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Why Girls Fight

Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City

Cindy D. Ness
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 198
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  • Book Info
    Why Girls Fight
    Book Description:

    In low-income U.S. cities, street fights between teenage girls are common. These fights take place at school, on street corners, or in parks, when one girl provokes another to the point that she must either step up or be labeled a punk. Typically, when girls engage in violence that is not strictly self-defense, they are labeled delinquent, their actions taken as a sign of emotional pathology. However, in Why Girls Fight, Cindy D. Ness demonstrates that in poor urban areas this kind of street fighting is seen as a normal part of girlhood and a necessary way to earn respect among peers, as well as a way for girls to attain a sense of mastery and self-esteem in a social setting where legal opportunities for achievement are not otherwise easily available. Ness spent almost two years in west and northeast Philadelphia to get a sense of how teenage girls experience inflicting physical harm and the meanings they assign to it. While most existing work on girls' violence deals exclusively with gangs, Ness sheds new light on the everyday street fighting of urban girls, arguing that different cultural standards associated with race and class influence the relationship that girls have to physical aggression.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5907-3
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    On any given day in the West and Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods that I refer to as Melrose Park and Lee, respectively, it is not uncommon to hear about a street fight that has “gone down” between girls. In certain instances, the fight takes place in a school hallway; in others, after the school day ends at a given time and place. Or perhaps it breaks out spontaneously on a street corner or a park after one girl provokes another past the point where she either must “step up” to a situation or otherwise be labeled a “punk.” Far less common,...

  5. 2 The City of Philadelphia and Female Youth Violence
    (pp. 23-44)

    Like most major urban centers, Philadelphia is a city of sharp contrasts between wealth and poverty. Most of its struggling neighborhoods, ravaged by socioeconomic neglect and illegal drug markets, lie only minutes from its thriving business district or well-heeled enclaves known for their high-end real estate. Whereas shopping areas in the affluent parts of the city are lined with gourmet-food eateries and specialty shops that cater to middle-class and upper-middle-class tastes and budgets, the main thoroughfares are distinguished by their run-down take-out restaurants and check-cashing places where employees greet customers though bulletproof windows. Beyond what practical implications these differences have...

  6. 3 Girls’ Violent Behavior as Viewed from the Streets
    (pp. 45-68)

    Each decision to fight or not to fight for girls in Melrose Park and Lee has a number of root causes. Some of these causes are systemic: How safe or dangerous is the physical environment? What is the role of “reputation” in preserving a girl’s physical safety? How do the constraints of poverty drive the need for an identity as “not a punk”? Does the girl in question have, or envision, a chance to move out of this environment as an adult? What is the involvement of the criminal justice system in the life of a given girl?

    Family history...

  7. 4 The Reasons Girls Give for Fighting
    (pp. 69-90)

    While on the surface a girl’s description of the types of situations that lead her to use violence is straightforward enough (“someone talking bad about my mother,” “looking at me the wrong way,” etc.), by reading between the lines, one can gain a sense of the emotional logic by which girls justify the use of physical violence. This logic, centered on both an ethic of presumptive retaliation (I do to you first what I sense you’re going to do to me) and an ethic of reciprocity (I do for you, and in return you do for me), underlies the formation...

  8. 5 Mothers, Daughters, and the Double-Generation Dynamic
    (pp. 91-114)

    Rather than being positively reinforced for demonstrating passivity, girls in Melrose Park and Lee are socialized from a young age to “hold their own” and stand up to anyone who disrespects them. A girl’s mother typically plays a key role in setting this process in motion. Just as it often falls on mothers as head of household to stand up to an outside challenge—girls’ fathers rarely live at home—most mothers actively encourage their daughters early on to fight their own battles so that they will become similarly capable. In fact, mothers and girls in equal number talk of...

  9. 6 Culture and Neighborhood Institutions
    (pp. 115-138)

    It is not only one’s mother, other family members, or peers that shape a girl’s relationship to violence. The institutional infrastructure of the community, comprised by its schools, housing, police force, criminal justice system, and the configuration of its commercial economy, among other institutions, plays an important role in the production and reproduction of violent events in a given neighborhood or in the limiting of such events, too. Clearly, neighborhoods are places where people share more than just geography. They are places where people are likely to share some degree of cultural identity, cultural language, social perceptions, and interests. Neighborhood...

  10. 7 Conclusion
    (pp. 139-156)

    The stories of girls who resort to violence in Melrose Park and Lee are new stories in the sense that the motivations behind girls’ violent behavior have historically been obscured by the society within which they live—and, in large measure, by social science over the past 100 years. Other motivations more palatable to societies long uncomfortable with the phenomenon of females engaging in physical aggression have been substituted. In this book, which is based on hundreds of conversations with low-income girls, their friends, their families, the professionals in their neighborhoods, and a wide range of persons encountered along the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 157-166)
  12. References
    (pp. 167-176)
  13. Index
    (pp. 177-184)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 185-185)