Media hype over the past several years would have you believe that we have a growing case of violence among girls on our hands. Everything from news reports to reality shows suggest that girls just wanna have…fights? But, last month the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a report on the incidence of violence among adolescent females. The study combined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) collected in 2006 and 2008. Findings from the study indicate that about one quarter of girls (26.7%) aged 12-17 had engaged in violent behaviors in the year prior to filling out the survey. The report notes a relationship between girls engaging in violent behavior and higher rates of alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drug use. It also notes a relationship between violence and social class.
Here’s the thing—despite all the urgency and media hype around violence among girls, this study proves that this behavior—while admittedly distressing and seemingly not decreasing—is not on the rise. There haven’t been any significant changes in the number of girls reporting this type of violence since the 2002-2004 studies.
So why all the press? We checked in with our friend, University of Hawaii’s Meda Chesney-Lind, professor of Women’s Studies and Criminal Justice and author of several books on girls and violence, including her recent Beyond Bad Girls: Gender Violence and Hype. “We are playing a very big game of ‘re-discover,’” Meda says. “I’m looking at my copy of YRBSS (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System) data. The SAMHSA data more or less line up with it...and the YRBSS data show girls violence declining. So, just tell everyone to calm down, and let's talk about the problematic contexts that create girls’ violence.”
The problem is not real girls; the problem is the steady stream of girl-on-girl violence in television and film. Popular TV shows like Gossip Girl, The Hills, Jersey Shore, and The Bachelor all pit women against one another, and they make it as sexy and titillating as possible. Shows like these perpetuate cultural stereotypes that women aren’t to be trusted; that they’ll always pick men over each other; that they are inherently gossipy, cruel, and superficial. This kind of media makes this hyped kind of news coverage of the SAMHSA study possible, and makes it easy for us to forget that what leads to violence among girls is a culture of violence, poverty, fear, and mistrust.
We’re constantly pushing for more real girls in media—more of their dreams, accomplishments, and intelligence—because when we’re bombarded with catty and violent women we miss the opportunity to recognize and publicize what positive realities there are for girls. Worse, we delude girls into thinking all their problems are with other girls. We need a reality check, some public awareness, and a little more faith in girls. Given the tools and the opportunity to think critically about the media hype, you’d better believe girls will get angry — but forget about slapping their sisters. Empowered, critically-thinking girls are going to raise their voices, talk back, and tell their stories. And to be honest, those are the stories we want to hear.