NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the film Gone Girl.
If the toy or clothing industry is anything to do by, I’d say society in general has a fair idea of what little girls are made of. We are the fairer sex, the milk of human kindness, the sensitive side of the gender coin. Where boys fight and spit and perform hosts of outrageously rude and dangerous pranks, getting generally mucky in the process, girls are set higher standards. We ought to remain serene, sweet-natured, vulnerable, and to know better. We’re beauty, and we’re grace…right? Bump into me at 3am on a Saturday night in town – that point in the night when I may be frantically trying to find a taxi home in an all-bets-are-off-friends-are-now-enemies-every-(wo)man-for-themselves-type strategy (you know the one), and you may see that I have spectacularly failed on one or all of those standards (don’t even think of asking me for a chip). Certainly if the competition in the taxi queue is anything to go by, I have a feeling I’m not alone.
If you’ve ever been a young girl, you may (like me) have felt at times a sharp spike in adrenaline when faced with a frustrating moment in life – a brother who just pretended to throw one of your dearest play things off a roof, a parent who is insisting that you wear something/do something/eat something you don’t want to, or that common source of pure evil we are all cruelly subjected to as children – mental arithmetic (seriously, why?) In these moments, you may have felt the hot anger and urge to lash out violently at the nearest person or object. Of course, upon such an outburst, like most children I was reprimanded and I learned that physical aggression is not an acceptable outlet for anger. My brothers were taught the same. But as we grow and learn and form our world views, are differences in the way we react to female aggression compared to male aggression having an impact in the longer term? Boys grow up to become men who are often physically stronger than women, so it is natural that we might fear their potential aggressive behaviour more. But in ignoring, or perceiving female aggression as something irrelevant, are we helping to solidify a perpetrator/victim dichotomy when it comes to men and women?
Those who campaign against domestic violence often come under fire for seeming to ignore male victims. I don’t believe that focusing on the larger problem of women who are affected by domestic violence can be seen as a failure to condemn violence against men, but do we slightly ignore the suffering of men in abusive relationships because we don’t take female aggression seriously enough for it to warrant reprehension? Possibly even because some don’t take women very seriously in general? Undoubtedly, women are exponentially more likely to suffer (and die) at the hands of partner violence, but does this mean that the damage done to men in abusive relationships can be brushed aside? In the media, female aggression is commonly delivered to us as a justifiable way to behave. The cheating boyfriend getting slapped in the face by his long suffering girlfriend is a common example we see often. Fans of the reality show Made in Chelsea (I watch for research purposes only of course) may have witnessed one of the popular leading female members of the cast delivering quite a substantial physical blow to the morally dubious (and overly coiffed) Alex Mytton (don’t we just hate him?). His hair might have remained intact (stupid enormous hair), but the fact that this was an act of physical violence is unavoidable, and should be unacceptable.
Afterwards, I pictured the scene if the roles were reversed. Just the image of the entitled, cheating Alex (ugh) slapping the cute, lovable Binky had my blood boiling already, and rightfully so. In the UK, more than one woman per week is killed by a partner or an ex-partner; the numbers for men are not nearly as high. But instead of using this to justify female violence, I would argue that the idea of the powerless female is damaging to both sexes. We have been socialised to believe that girls are not physically aggressive, that they are empathetic, sensitive and vulnerable, that their only weapons are the relatively benign gossip and rumour. This has contributed to the construction of the world view in young people that male aggression is normal and accepted, while women are defenceless, easily preyed upon, incapable of getting out of abusive relationships in which gossip is a relatively useless weapon. I wonder how much this labelling of men and women contribute to our perception of violence between the sexes– it is certainly arguable that some women suffer from domestic violence, at least partly, because outbursts of physical aggression from men are culturally acceptable. Likewise, are men less likely to report violence from a female partner because they fear it won’t be taken seriously? Those who focus on this area academically have found that, because of gender stereotypes, aggression in girls is often not taken seriously and not reprimanded. This ignorance of the ability of girls to be aggressive not only has the potential to harm others in society, but also puts girls themselves at risk of developing serious social problems such as higher rates of depression and social isolation.
I think we need to start looking at men and women as complex individuals, rather than two distinct categories of being. To use an example which shows the portrayal of a more complex female character than we would normally see in the film industry, the recently released Gone Girl has sparked some intense reactions, with some groups criticizing the film for perpetuating the myth of false rape allegations. While false accusations of rape are certainly not to be portrayed as common place in society (because they most definitely are not), my initial reaction to this story was not one of outrage. In fact, it was refreshing to see a woman in fiction assume agency over her own life and provide a break from the female-is-victim, male-is-aggressor dichotomy. The protagonist, Amy, is complex, she lacks empathy, she is intelligent, strategic, and displays sociopathic and misogynistic traits, just the way anyone could, regardless of gender. Commonly in film, where female characters are strong they are also moral, ethical, empathetic, and their strength has been borne out of necessity – a violent partner, historical abuse, being forced by a totalitarian higher power to fight fellow teenagers to the death, that sort of thing. Amy’s agency is more self-assumed, her calculated motives come from within, she is not a reluctant heroine nor are her unethical actions necessary for her survival; she is a complex human being, she is really quite frightening, and she is definitely not sugar and spice. Of course, those of who you who have come out of seeing Gone Girl and feel it validates doubts around the honesty of rape victims, do feel free to check up on the statistics. I imagine you could do that while staying up all night waiting to see your toys come alive or preparing for intergalactic warfare.
I hope it is clear that I am not advocating female physical aggression in place of empathy or compassion, I believe many of the qualities society commonly bestows upon women to be wonderful things that everyone should possess. Nor am I suggesting that wronged women devise a cunning plan to have cheating husbands sentenced to death row, as tempting as that might be in the heat of the moment, and possibly for several moments thereafter. Only that we accept that both men and women are capable of extraordinarily complex behaviours, some of which should be taken very seriously. I certainly am aware that there are fundamental differences between men and women in biological and social terms. I am aware our evolution has shaped us differently, for very necessary reasons, and I am often fascinated by the different ways in which males and females in various species, including our own, adapt and survive in diverse ways. I just wonder how much the normalisation of gender stereotypes has shaped our stories for us, leading many women to feel it is natural to have a submissive role in an unhealthy relationship, or that violent abuse was warranted because male aggression is natural, or men who feel they can’t report a violent partner because no one will take them seriously. I feel that much of society now takes male partner abuse very seriously, even if the strategies to protect women from it are somewhat flawed, but how seriously could we really be taking women in general if clear examples of their own physical aggression are largely ignored, laughed off, or patronisingly applauded?
Maybe even just by looking at the fictional example of “Amazing Amy”, and for the sake of both men and women, it is time to find a more realistic answer to the question of what little girls are made of.