The bad news about girls just seems to keep coming, particularly if you pay attention to popular media. Girls are going “wild,” girls are “mean” (and certainly meaner than boys), and girls are even getting as violent as boys. Current media coverage of modern girlhood, at least in the United States, is virtually all grim. It is also clear as to the source of the problem — girls are getting more like boys — and that is bad news for girls.
Despite widespread acceptance of these notions, there is considerable evidence that these ideas are incorrect. They also lead to bad social policy, obscure the good news about girls and distance the United States from the global conversation about girls and girlhood.
Let’s start with the media fascination with “mean” girls. The manipulative and damaging characteristics of girls’ social worlds have been the subject of high-profile best-selling books like “Odd Girl Out” and “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” These, in turn, spawned hit movies like “Mean Girls” and a slew of articles, like The New York Times Magazine cover story entitled, “Girls Just Want to Be Mean.”
Notions of “meanness” rely on psychological categories of behaviors that are intended to harm, but are not physical in nature; instead they rely on covert or indirect behaviors like rumor spreading, ignoring or eye rolling. Some scholars have suggested that while boys tend to specialize in physical violence, girls specialize in these more covert forms of aggression, an idea that the media immediately embraced.
However, the literature on relational aggression does not consistently support this notion. For example, University of Georgia researchers randomly selected 745 sixth graders from nine middle schools across six school districts in northeast Georgia. The student participants took computer surveys each spring semester for seven years, from sixth grade to 12th.
Key findings included the following. First, covert and relational aggression is extremely common; 96 percent of the students who participated in the study reported at least one act of relational aggression (meaning, everyone is mean sometimes), and 92.3 percent of boys and 94.3 percent of girls said they’d been the victim of such an attack at one point during the study period. Second, they found that boys admitted to significantly more acts of relational aggression than girls did. And girls were more likely to be victims.
Finally, and of the greatest significance, of the meanest kids (the ones who fell into the “high” relational aggression group), 66.7 percent were boys and 33.3 percent were girls. So, at least according to this study, the problem is mean boys, not girls.
But what about all the evidence in arrest statistics, in media stories featuring menacing images of “gangsta girls” peering over the barrel of a gun and in social media obsessed with the cheerleader beating up other girls? Are girls “going wild” and closing the gender gap with boys in physical aggression or violence?
Since the 1990s, there has been plenty of official evidence that girls were getting arrested for offenses that were not typically associated with female delinquency (like running away from home). Notably, arrests of girls for simple assault, in particular, soared at the end of the last century; one study of court referrals between 1985 and 2002 found a 202 percent increase in girls charged with “person offense cases.”
And even though juvenile arrests have declined in recent years, girls now comprise a far larger percentage of juvenile arrests than they used to. Essentially, girls have gone from about one juvenile arrest in five (in the ’80s), to one juvenile arrest in three (in 2015). Much of this is due to the fact that arrests of boys, particularly for offenses like simple assault, have fallen more sharply than girls’ arrests for the same offense (47.8 percent compared to 39.5 for girls 2006-15).
Juvenile court and correctional data reveal a similar theme. Since 1990, girls’ adjudications for person offenses have increased by 60 percent, now representing 22 percent of all youth adjudicated on such charges. Likewise, the number of girls in custody for a violent crime has also been on the rise. In 1989, 8,512 girls were in detention for a violent offense; 25 years later, that number more than doubled to 17,730.
What about other data on girls’ violence? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has monitored youthful behavior in a national sample of school-age youth in a number of domains (including violence) at regular intervals since the ’90s. Their data show that more than a third (34.4 percent) of girls surveyed in 1991 said they had been in a physical fight in the previous year, and slightly more than half (50.2 percent) of the boys reported fighting. By 2015, though, only 16.5 percent of girls reported being in such a fight, and boys’ violence was also down, with only 28.4 percent saying they had been in a physical fight.
In essence, the data show that girls have always been more violent than their stereotype suggests, but also that girls’ violence, at least by their own accounts, has been decreasing rather dramatically, not increasing.
To further explore these issues about girls’ self-reported violence and likelihood of arrest, two other professors and I used two national self-report data sets to compare self-reported behavior with self-reported arrests in two different time periods (1980 and 2000). This research found that girls who admitted to simple assault in 1980 had about a one-in-four chance of having been charged with a crime, compared to girls in 2000, who had about a three-in-four chance of arrest. Furthermore, black girls in 2000 were nearly seven times more likely as their 1980 counterparts to have been charged with a crime.
In short, while girls had long reported that they were acting out violently, their arrests did not necessarily reflect that reality. Instead, girls’ arrests tended to emphasize petty and status offenses (like running away from home or being “incorrigible”); by the 1990s, that had changed dramatically, as more girls were arrested, particularly for such seemingly “masculine” offenses as simple assault — and this pattern was particularly pronounced among African-American girls. But these shifts are in the behavior of those who police girls, not the girls themselves.
So what is going on? Misguided school policies (like zero tolerance) and relabeling of girls’ fights with their parents as assault have buoyed the arrest numbers, not changes in girls’ behaviors. And again, the impact has been most pronounced among African-American girls. As a result, in 2013, African-American girls were the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they were 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls.
While the media and policymakers in the U.S. have been fretting about policing girls’ meanness (through misguided anti bullying policies), and demonizing girls, particularly girls of color, for their presumed violence, the global conversation on girls has taken a completely different tack. In 2014, Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient (at age 17) of the Nobel Peace Prize, made history.
Malala’s story of triumph over abuse and violence began in 2012, when she survived a bullet fired by a Taliban fighter that caused a massive head injury, and she became an international advocate for girls’ education and peace. She was one of two recipients of the Prize for 2014, sharing it with Kallash Satyarthi, who campaigns for children’s rights in India and has been involved in rescuing trafficked children. They reflect a growing global focus on girls’ rights, especially their right to education and to be safe from abuse, particularly physical abuse, sexual abuse and early marriages.
This international concern about the extensiveness of girls’ victimizations and girls’ rights stands in stark contrast to the discourse on girls in the last 25 years in the United States, where both media and policymakers have been expressing concern (and developed policies) to respond to the growing numbers of “mean,” “bad” and “violent” girls. It is time that the United States joined the rest of the world in advocating for safe childhoods for girls, calling for expanded (and equitable) educational opportunities (building on the impact of Title IX) and offering them the chance for a bright future they deserve.
Meda Chesney-Lind is a professor and the chair of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was also recently elected president of the American Society of Criminology; her term begins in 2018.