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
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Teacher Required We are curr...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference