Social Construction of Female Gangs
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Published: Wed, 15 Aug 2018
In the UK, there has been very little research on female gang problem which has led to the vast amount of research from the USA being applied to the UK situation. Female gangs have been in existence throughout history although very little has been said about its members beyond their role as sexual objects. Hallsworth and Young (2008):176) following a home office report in 2008 state that ‘the gang was for the first time explicitly linked to the problem of urban violence and rising weapon use in the UK’ (2008:176) and according to Campbell (1990) “girls have been a part of gangs since the earliest accounts from New York in the early 1800s” (1990:166). Female gang activity has been on the increase in the latter half of the twentieth century and as such, these activities have increasingly become violent. In this essay, I will elaborate on the meaning of gangs and female gangs using various definitions given by key authors. My main interest in this paper will be to discuss the historical background of female gangs and the key debates surrounding these gangs in relation to the literature written by authors of different calibers and also the myths as portrayed by the society. I will also be interested in discussing the media construction of female gangs giving examples which will lead me to explore the disconnection between what the media says about female gangs and what the reality is.
The term ‘gang’ according to Schneider and Tilley (2004) does not have a single definition even though it “is used universally by researchers, police, social workers, media and the general public” (2004: xviii). The US National Criminal Justice Reference Service have defined the term ‘gang’ as a group of three or more people who have a common name or sign and have an aim of engaging in criminal activity. In the UK context, ‘experts’ have found it difficult to reach a consensus on whether or not gangs exist and how they can be defined (Aldridge and Medina, 2008; Alexander, 2008; Broadhurst et al., 2009; Hallsworth and Silverstone, 2009; Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, 2010; Pickles, 2009; Pitts, 2008). Webster’s Dictionary (1961) gives us another definition stating that a gang is “a band or group of persons” who involve themselves in criminal or socially unacceptable behavior (1961:74). Female gang is simply a girl group or individuals who are involved in criminal activities and share the same names, symbols and signs as their identity. Female gangs do not have a visible leader and according to research that they tend to be fairly informal and they do not often have a visible leader. Campbell for example in the Huff’s book on Gangs in America (1990) observes that in Los Angeles some gangs have ‘veterinas’ or ‘godmothers’ but she goes on to say that “typically the members insist there is no leader and that decisions are made democratically. Campbell’s observation suggests that some girls clearly have more clout than others, but that this usually is not formalized as a leadership role.” (1990: 178).
In this review, I will discuss about female gangs drawing upon American research but with more emphasis on the rising phenomenon of female gangs in Britain. In order to accomplish my aim for this literature review, I will use primary sources, some secondary sources and other policy documents or government publications to enable me make conclusions and recommendations, identifying gaps in knowledge which may inspire other researchers into ideas for further research and also enable me to give my general opinion of how I feel about the social construction of female gangs by the media much of which I tend to disagree with.
Many researchers and journalists have for a long time assumed that girls and women did not take part in criminal behaviors and therefore the issue of female gang has often been ignored. Campbell’s (1990) review on girl gangs states that, “girls were defined solely in terms of their relations to male gang members” (1990:166). Men have always been the point of concentration in investigating gang crimes and until recently, female gang members were seen as ‘sex objects or tomboys’. Literature has shown that researchers describe female gangs as weapon carriers for the male counterparts in addition, Moore and Hagedorn (2001) argue that “even when describing female gang members as tomboys, researchers emphasized that the females’ motivations were focused on males” (2001: 2). Looking at the UK context of female gangs, literature on girls and gangs has not been well developed because researchers in Britain have not seen the need to concentrate on female gangs (Campbell and Muncer, 1989; Sanders, 2002). According to Downes (1966); Parker (1974) and Scott (1956), the UK tried to apply American gang theories to address the problem of street gangs but these attempts failed over time leading to lack of data on gangs. This explains why there is no sound evidence as in the case of USA, “for the proliferation of violent street gangs” (Hallsworth and Young, 2008: 177).
Female Involvement is not a new occurrence universally. In fact, there has been a lot of concern on the rise of female involvement in gang business over the years. Early studies found that there was a “50 percent increase in serious crimes by teenage gins between 1968 and 1974, compared to a 10 percent increase for boys and arrests of girls under 18 for violent crimes rose 393 percent between 1960 and 1978, compared to 82 percent for boys” (CASA Website) . Miller (2001) compared youth gang involvement in 1950, and found out that “youth gangs of the 1980’s and 1990’s are more numerous, more prevalent, and more violent than in the 1950’s, probably more than at any time in the country’s history” (2001: 263). In the early 1980s, Anne Campbell (1981) became interested and had concerns about female offenders which led her to conduct an investigation about the occurrences of violence amongst girls in Britain. Campbell, (1984) also did an investigation on female gangs in America and this led to her conclusions that the problem of female gangs was socially constructed. She criticized Britain for only concentrating on male gangs and ignoring female gangs and illustrated that in New York, women were very unlikely to organize in to gangs in big numbers because the female groups were only known to follow male groups (Campbell, 1995). Recent studies on girls and violence also shows that there has been an increase in violent and aggressive behaviour by girls and this has been catalyzed by media attention. Earlier on, people knew very little about girls’ violence because there was a belief that violence was solely committed by men. The study findings show very little evidence suggesting that girls are physically violent.
Academic research on gang membership in the UK is very sparse as mentioned earlier on and there is little evidence showing that young women have existential experience in committing violence. It has been difficult to ascertain the numbers of female gangs although there is a significant existence of the members. On the other hand, in the US, feminist researchers have tried to provide a more ‘nuanced portrayal of the complex gender experiences of girls in gangs’ (Miller, 2001: 16). They have demonstrated that girls involvement in female gangs meets their gender expectations and experience heightened risks for physical and sexual victimization and also ascertains that gang membership provides them with a sense of belonging, giving them confidence and refuge from their abusive families (Campbell, 1990; Joe and Chesney-Lind, 1995; Joe Laidler and Hunt, 2001; Miller, 2001, 2008; Moore, 1991; Nurge, 2003). Many gangs appear to be more highly structured than delinquent groups but that does not disqualify the fact that they may still be seen as loosely organized. Several factors such as age, neighborhoods and so on are considered as the basis of gaining entry to these gangs or becoming a member. The gang sizes range from a member group of four or five and can go beyond a thousand. There have been different classification of gang groups such as the leaders, associates of the regulars then there are the peripheral members and finally the recruits.
Most studies have shown that the reasons why females join gangs are because of friendship influence, it is seen as a form of solidarity and self affirmation. Research has indicated that those kids who grow up in dysfunctional families and whose parents are in prison may find it appropriate to join gang groups. Many youth gang formation is as a result of the present deteriorating economic conditions which are characterized by poor housing, lack of school structures and facilities and lack of laws that regulate violation of youth gangs. Being in a female gang may be a refuge from physical and sexual abuse at home. Young et al.’s (2007) was involved in a research which directly involved girls and young women who had association with female gang and this gave him a different picture of their involvement. UK studies of female gangs have indicated that girls and young women are just portrayed as ‘girlfriends’ to their male gang members but Young et al’s involvement in interviewing some of the females indicated that their groups were mainly composed of peers whose main reason for being together was plain friendship and denied that their groups were gangs.
However in the US, Miller (2001) states that young women’s group formation was through friendships from school, their house neighborhoods and not through any initiation rites to join these groups. Evidence uncovered by Young et al. (2007) stated that all the female groups interviewed referred to each other as their mates. “Seven young women belonged to all-female groups and although they would periodically hang about with the local young men, this was not because these relationships with males were considered to be important or necessary. Indeed, from their testimonies it was evident that these women did not consider the males around them as friends or even friendly, nor did this group enter into intimate relationships with the young men they associated with. These young women determined when they associated with the males in their social circle and were not significantly influenced by the actions of males or male-dominated groups” (Young et al., 2007: 143).
A study conducted by Pitts in 2007 considers female membership in gangs as ‘Reluctant Gangsters: Youth Gangs in Waltham Forest’ (Pitts, 2007). According to Pitts (2007), young women in gangs are “often sexually exploited, sometimes in exchange for drugs and the relationships (they have with male members) tend to be abusive; one of dominance and submission and also some senior gang members pass their girlfriends around to lower ranking members and sometimes to the whole group at the same time” (2007: 39). Pitts (2007) study states that the reason why young women, or ‘girlfriends’, are attracted to the gangs is mainly because they believe they can be ‘glamorous’ or become ‘celebrities’ within the group. It is unclear how members of female gangs are able to maintain long term roles and specific position given that the core members decide on the primary roles of the gang groups. Some members join the groups for a short period and others may move on to other gang groups after a certain period of time but in all these groups, the core members still remain in charge of the criminal activities.
The most widely used data on female gangs has been from the nationwide surveys of law enforcement agencies. Miller (1975) stated that a survey conducted in the mid-1970s indicated that 10 percent of all gang members were estimated to be female and according to Spergel (1995), a national survey found that in 1992 only 3.7 percent of all gang members were female. This was due to the fact that 32 percent of the surveyed jurisdictions did not, “as a matter of policy,” identify females as gang members (Curry and Decker, 1998: 98). Four years later in 1996 there was an estimate that 11 percent and then 1998, 8 percent of all gangs were female (Moore and Terrett, 1998; National Youth Gang Center, 2000). It is noted that it is in small cities and rural areas where female gangs are more likely to be found and their ethnicities vary by regions (National Youth Gang Center, 2000). In 2003 the Channel 4 documentary Dispatches emphasized that the gang problem was increasingly spreading in the UK and as many as 30,000 gangs were functional and 57 percent included female members (Thompson, 2003).
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS, 2005) released the most recent figures with findings that there were 174 street gangs in London. In 2006 the MPS figures showed that there was a 66.6 per cent increase in gang membership raising the number of UK gangs to 50,000 of which 2500 of the total number were young women (MPS, 2006). The United States gang numbers according to recent police estimates indicate that there are 27,000 gangs with approximately 788,000 members (National Youth Gang Survey, 2007). According to these reports, there was a 25% increase in the reported numbers of gang and gang problems since the year 2001 where there was a low report on gang problems (National Gang Center, 2009). Curry, Fox, Ball, & Stone (1992) and National Gang Center (2009) reported that in 2007 there were gang problems in large cities, 86% more than what was reported in 1983 which was at 50% when the gang problem was just beginning to grow.
Media construction of female gangs
Media representations on gangs and more specifically female gangs have played a very big role in informing the social reality by a social constructionist perspective. In the past two decades, gang crime activities have dominated the crime news and the quality of life among rural and urban dwellers has been eroded also, violent young females have been “presented as a new and growing social problem”(Batchelor, 2009:408). According to Batchelor (2009) girls have been perceived to be the same as boys especially in fighting “to defend themselves” (2009:400). Batchelor continues to argue that young women who involve themselves in male gangs have been used as carriers of weapons and drugs and in some cases the girls have been exploited sexually. News in the media has claimed that young women have acted as the heads of anti-social youth groups who commit crimes like rape, murder and violent robbery (Young, 2009).
Many newspapers produce stories with an aim of attracting people’s attention and informing them on what they think the public want to read about thus making a lot of sales on the papers. The media’s main interest had been to enhance its economic aspect by manipulating the public way of thinking about crime and its social context (Potter and Kappeler 1998). The main contribution of the media has been according to Best (1993:119), ‘a contextual constructionism’ of gangs where the media makes certain choices of what to cover in the news which contributes to the social construction of the reality. “Crime narratives and representations are, and have always been, a prominent part of the content of all mass media”( Reiner, 2007:305), with sources such as newspapers and television documentaries playing “a central role in creating public perceptions of crime and therefore influencing their perceptions about the extent of crime and the risk of suffering it” (Treadwell, 2006:77).
Media reports especially in the UK have not been backed up by concrete evidence on the wider female gang problems. The Centre for Social Justice (2009) states that “media coverage has, at times, been suggestive of an epidemic in gang-related youth violence” (2009:19). In the UK, television headlines and documentaries relating to gang violence and the coming up of girl gangs has been dominant and that has not been different in the case of USA where it has been reported that gang groups “are armed, dangerous and prepared to kill” (Hallsworth and Young, 2008:176). Despite the fact that gangs and gang activity has been seen as a social problem to society and despite the regular convictions from the news that has shaped such problems, a comprehensive and systematic analysis of newspaper coverage of gangs and society’s war on gangs has not been undertaken. There have been extraordinary cases of female violence reported. For example the reported case of a ‘frenzied attack’ of eight strangers which was enacted by Chelsea O’Mahoney, who was the only female member of ‘Sergeant Crew’, in conjunction with her male friends (Laville, 2005). This case signifies that there are existing modern girl gang members who offend the law. The press gave an impression that made the public perceive the girl involved as aggressive and one capable of extreme behaviour, a trouble maker who causes havoc in and out of her group and catalyses others to be involved in aggressive behaviour (Thompson ,2003).
In the next section, I will analyze the literature review and the media’s perception towards female gangs. I will explore the information given in order to see if there is a disconnect between what the media says and what the reality is about female gangs. This will aid me in making proper conclusion about the media construction of female gangs.
It has been argued that reports on female gangs offending the law is very low compared to male offenders and noted that female violence is a relatively rare occurrence according to crime statistics. Various authors like Campbell (1995) have stated that Britain for many years had not developed any research on female gangs whereas in New York, female groups were only seen as followers of their male counterparts and could not possibly form gang groups to organize crimes. On the other hand, the press has had much to write on the papers and commentate in news about girl gangsters especially in the last ten years. According to Tara (2009) there have been news reports contending that young women are traditionally engaged in violent crimes. Reports have in excess claimed that many anti-social youth groups are now headed by young women and they commit crime such us rape, murder and robbery. Honigsbaum (2006) states that young women in the UK are cited to be amongst the most violent and aggressive in the world. It is clear that there have been a few empirical studies on female gang membership especially in the UK although the media coverage of violent offences committed by young women has created a certain perception towards the girl gangsters. This construction of female gangs has also been through the statistical evidence that has been provided by officials from the law enforcement department.
Comparing the literature on female gangs and what the media has had to say about this topic, it is evident that there have been gaps in research on female participation in gangs in the UK which is the same case as the American gang literature where else, the media has been successful in socially constructing the girl gangs even though its evidence is very scant. Over the years, most researchers have concentrated on investigating the male gangs, studying the criminal behaviour of men and ignoring the female counterparts. According to Pitts (2007), the female gangs have not been recognized or in some cases, research has been conducted in reference to the experience of men. In reality, female gangs have been in existence for decades but it has been difficult to come up with the true picture of the problem. In the case of UK, there have been claims that currently young women are more likely to engage in street gangs and these women are more likely to engage in serious violent crime. This information is not substantial because the media seems to exaggerate this kind of violent crime thus shaping the public perceptions of gangs. There is a problem of statistic as well.
It has been noted that female gangs exist in larger cities but there is no evidence to suggest that female crime is a national problem, therefore the true problem cannot be identified. Unrealistic public attitudes towards girls’ gangs have been the order of the day because there has been misrepresentation of girls’ lives and this according to Batchelor (2001) has created a misdirected public policy. The media has been fond of relying on simple statistics and typical gang cases that have no evidence and this has complicated the discussions of complex socio-specific contexts of violence in girls’ lives (Batchelor, 2001). Young women’s genuine problems continue to be marginalized and ignored as the media continues to give wrong information to the public thus making the girls become a problem. Batchelor (2005); Coy (2008) suggest that it is important that any steps taken to address problems of gang involvement by young women should be from the reality and should be able to acknowledge the young women are active agents and victims.
As I have discussed above ,most of the violence that is experienced by girls and young women, as both perpetrators and victims, takes place within either the family or their friendship group. This means that social work and probation practitioners need to give careful attention to the familial and peer contexts of young women’s offending, putting in mind that both groups can be concurrently harmful and protective. (Batchelor, 2005) argues that if we are to working towards effecting change in young women offenders’ lives, we need to maximize on their involvement and participation in various positive activities. These activities should enable them relate well with their families and friends and also the social work teams in order to have positive relations. There is need for accessible and affordable leisure activities which can be effective in occupying the girls and young women’s minds and address some specific needs like bullying and victimization.
It could be argued that research in to the phenomena of the girl gang especially in the UK is barely adequate thus making it difficult to make quantifying conclusion of the girl gang problem. Much of this essay clearly states that ‘crime statistics show that compared to male offending female violence is a relatively rare occurrence’ (Young, 2009:224), and any rise in female violence may not always be gang related. I will conclude this essay by indicating that a lot of information represented by the media is just assumptions with no evidence to back it and researchers can do more towards looking more into the problem.
There seems to be no concrete theory as to why girls of women get involved in violent crimes but there have been various factors that have been cited to have played a major role in influencing them to join gang activities. Parental negligence, poverty, teenage pregnancies, lack of education, ill health, early involvement in sexual activities and peer group influence are some of the factors that drive these girls and women into gangs. Researchers, the law enforcement system, school, community based programmes and families have ignored the fact that female gangs exist and have confined young female to victimization and this has resulted to the rise of female violence. This essay has considered the background information of female gangs, the definition of gang and female gang, the key debates surrounding these gangs in relation to literature written, also the media construction of female gangs and the myths as portrayed by the society.
It is argued that many researchers have ignored females as gangs and “the notion seems to be that female gangs and their members are ‘pale imitations’ of male gangs” (Spergel, 1995: 90). Due to lack of research, facts that have been written and reproduced in books about female gangs are based on journalists’ and probation officers reports and also the statements given by the male gang members. Looking at the past and current research on female gangs, it is clear that they do exist in the UK and the USA although the statistics given are socially constructed due to the fact that the gang related cases are underreported. Reliable statistics may show that the problem of female gangs is not as large as the media portrays it to be and with the media catalyzing the problem, it may have negative consequences such as labeling to girls and young women. Media reports fuelling a moral panic can also have an impact on how the community and the government responds to female gangs thus failing to tackle the needs of these female groups.
I will conclude by saying that it would be important for researchers to further explore the problem of female gangs because I completely agree that they exist and need attention otherwise the problem will get out of hand if ignored. The media should stop exaggerating facts on female gangs and concentrate on finding out the true picture of these gangs.
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