Open Eye: Violent women: fact and fiction

Susannah Chappell stepped straight into the media spotlight when she went public with her preliminary research into women and violence. What's all the fuss about? Yvonne Cook reports

Researcher Susannah Chappell was understandably a bit apprehensive when making her first presentation in public. Embarking on her PhD, Women and Violence, she was speaking at the British Psychological Society's annual conference on a piece of preliminary research. "Keep it short," her supervisor had counselled.

She was totally unprepared for the burst of fame that followed. Six national newspapers featured her work, local and national radio called for interviews, and she was invited to appear on the Vanessa show (she declined). What was all the fuss about?

Violence by women has been in the news recently and some surveys are suggesting that women are getting more violent.

Susannah's research set out, not to prove or disprove this, but to find out what people thought violent women were like, and where they got their ideas from. She asked 100 people to imagine a violent woman, real or fictional, and to match her with a set of descriptions.

When she analysed the results, Susannah found something she wasn't expecting. "Looking at the types of description people used for real women, and those they used for fictional women, the difference was striking," she says.

"What the study suggests is that the types of women portrayed by the media don't seem to be very salient to ordinary life."

The way people in the study envisaged violent women was classified in five ways, each with different characteristics. They were summed up as: the bitter and twisted revenge-seeker; the attention-seeking outcast; the school bully; the stroppy friend and the assertive go-getter.

But when describing real women known to them, the participants never used the most extreme description, the revenge-seeker. This was used primarily to describe fictional violent women.

Why does Susannah think her study aroused so much interest? "Women and violence is a hot topic. Whether women are actually becoming more violent or not, I'm not in a position to say. But there is certainly a perceived rise in women's assertiveness."

This has led some to assume that the two are related - that a rise in women's violence is the price to be paid for encouraging women to assert themselves. But media fears about violent women may be overstating the case.

"The study challenges the way that commentators have constructed a moral panic about a 'new breed of violent female' who is so dangerous that she 'is threatening to unstitch the very fabric of society'. As the participants in this study made clear in their responses, ordinary women who behave violently seldom pose any serious threat at all."

The research identified perceptions of five distinct types of violent women.

The bitter and twisted revenge-seeker is exemplified by the lead character in the film The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

She is menacing, brooding, cruel and sadistic with a tenuous grip on reality, driven and obsessive. Devious and manipulative, lacking in remorse, with no concern about hurting others She is arrogant and untrustworthy. Of all the representations this one is the most overtly dangerous and threatening.

The attention-seeking outcast is selfish and impulsive, has a nasty temper, tends to act first and think afterwards.

She lacks trust in others yet craves attention and approval. She has low self-esteem, finds it hard to show her real feelings, and has trouble dealing with stress. She lacks a conscience and does not feel shame, but her behaviour is explicable as the result of unhappiness and a sense of social exclusion

The school bully is intolerant, intimidating and someone who gets a kick out of having power over others.

She has a lack of respect for those in authority, finds it hard to accept being in the wrong, is stubborn, single-minded and brash, and 'gets on well with people of the other sex'. Unpleasant but perfectly sane and ordinary.

The stroppy friend is not so much violent as just "stroppy". One description was "a school friend who slapped her sister in a pub".

Strong-willed, impulsive and stubborn, she has difficulty accepting being in the wrong or handling criticism, can get very obsessed yet tends to give up easily; has a temper. She likes to feel important but does not have to dominate; not a bad person - just impulsive and lacking in judgment, her aggression is due to immaturity.

The assertive go-getter is an independent, self-assured character, able to stand up for herself, who does not need the approval of others but likes being noticed.

Very much her own person, she is achievement oriented and has a domineering streak - more of a leader than a follower. This image is positive. She is not nasty or cruel but tough, strong, confident and very capable. Yet with these traditional 'male' qualities, she is still seen as strongly feminine.

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