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.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Pistorius leaves Pretoria High Court to be taken to prison

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Life and Style

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

French Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: French Teacher ? Sou...

Geography Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Geography Teacher ? ...

Cover Supervisor

£50 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced Cover Super...

Cover Supervisor

£50 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Randstad Education is looking to e...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album