Don’t we all love a macho woman?
Times on line
Women are now responsible for one in three drunken fights in Scotland’s city centres, we report today. Our country has a reputation for brawling, but we have no special claim on aggressive females. A report by the Ministry of Justice in England last year found that women are now responsible for an average of 240 physical assaults every day.
This apparent journey from lady to ladette is gaining pace, it would appear. Elish Angiolini may have smashed the glass ceiling to become our first female Lord Advocate. But rather than emulate her example of gender equality, too many girls are competing with the boys to smash bottles in each other’s faces. Angiolini herself spoke out about the pattern last year. Girls, she said, had been involved in the most horrific crimes, including torture, not merely as men’s willing helpers, but as lead perpetrators.
Most recently in Scotland, we had the case of Lisa Brown, 21, the pregnant student dropout convicted of murdering her mother Anne in a dispute about the custody of a child. Mrs Brown, a former nurse, suffered 49 injuries to her face and neck, then — possibly still alive — she was bundled into a sleeping bag and dumped in a Lanarkshire burn. The jury convicted Lisa’s lover John Wilson of the lesser charge of culpable homicide, believing him to have fallen under the young woman’s spell. Last week it was reported that prison staff were so concerned by the lack of remorse, or indeed any emotional response exhibited by Brown, that they called in doctors who concluded she may have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
One cannot help but wonder if a similarly unfeeling male murderer would have aroused the same level of concern. Violent men are bad, violent women well, they must surely be mad. But if this is the case, there appears to be a collective rush towards insanity by some members of what used to be called the gentle sex. Whatever happened to sugar, spice and all things nice?
Then again, don’t we love a violent little vixen? The cult of the in-your-face, scantily clad female has been celebrated for several decades now. She reappears, along with her sullen pout, in different forms, but always as an erotic icon and usually involving leather. From Jane Fonda’s metal-breasted Barbarella to Angelina Jolie’s steely thighed Lara Croft, the message is the same: femininity doesn’t always come with frills, or even good manners.
GQ, one of the more suave men’s magazines, recently ran a glossy photo spread about the “25 sexiest violent women on film”. Among these “dangerous beauties” are the leather-holstered Jessica Alba in Sin City, Milla Jovovich, once described as “the reigning queen of kick butt”, in The Fifth Element, and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct — better remembered for uncrossing her legs than her skill with an ice pick.
Beyond this mainstream, there is a whole genre of exploitation films with titles like Ten Violent Women and Girls in Cages, which are not so far away from sadomasochistic pornography. The messages they convey seep into the wider culture in two very different ways. For those men who are already frightened of women, they divide females into good and bad, with the latter the dominant category. Certain men interpret that as justifying their belief that women are hard bitches who deserve rough treatment.
Impressionable girls, however, can make a different, far more literal interpretation. They see fashion shoot surliness dressed up as girl power. Remember the boxing ring video for Christina Aguilera’s hit Dirrty? Those low-rise leather chaps were more fetishist than feminist, but Miss Aguilera tried to convince us it was all about “being strong”. This is just one example of “attitude” as the sexiest thing a girl can possess. But in hiding their vulnerability behind the swagger, are women not paying a terrible price? In imitating aggressive men, surely they will suffer as such men do — unable to express their emotional needs, locked in a world of false bravado.
Or worse. We report today on the work of researchers from Glasgow Caledonian University who spent 100 hours in city centre nightclubs monitoring and recording violent incidents.
Women participated in 36.8% of the fights, always involving others of the same sex. Almost a third (29.5%) of the females involved were injured or hurt. Sexual jealousy was blamed for most conflicts that, true to the catfight stereotype of those exploitation films, often involved hair pulling and slapping, sometimes with stilettos as weapons. And remember, these days most of them will have acrylic fingernails, which really ought to be covered by the knife laws.
Dr Alasdair Forsyth, senior research fellow at the university’s Centre for the Study of Violence and the lead author of the report, suggested we are seeing the rise of the macho female, who leaves male bouncers in pubs and clubs confused about how to respond.
Yet the harpy is no 21st-century phenomena. The mill girls of Lancashire and the jute lassies of Dundee were terrifying in their day. Factory girls didn’t waste much time perfecting the winsome glances and delicate speech of their upper class counterparts.
Many girls of my own generation were raised by mothers who came of age in the 1950s and wanted well mannered daughters who could conduct themselves with Doris Day decorum. But this was not a universal aspiration. I remember arriving in a large west of Scotland comprehensive in the 1970s, where a significant proportion of the teenage females could only be described as butch. These were sharp-tongued Hairy Marys immortalised in the vernacular street folk of Hamish Imlach and Billy Connolly. They were built like the brick lavatories that still stood outside a few tenements. They wore clumpy shoes with cream coloured tights that gave their lower legs the solidity of the ship funnels being constructed on the banks of the Clyde below.
These girls were merciless towards peers who displayed what were considered more middle class, feminine traits. If you didn’t walk like John Wayne, you would be accused of “mincing”. Carefully applied make-up and long shiny hair made you a “poser” (the hard tickets had their locks hacked off into “DAs” or ducks’ arses). A shorter skirt would provoke loud, crude comments about the wearer’s sexual continence. Anything above the knee made you a “boot”. Sometimes they picked a fight by “claiming” you in the park. They claimed their men in much the same way.
Funnily enough, it was always these butch girls who fell pregnant first. They weren’t so tough. Violence is never an expression of assertiveness. Rather, it is about a lack of confidence and control. It’s about fear. This is why lashing out is more often the response of those who are disempowered — the poorly parented lost boys and girls destined to repeat the pattern with their own offspring.
Researchers who have studied such women in Cornton Vale, the women’s prison, say their aggression is often related to experiences of family violence. Often, they have a negative approach to life. They believe the world is a hostile place and others are out to get them — much like those girls from school who would claim you for daring to make direct eye contact.
In the past, such girls had only a brief opportunity to flaunt their aggression. They were mothers shortly after leaving school, curtailed by their own fertility. Today, adolescence continues well into the third decade for some young people. Cheap alcohol increases paranoia and lessens inhibitions.
The difference now is that such women are no longer marginalised. They are celebrated in a world that suggests violence is a sassy expression of female sexuality. As Aguilera sang, that really is dirty. And dangerous, not least for the women themselves.