Here’s how Christina Ricci got famous. Playing the town tomboy in the 1995 movie Now and Then, Ricci was directed to put a heckler and bully in his place at a softball game. The punch was hard and the expression on her face sold it. That was the scene that everyone talked about, the freezeframe that stuck. But why?
The simple reason was that it was unusual. Girls are rarely seen — at least in pop culture — punching boys. Most boy punching is left to, well, boys. This is both statistically accurate and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or it was. Back in the nineties, sociologists could reassure parents that male aggression was largely physical and female aggression was largely psychological. It was a simple thing. But scenes like the one in Now and Then have been playing out with more frequency of late. Girls are getting into the hitting boys game.
The reasons for this are not simple, but they are understandable. This is what happens when girls and boys increasingly share environments. And this is what happens after generations of abuse.
“Assertion is giving a full effort, and a person might get injured during that. But aggression has the intent to cause injury,” Dawn Stephens, a retired psychologist who studied aggression in youth sports, tells Fatherly. “Across the board, my research and the research of my students found that It’s the atmosphere that predicts aggression.”
Aggression, as it’s accurately defined in the literature, is something that boys are girls are equally capable of. There are biological and developmental reasons that boys may come off as more physically aggressive than girls, but there’s evidence that increasingly aggressive girls are closing that gap. However, the impulse to hurt another person is not a natural one for either sex. Rather, the strongest and most consistent predictor of aggressive behavior is environment. The impact of toxic surroundings is equally difficult for young boys and girls to dodge.
“Boys and girls have similar capacities for the full range of aggression. It just comes out differently,” Ellen Braaten, a psychologist and associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains.
Still, there are legitimate developmental reasons why boys are seen as more physically aggressive. Early aggression is normal in all toddlers and even a sign of healthy brain development. They hit, bite, and tantrum out of frustration from wanting to communicate before they’re verbal. As their prefrontal cortex develops, children improve their impulse control and become less aggressive — at least from a neurobiological perspective. But research shows that this process is naturally faster for girls, who are more verbal. That difference, coupled with the reinforcement of gender norms, results in young boys exhibiting more physical aggression and young girls exhibiting more psychological aggression.
Since girls are generally conditioned to be more social,Braaten suspects that their aggression is more relational than physical. Girls are more likely to take out their aggression interpersonally through spreading rumors, damaging reputations, and engaging in manipulative tactics that hurt others psychologically instead, she says. Much like boys and physical aggression, girls are developmentally set up to express aggression socially, but gender stereotypes and mean girl tropes actually encourage that behavior.
Although girl aggression is historically harder to detect, there’s reason to believe that female aggression is becoming more physical and obvious, Braaten acknowledges. Girls are currently the fastest growing group in the juvenile justice system, according to a 2015 report from the National Women’s Law Center. Subsequent studies show up to 84 percent of them experienced family violence, confirming that aggressive atmospheres breed aggressive individuals more than anything else.
Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of community health at Ball State who studies aggression, echoes Braaten. He says that additional data on how more adolescent girls perpetrating intimate partner violence supports the assertion that girls are becoming more physically aggressive. This specific type of aggression is more adaptive than biological, he explains.
“Sometimes women’s aggression is reactionary because they’re more likely to be abused,” Khubchandani says. This is not only another example of how violent environments perpetuate intergenerational violence, but how it can alter both boys’ and girls’ genetics in order to make aggression that much more inevitable. Epigenetics in particular, or the way environment can alter gene expression, may very well be the final factor contributing to why girls are becoming seemingly more aggressive over time. Even if parents have broken the cycle of abuse and provided a safe environment for their kids, they might pass down a proclivity for physical aggression in their jeans, Khubchandani adds.
Stephens knew that environment was the key predictor of aggression as early as 1996, it was just under much lower much lower steaks, looking at youth soccer. In over a decade of research following athletes ages 8 and up, she looked at aggression alongside a number of variables, including sex, culture, age, years they’ve played, goal orientation, and perceptions of the other team. Whether kids grew up in the U.S., Canada, or Malaysia, or if they were boys and girls, Stephens saw environment emerge at the key predictor of aggressive behaviors. No matter what, if coaches encouraged this, kids were on board. It’s important to note that children were equally impressionable in a positive moral environment.
“If the coach said, ‘We’re not that kind of team, our team doesn’t do that,’ and promoted that moral atmosphere, the child boy or girl was less likely to be aggressive,” Stephens said.
Unlike biology, culture, and genetics, which influence aggression to a lesser extent, a kids environment is conveniently something parents can control by modeling healthy behaviors. As small as the differences between boy and girl aggression are, the gap between child and adult aggression is huge. Kids display aggression because they’re cultivating the coping skills, but parents have many other options other than acting out and creating an aggressive atmosphere. In Stephens’ experience, youth sports is usually the one environment where parents and coaches mistakenly think aggression is harmless or even productive. As the parent to a 5-year-old boy who just started playing soccer, she feels other parents’ impulse to get aggressive personally, but warns that youth sports should not be seen as the exceptions for aggression, but the rule.
“As parents and coaches it’s hard to keep that in check,” she empathizes. “But we have to because we’re turning out aggressive individuals.”