This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
There's no doubt that recently, some young women have behaved appallingly. On Monday, a major story broke in the media of a teenager punching an 87-year-old on a bus in Croydon, London. A 14-year-old girl was arrested after CCTV footage surfaced, but what does it prove? Enter The Rise of Female Violence—a BBC3 documentary which aired on Monday night, and which tried to unpick the issue of this alleged Very Modern Problem.
There was plenty of stuff to take away from the documentary—mostly in the form of astonishing anecdotes. But, despite wanting to "challenge our perceptions of gender," the show relied on gender stereotyping that undermined itself at every turn.
Its premise is that "girl violence is on the rise." Except, it isn't. Or at least, they can't find any statistics that really prove it is. And why is this a now problem rather than a five-or-ten-years-ago problem? Because Solange appeared to attack Jay-Z in an elevator in 2014, Rihanna made the Bitch Better Have My Money video, and some blurry footage of women brawling has been uploaded to YouTube fairly recently. That's why. While ignoring the fact that women have been violent since forever (from Boudicca to Rose West), this program focused on modern women. The makers seemed quite surprised that women can be assholes and worked backwards to find out why ladies are getting rowdy outside a bar instead of, I don't know, staying at home and doing tapestry.
While no real evidence is used to show that this is something on the up, there are some extraordinary stories. One Leeds bouncer says that he once saw a woman attack a man with a stiletto and it got stuck in his head. As in, the spine of the heel was sticking into his skull. And there does seem to be a consensus among bouncers that women are becoming more aggressive. But there were none of those boring old facts and figures to make it all stand up. We're told that knife crime is up 13 percent, and one in three cases of domestic abuse has a female perpetrator, but that doesn't tell us very much about women.
The Leeds section of the program isn't a dead loss though, because it's here that presenter Alys Harte introduces us to Izzy—aka Isabella Sorley—who was jailed for sending abusive tweets to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez. Izzy, as she's referred to in the program, "reckons she has around 30 convictions" for drunken, violent behavior. While this is pretty attention-grabbing, if only for its vagueness, we're also told about Izzy's serious problem with alcohol that leads to her waking up in police cells time and time again. But it's difficult to know what to do with her story. She needs help, and she is advised to stop drinking altogether. At the end of the program, she is spared jail after fighting three police officers, attacking a detention officer in prison, committing a racially aggravated assault, and attacking a hospital worker. Some argued that she was only let off because she's female. It's tricky to know where her story fits into a supposedly uniquely female narrative.
Elsewhere, the film explores some interesting ideas about how we view gender and violence. In a hidden-camera set-up featuring two actors in a London park, people barely flinch when the female actor slaps the male actor across the face and screams at him, but they are deeply concerned when it's the other way round.
After the show aired, this prompted some predictable "shoe being on the other foot" commentary on Twitter. But this isn't just about "reverse sexism"; rather, it's about what our society expects of men. It expects men to be strong, to be in control of any situation, and, above all, expects men to have no emotions whatsoever. Suicide is the leading cause of death for all men under 50 in the UK, and many have linked this to the weight of expectation and lack of sympathy for men in society.
Again, the math department at the BBC comes out with another statistic that doesn't tell us very much—that while women account for 15 percent of arrests, they make up only 5 percent of the prison population. The show winds its way to the conclusion that female violence is always taken less seriously, but there are statistics that undermine this. Keep in mind that 80 percent of women in prison are there because of non-violent offences, and that women ultimately receive harsher treatment from the Criminal Justice System than men for equivalent crimes. Consider, too, one 2009 survey that found that despite the fact that the vast majority of domestic violence perpetrators are male, women are three times more likely to be arrested for incidents of abuse.
It wouldn't take a gender studies undergrad to notice that throughout the show, the word "girls" is used in lieu of "women"—whether describing teenagers or twentysomethings. And it truly grates. It conjures up the image of four-year-olds in fluffy party dresses kicking ten shades of shit out of each other, when it's really adults with difficult pasts drinking way too much or losing their minds and stabbing their sister.
What The Rise of Female Violence really shows is that splitting people into "girls" and "boys" achieves very little. Ultimately, these are ugly, everyday human problems. Drinking too much. Having a violent upbringing. Feeling like you're not respected. Pack mentality. Mental illness.
Instead of clinging to the sugar-and-spice or slugs-and-snails ideas of what we're supposed to do, it would be much more sensible for us to accept that girls—sorry, women—can be every bit as scary, violent, and irrational as men. If there's a moral to the story, this is all there is.
Follow Helen on Twitter.