Elevate Difference

Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City

Ness holds doctorate degrees in Human Development, Psychology, and Anthropology and in Why Girls Fight she blends the theories and research methods from these three fields to discuss female youth violence. Ness argues that the majority of studies tend to examine either individual factors in explaining and understanding youth violence or emphasize sociological, macro-level factors. Ness’ interdisciplinary approach allows her to address how individual girls respond to and navigate the racial and class constraints as well as the limited economic opportunities within their communities.

Ness problematizes previous research on female youth violence. She addresses the racist and classist underpinnings of the term “violent girl” used in studies, noting that much of this research has relied on a framework in which girlhood is viewed through the lens of white, middle-class femininity. Within this framework girlhood is mostly associated with passivity and relational aggression (mean-girl behavior) if any aggression at all. Moreover, within this framework girls are almost always constructed as victims of violence rather than as agents of violence. Failing to address issues of race and class in relation to youth violence, Ness argues that much of the research depicts girls as delinquents or sociopaths and focuses on faults within the individual.

In acknowledging the social realities girls face in two working-class Philadelphia neighborhoods, Ness is able to sidestep this type of moralizing and pathologizing that taints much of the research on female youth violence. Ness offers a brief history on the economic decline of working-class neighborhoods in Philadelphia, noting how once major industries folded and left the city, entire households and even neighborhoods suddenly found themselves without jobs leading to rundown neighborhoods and schools without adequate funding.

Ness also conducts an ethnographic study, interviewing girls from these two respective neighborhoods on why they fight. In providing a space for the girls’ own words, Ness uncovers a complex set of reasons for female youth violence within the two neighborhoods, reasons ranging from a lack of upward mobility within their communities to issues of physical abuse at home. Furthermore, almost all the girls Ness interviews recognize that street fighting is considered a necessary survival skill within their homes and their communities.

Ness’ book is groundbreaking in addressing how mother-daughter relationships relate to female youth violence. Sidestepping the typical mother-blaming that occurs in studies on this subject, Ness examines how the girls’ mothers’ own views on street-fighting affect how they raise their daughters and she sheds light on the unreported incidents of mothers stepping into fights in order to protect their daughters and at times fighting alongside their daughters.

In neighborhoods that value the ability to handle oneself over passivity, Ness’ work clearly demonstrates that a white, middle-class framework of girlhood cannot begin to explain female youth violence and with Why Girls Fight Ness provides a more adequate model for future studies.

Written by: Kristen Lambert, February 14th 2011

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