Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Working 'The Code': On Girls, Gender, and Inner-City Violence

Academic journal article Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology

Working 'The Code': On Girls, Gender, and Inner-City Violence

Article excerpt

Much attention is given to young men's experience with inner-city violence; however, this ethnographic study demonstrates that innercity girls are not necessarily isolated by virtue of their gender from much of the violence experienced by poor, urban boys and men. Over time, both young women and men in distressed inner-city neighbourhoods come to realise how reputation, respect and retaliation--the fundamental elements of 'the code of the street' (Anderson, 1999)--organise their social world. At times, how young people work the code is similar across gender. Gender also works to shape teenaged girls' and boys' experiences with violence in distinct ways.


In mainstream American society, it is commonly assumed that women and girls shy away from conflict, are not physically aggressive, and do not fight like boys and men. Popular representations of 'mean girls', who 'fight with body language and relationships instead of fists and knives' reinforce common understandings about gender-based differences in the use of physical force (Simmons, 2002; Wiseman, 2003). Relying on commonplace dichotomies to explain girls' behaviour, however, seriously limits our understanding of those young women who engage in symbolic and physical battles for respect and status. Consider, for example, the following statements I recorded from two teenaged girls who live in distressed inner-city neighbourhoods in Philadelphia:

Shante: It's like me, if somebody come up there to me and say something to me I'm not going to pay that no mind. But you get all up in my face and doing all that, then that's when I'm going to hit you--'cause I'm not willing to let somebody put their hands on me.

DeLisha: I really know how to fight. So I really would beat her up, real bad, and then leave her there. That would be the end of that.

In contrast to popular assumptions, the statements from the young women above suggest that girls can and do fight with far more than 'words and tears' when necessary. Yet, in contrast to our understanding of violence in the lives of inner-city boys and men, we know little about what these fights mean to girls like Shante and DeLisha. How do young women like Shante and DeLisha consider and respond to threats of conflict or violence in their everyday lives? How are their experiences similar to the young men who live in their neighbourhoods? How does gender work to make these experiences different?

In this article, I draw on field research among African-American girls in the United States to argue that the circumstances of inner-city life have encouraged the development of uniquely situated femininities that simultaneously encourage and limit inner-city girls' use of physical aggression and violence. First, I begin by arguing that, in the urban environments that I studied, gender--being a girl-does not protect inner-city girls from much of the violence experienced by innercity boys.' In fact, teenaged boys and girls are both preoccupied with 'survival' as an ongoing project. I use my analysis of interviews with young people involved in violent incidents to demonstrate similarities in how young people work 'the code of the street' across perceived gender lines. I conclude this article by describing how gender structures teenaged girls' and boys' use of physical aggression and violence in distinct ways. This in-depth examination of young people's use of physical aggression and violence reveals that while young men and young women fight, survival is still a gendered project.

Much of contemporary urban ethnographic literature focuses primarily on the experiences of boys or men in urban spaces. I address gaps in this literature and offer ethnographic data that seeks to provide an important corrective to a relatively male-centred ethnographic tradition, by placing young US Black women and girls at the centre of the analysis. This study also seeks to deepen sociological analyses of the differences that emerge from intersections of gender, race and class by comparing and contrasting the experiences of inner-city girls and boys. …

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