The construction of girl violence in media and public discourse

Back again by "popular" "demand", here is the latest in my series of randomly posted school assignments. This essay involved using the Reena Virk case (a well-known case of girl violence in Canada) to investigate the broader discursive frames in which the violent girl is represented in society. References available upon request. 


The murder of Reena Virk marked a point in Canadian culture where worry over the “violent girl” blossomed into a moral panic. This case became a problem-defining event, drawing a great deal of public and media scrutiny onto the issue of girl violence in Canada. The coverage of Virk’s murder, and other cases of girl violence in the Canadian media, is rife with examples of the themes McCormick discusses, particularly the valorization of victims, atrocity tales, moral outrage, and editorialization that he describes as common in media accounts of youth crime. The media and public discourse is characterized by a representation of girl violence as being a major social problem that is occurring with increasing frequency and savagery. It displays a level of disbelief that girls should be capable of violent crimes, and frames violence as fundamentally non-feminine.  

The portrayal of Virk in the media is one of the innocent victim of bullying. Most articles written about her discuss that she was awkward and overweight, desperate to please, and disliked by her classmates (Armstrong, 2000; Armstrong and Makin, 2009). Less common but still present in media accounts are discussions of the bright future that was cut short, as well as a downplaying of the problems she had been having with her family in favour of highlighting her achievements and positive qualities (Armstrong, 2000). Meanwhile, the teenagers who were eventually found to be responsible (particularly Kelly Ellard) are depicted as being cruel for the sake of entertainment, brutally violent, and in Ellard’s case, apparently unrepentant and unmoved by the suffering of the victim or subsequent punishments (Armstrong and Makin, 2009). This reflects what McCormick refers to as the “valorization of victims”, the movement towards depicting the victims as innocent and good and the criminals as guilty and dehumanized predators (McCormick, 2012). This attempt to dehumanize or demonize the violent girl while elevating the victim is typical in most other reported instances of girl violence, in which the victim’s humanity and viewpoint is almost universally preferred and reported while the offender’s is rarely considered (Barron and Lacombe, 2005; King, 2011; Spencer, 2005). If they are considered, it is only to highlight the deviance of their act, either from their own established behaviour or from the behaviour acceptable within society (Bruser, 2011; Schaffner 1999). For example, in the case of the Richardson murders, in which the two parents and the young son of the family were murdered by their twelve-year-old daughter and her twenty-three-year-old boyfriend, the daughter was initially regarded as a potential victim (Dohy, 2006). However, after her involvement in the crime became apparent, the media rapidly began searching out evidence that she was a hardened deviant, firmly separate from “normal society”. To this end, articles detailing her involvement in the goth subculture and the ways in which she did not fit into her family’s “average” life began to appear (Breakenridge, 2006; Reynolds, 2006). In this way she becomes a violent “other” who it is easy to fear, and who does not belong in society (Worrall, 2004). In public and media discourse the violent girl becomes a dehumanized criminal who poses extreme danger to society at large, her victims sympathetic, innocent targets who do not deserve the crime they have suffered.   

As with general youth crime, the perception exists in both the public and the media that violent crime committed by girls is on the rise (Barron and Lacombe, 2005; Scelfo, 2005). In these media accounts, the “growing lawlessness,” of young girls is lamented, and statistics are cited displaying what is portrayed as a troubling increase in female offending, particularly when it comes to violent crime (Barron and Lacombe, 2005; Macdonald, 2009; Morris, 2008). These claims of massive statistical increases in girl crime usually fail to take into account the fact that violent crime committed by females is still markedly lower than that committed by their male peers, as well as the fact that the small population of female offenders make any percentage increase seem larger than it is (Batchelor, 2001; Schaffner, 1999). This tendency to claim that girl violence is increasing at an alarming rate is enhanced by the tendency of the media to report on the particularly brutal and savage cases. This occurs because the media is highly selective of the sorts of cases that feature, and it prefers the easily sensationalized and highly atypical accounts of extreme girl violence that is not reflective of the general experience of girls themselves (Batchelor, Burman, and Brown, 2001; Chesney-Lind, 1992; McCormick 2012). This trend is reflective of the use of atrocity tales, in which these unusual cases are discussed in such a way as to highlight how clearly these violent girls have violated the mores of the public (Shupe and Bromley, 1981). Thus cases such as Reena Virk’s death and the Richardson murders come into the spotlight and remain in use as clear evidence of the increasing violence of young girls while the more mundane and far more common crimes committed by girls are largely ignored by the media and the public (Punch, 2008; Reiner, 1997; Victoria News, 2011).   

The perception of female youth crime as particularly vicious is also enhanced by the use of moral outrage and editorializing in the reports of girl violence that appear in the media. Moral outrage involves engaging the reader’s sense of disgust at the perceived violation of moral standards, while editorializing involves the insertion of opinion into the report of the facts of the case (McCormick, 2012). Words used to describe youth crime in general and girl violence in particular in the media include “heinous”, “brutal”, “horrific”, and “disturbing”, while a sense of outrage is cultivated through the use of valorized victims, references to the senselessness or brutality of the crime, and lurid descriptions of the crime (Victoria News, 2011; Armstrong and Makin, 2009; King; Canadian Press, 2005; Reiner). By framing girl violence with such language, and focusing on the unusual cases, the media appeals to and enhances the sense of outrage felt by the general public when it comes to violent girls, and encourages the perception that all violent crimes committed by girls are as violent as the select cases that are presented. In this way, girl violence is constructed as a major and growing social threat.  

The view of the violent girl as deviant is enhanced by the media and public’s general reluctance to accept that women, especially young girls, should be capable of any degree of violence. Most articles discuss the unbelievability of not only the severity of violence, but the fact that it is girls who are being violent (Armstrong and Makin, 2009; Macdonald, 2009). Violent crime is constructed in the media as a distinctly un-feminine crime, and girls who are violent are typically portrayed as less feminine, or as attempting to mimic their male peers in some way (Barron and Lacombe, 2005; Harris, 2011). Girls who are violent are seen as more deviant than their male peers despite similar levels of violence, reflecting the media and public belief that girls’ transgression against established gender norms are inherently more deviant than boys, who are expected to be violent (Schaffner, 1999). Often alcohol or substance abuse is introduced in an effort to provide mitigation for what would otherwise be an inexplicable level of violence; jealousy also features heavily in narratives attempting to make sense of girl violence (Gillis, 2010; Harris, 2011; Schaffner, 1999). At the same time, the media tends to portray these girls as morally transgressive, exhibiting cruelty, and given to promiscuous sexuality, this last particularly reflecting the past tendency to pathologize girls’ sexuality (Macdonald, 2009; Schaffner, 1999). Through this tendency to distance the violent girl from the traditional view of femininity while also tying her to what are traditionally viewed as feminine ways of offending against the legal and moral order, the media and public discourse engages in the othering process, vilifying the female offender and placing her firmly on the outside of society.    

In the discourse surrounding violent girls, victims are valorized while offenders are vilified. The media consistently puts forward the view that girl violence is increasing and growing more savage by the presentation of carefully selected and highly atypical cases of violence. Violent girls are othered by dehumanization, and stripped of their femininity by the perception of violence as inherently non-feminine. These elements together create a public and media discourse which does not reflect the true picture of violence as it is experienced by most girls, and creates a violent girl who has become more a social problem than member of society.  

Posted by lykopis

Extremely well written. Thank you for sharing this.

Posted by Spacey
@lykopis: Thank you very much for reading it, I'm glad you liked it :D!
Posted by Silkcuts

For such a pleasant girl who I have enjoyed the few time to hang out with, it still surprises me how much you know about  I don't think I can imagine you killing a fly, but I am sure you can tell me over a 100 ways to hurt it without completely killing it.
You know your stuff since you study hard, glad you only pretend to procrastinate and goof off when you talk about school to me.  Maybe I need to go to you for info, like Brubaker goes to Rucka.
- Silkcuts

Posted by Mr.Q
"smart ass". how do people keep getting here before me? it shames me. very well written and researched. still looks odd without excessive emoticons. 
@Silkcuts: she's like Wednesday Adams. with long red hair. you should hear some of the revenge plots she cooks up. it would be highly disturbing if it wasn't so adorable. that's why we call her SPACEY! Mistress of the Macabre.
Posted by Silkcuts
@Mr.Q: You talk about her like you've hung out with her in Toronto. You were in Toronto with Spacey and Silk was not at the party?
Posted by Spacey
@Silkcuts: Well, we've all gotta have hobbies, right ;D. If you ever need somebody with a vast and almost disturbing knowledge of crime, man, I am here for you.  
@Mr.Q: I guess everybody is just as thrilled by my academic endeavours as you are! One of these days I'll write a paper about emoticons, then everything will be awesome forever :D
Posted by Mr.Q
@Silkcuts: you don't know what I look or sound like, how do you know I wasn't there? watching and waiting. besides she and I have been in near constant contact for around a year or so now. we talk. plot and plan. we have inside jokes and everything. jealous?
Posted by Silkcuts
@Mr.Q: No jealously here mate. If you can be the friend I fail to be then cheers. Like the girl a lot, I get a long fairly well with her and would only want her to be happy. Life is about love man, I ain't going to toss hate into the mix.  Make your master plans, create your inside jokes, spread love mate. ^_^  She deserves it.
Posted by Spacey
@Silkcuts@Mr.Q: you two are ridiculous <3
Posted by Mr.Q
@Silkcuts: .... don't go getting lavender on me. you know, apart of me kind of wanted this to turn into a Popeye vs Bluto thing but fine. 
@Spacey: how?
Posted by Silkcuts
@Mr.Q: No Star Sapphire here. 
Just truths. 
She is my home girl and she knows it, but even local I don't spend much time with her.
I am glad she has you to chat with on a reg.
Honest, she is pretty cool, she deserves good friends like you.
Posted by Mr.Q
@Silkcuts: .. not what I was implying but good. 
that's what the internet is for. 
reg? really? 
yes she does. modesty can bite it. (I'm in an odd mood lately)