12 Aug 2011

Female Aggression and The London Riots

"It's a shame when women copy men's behaviour no matter how stupid it is."
Skin, singer from Skunk Anansie, 1997

Although the above comment was aimed at the 'ladette' culture of the 90s, and the supposed female empowerment chanted about by the Spice Girls, I think it holds more water than ever today, as we witness the likes of this story emerging in the wake of the London riots.

The story is depressing, it's squalid, it's becoming increasingly familiar. Previously pleasant, bright young person with high hopes for the future descends into violence, vandalism and cruelty that would shame even our primate cousins. Is it any worse because the perpetrator is female? Do we 'expect better' from our daughters than our sons, dismissing the latter as hard-wired for moronic acts of aggression, but assuming the former will display common sense when the chips are down? It's hard to know what to think of humanity in general after what has been witnessed in Britain's cities this week, let alone deconstruct how gender comes into things. Perhaps girls are, in very general terms, less aggressive, less impulsive and less likely to resort to violence. However, some girls are clearly just as capable of picking up a brick, joining the melee, and indulging in a spot of looting, and are as ready as their male counterparts to turn violently on anyone attempting to stop them. They're not the majority of the rioters - men are - and they're not the majority of girls - is any particular group? - but they're out there, reminding us that the 'gentler sex' is just as capable of behaving with mindless aggression as its hairier, nastier opposite.

Still, it's interesting the way blame for the riots has still, in some quarters of the UK news media, found its way to the feet of women; albeit in a roundabout way. If there was a drinking game that involved slugging a shot of whiskey every time a commentator on the riots mentioned 'broken homes' as a factor in the violence, I think my liver would have shut down long ago. If I took a drink every time single parents were mentioned in a similar vein, I might not quite be hooked up to a drip in hospital, but I'd at least be at the point of wearing my underwear on my head and singing 'Step Back In Time'. Although I've not actually heard anyone brave enough to say what they really mean by 'single parents' - and we all know that's 'single mothers' - the frequent references to 'fatherless families' and 'lack of male role models' say as much as you need to know about the views taken by the powers that be of lone mothers' capabilities to raise respectful, trustworthy, law-abiding children. Yes, the use of those terms implies there is also blame for runaway fathers - and perhaps blame as well for fathers who are around but drink, hit, molest or sponge off their loved ones, thereby providing terrible role models for their children. However, if we consider that 90% of single-parent families are headed by women, then to blame them for producing 'feral' youths, is to effectively say that women alone make crap parents, and that the introduction of a man into their family unit would somehow be the solution to all their problems.

I don't think I need to start a run-down of all the ways in which the 'nuclear family' has often been a far more corrosive and unhealthy place for children than many alternative family set-ups. However, if evidence were needed that you can end up an ignorant, violent twat whether you've got two parents or one struggling mum at home, then let's look back at the story of Chelsea Ives. It was her own mother who saw her daughter's image on TV in footage of the riots, and shopped her to the police. Is Chelsea the victim, not just of lousy parenting by a single mother, but also by a cruel matriarch who compounded her 'alienation' by handing her over to the authorities? Doesn't really look that way. Vivienne Ives was watching the footage with her husband, Chelsea's father. Their daughter was a 'promising athlete and Olympic ambassador'. Could we get any further away from the stereotype of the angry, rootless drop-out who bursts out of their 'broken home' in rage and flings their tracksuited body at the first shop window they see? Actually, yes. I was dismayed but not surprised to read yesterday about another female rioter, Laura Johnson, who appeared in court yesterday. Ms Johnson is an undergraduate at Exeter University, the daughter of a company director, and the product of a high-ranking grammar school. Oh, David Cameron - please worm your way out of that one and explain to me exactly how having happily married parents, GCSEs and A Levels to your name, and a tennis court in the back garden insures against a tendency toward naked greed and gleeful destruction.

As we're starting to see, caricaturing the rioters and simplifying the causes of their actions doesn't help anyone. Plenty of people were out there, male and female, upper, middle and working-classes, black, white, Asian, mostly making humongous arses of themselves. There were also plenty of members of each group conducting themselves with immense dignity, be it Tariq Jahan responding to his son's needless death with a call for peace, or those who volunteered their time and energy to clean up the aftermath. The government will point fingers at whoever is a most convenient sitting duck, but whether they point at a nice well-heeled couple from Surrey, or a downtrodden single mother on benefits from Peckham, they're conveniently ignoring where so much of the blame lies. But I guess pointing the finger at themselves is not what politicians are known for.

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