The videotaped beating of Victoria Lindsay, the 16-year-old from Lakeland, Florida, who was assaulted on March 30 by six girls she knew at Mulberry High School, seemed to many people to come out of nowhere. When did girls become so violent, so cruel and so savvy about using images as a means of humiliation? Isn’t all this the province of their maladjusted male peers?
I’m as baffled as the next person by the incident, and I’m still grasping for answers to those and plenty of other questions. But the scenario wasn’t shocking to me. In fact, it immediately reminded me of a similar incident I followed closely a few years ago.
On Sunday, May 4, 2003, a group of girls gathered at a forest preserve in Northbrook, Illinois, to play a game of football. It sounds innocent enough, but the beer-soaked “Powder Puff” game quickly devolved into a ritualized initiation ceremony in which the team of juniors submitted to a torrent of verbal and physical abuse from the seniors. It was tradition, they were told. These were the rules of the game. When the last of the punches, kicks, and swings of the bat were doled out–and after the buckets of paint, feces and pig intestines had been dumped–five girls were sent to the hospital, one with a broken ankle and another with a head wound. The entire episode was caught on tape by the boys on the sidelines, who promptly sold the footage to the local news. Fifteen of the students involved (twelve girls, three boys) were called to Cook County Circuit Court on misdemeanor battery charges–all of them were found guilty. Parents Christine Neal and Marcy Spiwak were also found guilty for providing the teens with two kegs of beer and a place to drink in the hours before the game.
The story probably wouldn’t have made the headlines if it didn’t feature a group of girls acting so viciously at such a young age, and it certainly wouldn’t have circled the globe if the boys hadn’t participated as cameramen. Once the tapes were released, though, the audience pounced on the chance to respond. Here, in one neat package, were entry points into broad discussions about the voyeurism and schadenfreude of reality TV; moral passivity and the obligation to intervene; suburban teen violence in the post-Columbine era; male fears of female empowerment; the simultaneous glorification and stigmatization of youth; and on and on. Reactions varied wildly from curiosity to revulsion, bafflement to condemnation, casual dismissal of a nonevent to bold pleas for drastic punitive measures. It was like a cultural Rorschach test: we projected our anxieties onto the Powder Puff girls, and they reflected them back to us.
I was fascinated by the story and its reception, in large part because I grew up in Northbrook but also because I was intrigued by the connections between adolescent girls and hazing, an activity I had associated with older males (fraternities, the military). After the story receded from the national headlines I stuck with it; I wanted to probe deeper into the gender angle, which struck me as particularly significant and puzzling. The attack on Victoria Lindsay has prompted me to revisit the material I compiled a few years ago when the Powder Puff story broke. I’m presenting some of it here because I think it’s relevant and may be useful to others trying to understand the broader issues at play.
One of the hazing experts I spoke with in 2003 was Elizabeth Allan, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Maine. “I’ve seen this pattern emerging in sororities and girls’ athletic teams for a number of years,” she told me. “For me, it’s about the power of masculinity. We live in a culture where aggressive masculinity is taken as normal, and it’s accorded status in politics, economics, the workplace. Girls want to feel powerful, and it makes sense that they would take on masculine behaviors in order to achieve. The ways in which girls are taught to behave, to sit quietly in class and fit into particular expectations of femininity, definitely shaped the way these girls acted out and the ways in which the rest of us understood what happened.”
Richard Martini, an adolescent psychiatrist at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, interpreted the eruption of violence among the Northbrook girls in a similar manner. “I think it has to do with the changing expectations of women,” he said. “More doors are open, and with that, the boundaries of what is appropriate get stretched.” In his practice, Martini had noted a recent spike in aggression among teenage girls, and he pointed to Northbrook as evidence corroborating his claim that more girls are getting involved in physical misconduct than ever before–“more fights, more overt violent behavior that has previously been associated with boys.”
In 2000, a team of researchers at New York’s Alfred University conducted a survey that focused on initiation rites in American high schools. According to the report, almost half of high schoolers claimed that they had been subjected to hazing, and the majority of those hazed said that they suffered negative consequences as a result. Predictably, the greatest number of incidents involved athletic teams, though almost every type of extracurricular group was cited. Boys were found to be more susceptible to hazing than girls, but girls were consistently involved in hazing at all three demarcated levels: 39 percent of the girls reported participation in “humiliating” hazing (compared to 48% of boys); 18 percent acknowledged substance abuse (24 percent); and 17 percent were involved in “dangerous” hazing (27 percent).
“I think hazing is pretty common among adolescents,” Martini suggested. “One of the problems, though, is that the desire to belong to a group is so strong at that age that they don’t acknowledge it as dangerous.” Allan suspected not only that rates are increasing but also that the intensity of the behavior has escalated.
“I don’t know is if there is an upsurge or if the code of silence is finally being broken, but I suspect the latter,” said Jeffrey Gershel, a professor of clinical pediatrics at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. Gershel published his own study, “Hazing of Suburban Middle School and High School Athletes,” in the May 2003 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. He found a lower number of incidents than the team at Alfred University–17.4 percent of those surveyed reported participation, compared to nearly half–and discovered that rates were practically equal for boys and girls at all grade levels (his report, which investigated student athletes in grades six through twelve, was the first to consider pre-teens in this context). “Cheerleaders had the highest rates,” Gershel said. “Girls were more likely to be asked to do something, like dress up in a stupid outfit, and the boys were more likely to have something done to them.”
Lindsay was a cheerleader, true, but her story is certainly not about hazing. She did not willingly submit to her abuse, as the Northbrook girls did. She was ambushed and cornered and assaulted by erstwhile friends. This crucial difference perhaps explains the difference in the severity of the punishments: whereas the Powder Puff girls got off with misdemeanor battery charges, the girls in Florida are being charged as adults with felony battery and could face life in prison. (This also says something about the juvenile justice system in Florida compared with that in Illinois.) The parallels between these two cases aren’t perfect, of course. But the stories, I think, do overlap. Certainly they raise related questions. It’ll only be a matter of time, I’m afraid, before another case poses these questions anew. All the more reason to keep searching for answers.