate the bad guys, but also her captured mentor. The Hunger Games’ Katness Everdeen can put an arrow through your heart from 100 yards. Special Victim Unit’s Olivia Benson has pinned more than one mouthy perp’s head to the interview table. On The Good Wife, the formidable Kalinda knocks back straight whiskey, carries a gun, is voraciously sexual and may or may not have—but probably did—kill her troublesome husband.

The strong heroine is hardly a new invention. But today, even if Scarlett O’Hara might still need to be saved by Big Sam on the bridge, you can bet she would have taken out a few of the carpetbaggers before he got there.

It’s a long list of superheroes, revenge seekers, ancient warriors, tough cops and trained assassins, and the message it sends is clear: tough chicks are cool.

Is that message creating a generation of violence-prone girls?

Coming out of the 90s, there was quite a bit of angst about media and social issues (but mainly media) creating a new generation of hard girls whose new equality with boys brought along some of the darker male impulses. Drawing on raw data from sources like the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, there were frightening headlines about the rise of girl violence.

Very alarming—but on more detailed inspection, perhaps overblown. The breathless “girls gone bad” tone of the reporting of individual events did not stand up the cumulative evidence. Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and Meda-Chesney Lind, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, say that young female violence is a hoax. In a 2010 New York Times article, they argue: “We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years.”

Among the many pieces of compelling evidence cited in the article: The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Intimate Partner Violence in the United States survey, its annual Indicators of School Crime and Safety, the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey and the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. All examine girls’ violent acts and victimization.

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The authors point out that these studies—virtually without exception—show major declines over the previous 15 to 20 years in fights and other violence involving girls. These surveys also show that girls are no more likely to report being harmed, threatened or violently victimizing others today than in the first surveys in the 1970s.

Let’s assume that the authors are right: that the halls of middle and high schools have not become a female fight club—and that young women can embrace all the male prerogatives without the one that makes boys want to punch each other. Are there occasions when physical aggression is reasonable for a young girl—even healthy? Before answering “no— violence solves nothing,” what if the question was about boys?

As my friend’s daughter found out, even a righteous blow struck in the name of pride can still land you in your room without a phone on a Saturday night. But there is also a strong argument that when the need for an aggressive response is suppressed because of a lack of socially acceptable options, it can find its way to the surface in depression or an eating disorder.

I think about those poor young souls who are bullied to the point of suicide. And I can’t help wondering what might happen if they substituted aggression for depression; instead of violence against themselves, they would channel Katniss Everdeen, and go to war with the source of their torment. It might not solve the problem, but perhaps the problem would go someplace more convenient.

Should my friend have punished her daughter for hitting her persecutor or praised her? For any parent, it’s situational, and a very tough call.

I can’t advocate violence. But neither can I advocate absorbing physical or emotional pain— because striking back is something nice girls don’t do