The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) article and reading excerpts from Between Good and the Ghetto by Nikki Jones and Girls in Trouble with the Law by Laurie Schaffner address the dilemmas faced by young girls who grow up in poverty stricken neighborhoods with regards to violence and societal norms on the expected behavior of girls. In addition, statistics are reported to reflect the rise in female juvenile violence. Overall, these authors made three key points about girls and violence.
The first is that girls exposed to a violent environment in many ways need to grow up with a ‘survival mentality,’ i. e. needing to learn how to fight to defend themselves. Secondly, all sources consistently report that one key factor as to why girls fight has to do with respect or, more accurately, a perceived lack of respect. Finally, though statistics seem to indicate that there may be a rise in violent behavior amongst girls, closer examination of the data points to changes in legislation or policy activity accounting for the reported increase.
When speaking about the unique experience of growing up a girl in inner-cities, Jones says, “Inner-city girls who live in distressed neighborhoods face a gendered dilemma: they must learn how to effectively manage potential threats of interpersonal violence at the risk of violating mainstream and local expectations regarding appropriate feminine behavior (9). ” Both Schaffner and the OJJDP article concur that one of the reasons it is so difficult for people to accept violent behaviors in girls is because this concept is so contrary to the gender norms.
The belief that girls are supposed to be “good”, “polite”, and grow up to be “respectable” is prevalent even in inner-cities and other violent neighborhoods. Yet, these types of behaviors are often not practical. In interviews with young ladies conducted by both Jones and Schaffner, girls repeatedly indicated that violence was unavoidable. In school and the community, these girls are exposed to fights, weapons, drug sales, among other violent experiences beginning at a young age.
When they make attempts to stay away from the violence, try to live up to the ‘good’ image, they are still harassed – perceived by other girls as believing they are ‘better than’ their peers. To complicate this dichotomy of norms and survival, Schaffner explains how the norms for girls began to change at the turn of the century. Messages aimed at girls depicted women being “active and assertive but, of course, still feminine, (123)” and she discusses the many advertisements showing women with fully done hair and makeup running.
In interviews with mothers, Jones reports that many mothers often feel torn – wanting to raise a respectable, young lady, but wanting their child to survive. Oftentimes, these mothers choose to, “encourage girls to realize that one of their most valuable resources is their own strength. By the time…girls reach their late teens, they have internalized these lessons of self-reliance and independence, usually in a way that includes an acknowledgement that violence is a fact of inner-city life (32). ” A big part of surviving life in these neighborhoods includes fighting or giving off the impression of being a good fighter.
Though the fight or flight explanation has its merits and seems to do a thorough job of explaining why girls exposed to violence are more likely to become violent, there was little in the way of explaining why some girls do not become violent. Especially in the few examples both Jones and Schaffner provided on siblings and/or cousins raised in the same environment, sometimes in the same household, where one sister becomes a ‘fighter;’ while the other chooses remains a ‘good’ girl, avoiding the streets as much as possible.
The second, and perhaps more interesting point articulated across the readings was the idea that girls predominantly fight because of a perceived feeling of being disrespected. Schaffner references studies in which girls’ aggression is described as relational, often directed towards someone well-known to the girl, and intended to harm another person oftentimes through gossip and peer rejection. The OJJDP article states that research indicates that up to 50% of physical aggression incidents occurs among same-sex peers, adding further that, “the second most common trigger of peer violence was negative verbal exchanges. Jones theorizes that girls defend themselves against rumors publicly as a way of showing that disrespect will not be accepted (15). Across the board, when girls react violently, they begin to earn a reputation of being “man-like”. Yet, the authors of these studies indicate that the need to survive, to defend one-self and ones’ honor, is the same for boys and girls in dangerous neighborhoods. This idea of girls becoming a ‘fighter’ to defend themselves not against physical attacks, but against insult towards image or reputation, brings up questions about whether they truly need to fight to survive.
Is the perception of being ‘disrespected’ an actual threat or simply an excuse to perpetuate the cycle of violence? Though there has not been extensive research on girls’ violent behaviors, the OJJDP study pulled data from three sources to identify whether there has been an increase in violence amongst girls in recent years. The conclusion was that though some sources of data indicate and increase in violence, further examination reveals that this is not an indication of actual changes in behavior, but rather changes in arrest rates due to policy shifts, such as the zero policy enforcement on school campuses.
This is further supported by Schaffner who states that the apparent increase in violence among girls is simply a change in policing. What is clear from these three reading sources is that girls can be just as violent as boys. Though social norms and environmental factors sometimes contribute to this violence and aggression, further research is needed to determine why some girls become violent and others “good” even when faced with the same expectations and exposure to violence.