Girl Power -- But at What Cost?

While girl power, the movement that began in the early 90s, has aimed to empower many young girls to be ambitious, assertive, and self-reliant, that girl power as interpreted on TV and in film is slowly but surely seeping into our streets as something more sinister.
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Portrait of girl punching towards the camera
Portrait of girl punching towards the camera

In the final, hyper-violent scene of the movie Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl, a 10-year-old vigilante in a purple wig played by Chloe Grace Moretz takes down more than a dozen armed men using two shot guns and a variety of exotic fighting techniques. As Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" plays in the background, Hit-Girl shoots many of the men in the head, at close range.

Kick-Ass, of course, centered on Hit-Girl, and this scene is just the culmination of a few hours' worth of others just like it. But these scenes, or these characters, are not particularly rare -- or even, these days, extreme. Pick any action movie, and chances are good there will be at least one scene in which a woman beats up a man (and, of course, looks good doing it). In most cases, there will be a lot of back flips involved. Sometimes, there will be multiple men. The good news here is that women are being cast as tough characters and superheroes as often as men. But the bad news may be the dangerous message all this woman-imparted violence is sending to young girls.

According to the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, schools and communities have experienced a rise in aggression, delinquency, and bullying among girls and young women in recent years. From 1991 to 2000, arrests of girls increased more (or decreased less) than arrests of boys for most types of violent offenses, while a national student survey revealed that "33 percent of female students reported being bullied at school compared to 30 percent of male students." In 2009, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that one in four adolescent girls has been the perpetrator of, or has participated in, a violent act in the past year.

Could pop culture have anything to do with it? Surely. While girl power, the movement that began in the early 90s, has aimed to empower many young girls to be ambitious, assertive, and self-reliant, that girl power as interpreted on TV and in film is slowly but surely seeping into our streets as something more sinister. Films like Sucker Punch, Haywire, and The Dark Knight Rises, with Anne Hathaway's vengeful Catwoman (in form-fitting suit, naturally), feature hyper-violent women toeing the line between feminism and fetishism. The New York Times recently reported that Kick-Ass 2 Prelude: Hit-Girl, debuted on the graphic books hardcover best-seller list at number four, while violent vixens represent some of the most popular video game characters, including Lara Croft and Mortal Kombat's Sonya Blade.

Meanwhile, last week's New York Post featured the story of a Bronx elementary school teacher who starred in a bloody B-movie, Gang Girl, as a thug who deals drugs, rapes, and murders. According to the Post, violent incidents have spiked at her school. Female rage is in, and the Mean Girl has officially been replaced by the murderous one.

Which makes the case that girl power violence is really no better than the old, and long-derided, Tom vs. Jerry sort of TV violence fed to kids -- especially when so many of those characters, at their core, serve to fulfill some male fantasy of the sexy little killer. But the answer isn't to direct girls exclusively to movies that feature women as princesses and sweethearts. Until we have more films that portray women as bold and unafraid -- and nobody's object -- it's parents' job to have frank conversations with girls about the difference between fantasy and reality, and what to draw from the feminine heroes they're seeing more and more of. According to Children Now, research shows that children, especially those between the ages of eight and 12, want their parents to talk with them about violence, and that those who have early conversations about tough subjects are more likely to continue turning to their parents as they become teens. Some ways to start:

Monitor their intake. You're not going to be able to shield your child from all violence in pop culture. But you can limit it, and help minimize the risk that she becomes desensitized to it. Minimize the fictional depictions, and use real life violence as a conversation starter. Watching the outcomes of real world violence on TV, or reading about it together in the news, can be a good opportunity to talk with children about the consequences of such acts of violence.

Host movie post-mortems. Kids feel better when they talk about their feelings. After a movie or TV show that may have seemed violent -- upsetting or not -- ask your daughter her thoughts. Let her know the show seemed scary to you, too -- that she isn't alone -- and then reassure her that what she saw on TV was just make-believe. Play video games together and then talk about them after. If anything you've seen together on screen disturbs you, tell her why.

Demystify the cool factor. Badass women in film may seem cool, and in some ways they are. But instead of celebrating these women for the ass they can kick, encourage girls to look up to them for their strength of character -- and in the meantime find them other models of female strength in movies that don't rely on violence. Talk about the importance of being strong and standing up for one's self, but that in real life that doesn't mean acting aggressive (or violent). It also doesn't require wearing skintight clothing.

Reassure them of their safety. An overexposure to violence can cause kids to become anxious and fearful. She'll wonder if she's safe -- and she'll wonder if she needs to act like the girls she sees on TV in order to stay safe. Be supportive and reassuring, and let girls know that safety does not follow acts of violence. Talk to them about how in real life, guns and knives hurt and kill people. Get them to say it back to you -- again, and again.