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Problem GirlsReview - Problem Girls
by Gwynedd Lloyd
RoutledgeFalmer, 2005
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D.
Aug 15th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 33)

A quick look through the contributors list will show clearly that there are no male authors inside this black covered book.  Lloyd herself is a senior lecturer and head of subject in the School of Education, University of Edinburgh.  It is therefore natural that all of the authors focus on school and its environs, for the most part, in viewing what it is that makes these young girls members of the discussed group.

As with any similar topic it would be considered important, perhaps even essential, to attempt to penetrate the phenomenology of the presentation of such subjects, and the labels of troublesome and troubled that are applied to them.  The mere words imply a psychosocial view and an epistemology.

Such-named girls face, are faced with or cause difficulties within various groups, and one assumes that their voices have a story to tell, and this book will attempt to elaborate that story.

Lloyd leads off the introduction, about why we need a diverse and complex book about these girls, and, as expected, the role that gendered processes have in defining and labeling these girls as deviant in some way. As the second half of the title suggests, some support is needed to redress the imbalances imposed by such a gendered process in a patriarchal society and to address the phenomenology of the presentation.  Although the latter chapters do show some evidence of support not too much will emerge in this book to suggest that this imbalance is being redressed.

Becky Francis is thus an ideal starting point for a book harboring such opinions about the mechanisms of social construction, with her chapter on the school classroom environs.  Here, the social roles create a pressure, based on gender roles and expectations, to fit in with the prevailing systems and hierarchies, with sanctions and sanctioned behavior for the genders mediating.  Power and control are issues in our society, with the classroom dictating what we are to be as adults, and how that will work.  Challenging the system might invoke sanctions such as bullying or labels, and worse, treatment.  Modern society is of course not just about gender, but about power as well, or rather, the possession of property in the Marxist sense.  Income levels which provide psychoeconomic status, as well as issues such as physical attractiveness and other factors begin to dictate where one is in the pecking order of the classroom’s power structures, and therefore what behaviors are expected as appropriate or desirable.  This examination of the topic reflects on what Francis has authored and co-authored to date in her various monographs, examining gender from the perspective of power in the classroom.

Tess Ridge, who follows on, has a similar bent, more perhaps for the effects of socioeconomic status and the resultant social exclusion, and the effects that the social policies of government have on these equations, such as they might be.  Social exclusion on the basis of income is no stranger to those who examine the effects of social capital on mental illness, education, government policy and so on. 

Role expectations for those perceived of as ''poor'' are often skewed, and I offer this exchange from a friend's experience as proof of the universal nature of this.  Her child's 7-year old friend arrives from school with her to play at my friend's not insubstantial home, and this exchange follows:

''Is this your home?''


''Where is the pool''

''We don’t have one''

''Oh....where is the rest of your house''

''What do you mean?''

''Like where is the upstairs, this can’t be all of it?''

''Nope, that is it.''

''Okay, you must be poor.  Do you know anyone who owns an apartment?''

''Yes, my grandma and grand dad do.''

''My mum says anyone who lives in an apartment is poor...." And so on.

In the political spectrum, meaning the personal, gender and role expectations intercommunicate with poverty and other variables to produce what might be considered provocative behavior from children.  In many ways, these descriptions of problematic behavior fulfill the criteria for fundamental attribution errors, namely, the belief that such defined behaviors represent a bad person rather then the product of social forces.  Problem behavior thus informs on a poor upbringing and resultant poor personality, with demonstrable problems at school and elsewhere.  If The Bell Curve is right, then low IQ is responsible for failure to thrive socially at home and in the workplace, and so poverty thus results, and in turn, predicts further stagnation from one generation to another.  Worse, this then creates the expectancy that someone emerging from a socioeconomically depressed family or environment will present with poor academic achievement and poor prospects for the future strata that she will inhabit in society.  Social exclusion then implies that even if the child was to show promise, the higher institutions of learning and income would be still be shut away from her. 

Cathy Street takes over the next chapter, presenting the case for gender and mental health issues in penetrating the problem girl phenomenology.  The gender role expectations are again confounding factors.  There are expectations that girls will engage more readily with health services owing to beliefs about their willingness to talk about emotional issues, or rely on close emotional relationships, and other presumed issues which may wilt in the shadow of more robust concerns based on stereotypes about boys.  In this environment, Street argues, mental health issues may simply drop under the authority's radars rather than not exist in girls at school.

In the next chapter, Colleen McLaughlin takes up this view of the camouflaged nature of the problems within problem girls. Boys will attract the lion's share of interventions around complex needs and behaviors, girls being left to get on with things, despite their own often internal struggles with alienation, distress and other issues related to the personal, social and emotional challenges of school.  The supposed resources that girls are more fond of using, namely interpersonal contact, may open them up to worse outcomes, specifically, when the relationships fail, and they need precisely the health of these relationships to promote their coping capacity.  In this scenario, girls are four times more likely to self-harm than boys. Carol Gilligan is a must quote person here, and one hears the resonance of Gilligan's 'voice' throughout this book, and this chapter especially.  The moral voice of girls is held to be paramount in their mental health, and the loss of essential connections, so prevalent in adolescence, pervades the problem girl's capacity to wield the ordinary courage to speak her mind and reveal herself and her complexity. This loss of voice constitutes one of the central paradoxes depleting the social capital of the teenage girl, and forcibly internalizing, and thus hiding, her essential pain from the outside authority and resources of the school.  Bullying someone, or being bullied, can both result in harsh interactions between person, agency, relationships and society/school.  Stereotypes as to what an appropriate gender 'voice' might be enforce the view that girls should be quiet, shy, withdrawn at this time, and beyond.  Responses of helping or intervention will be based in what behaviors are acceptable or not, and what sanctions of exclusion might be applied.  Likewise, role and gender role expectations define sexual behaviors and how sexuality might best and most appropriately be expressed in future. This of course will come from both males and females alike, as any pregnant or working mother knows, as evidenced from the simple question from her peers ''So, do you work?'', a middle class question for females if there ever was one. Social sanction is thus poised over these girls, no matter what they do, or what behaviors they avoid.  Pregnancy in a young female may in this way constitute a survival strategy, which both protects and excludes.  Problem girls are thus both hidden and not a priority for schools when it comes to distributing resource for problem behaviors.  Agency, or resilience, is a critical resource for such girls if they are not to embark on psychological foot binding and rather respond more successfully with experiences of mastery and self-efficacy. It's a hard hitting and thought provoking chapter, but I am partial to Gilligan's voice.

Jane Brown, of ''Just trying to be men'' fame, also of Edinburgh University, continues to address 'violence' in females as she has done all through the last decade.  As her work implies, she takes a more tentative view in addressing what might be considered a 'violent gal' from a more deconstructive approach. In doing so, she has gone out and chatted to the alleged perpetrators, and others, to determine what their experiences, if not their motives, are.  Again, fundamental attributions and implicit assumptions are questioned, particularly from the point of view that this is a new and ballooning problem: its not.  However, the research into female violence is new, since the tolerances are different between male and female arenas.  The issue of the arena is contentious, as not only are girls hanging out in public, but may do so on previously masculine turf.  Girls who admitted to violence were also the most likely recipients of violent acts themselves.  Unlike boys again, a recurrent theme, girls are most invested in interpersonal relationships, placing them at special risk, but not for violence in the context of a break up.  Instead though, such girls sought out places where risk was involved, for various reasons, and seek alliances with similar others to enhance their sense of social capital.  In turn, these girls may mis-attribute the look and thoughts of others, resulting in suspicion and hostility.

Based not in Scotland, but in the USA, the study of Brown and Chesney-Lind that follows examines the lose-lose situation of violent girls.  If they emulate boys, then they are violating a stereotype, if they don't, they are reinforcing another more negative stereotype.  Violence across their lives may be a strategy to determine that they are not invisible, and are a force to contend with, a way of maintaining cohesion of their all important group affiliation in order to retain the necessary support required for a sense of wholeness and mastery across the years of developmental challenge.

Mary Jane Kehily follows, addressing sexuality in girls, and the views of others in relation to their sexuality.  ''The trouble with sex'' deals with the contrasting dynamics of the way sexuality is ascribed to young women, and the way they experience it.  This follows on Ruben and Vance's separate calls in 1984 to separate gender and sexuality to free it from the fraternity of the media and other sources of definition.  Obvious to everyone is the risk of being regarded as a loose woman if one seizes on the capacity to own sexuality, and enjoy it, rather than wear an approbation of sexual reputation.  On the other hand, magazines such as the one quoted in this chapter have moved away from syrupy romance to the harder and faster rules of sex not love. This often takes it to the point where the teenagers resist the more explicit message.

Culture values now move across culture or at least color, with discussions from Cecile Wright about the even more succinct invisibility of the young black girl from the view of society.  Pushed together in their marginalization this may, again, lead to negative attributions about race, loudness or sexuality. Another feature consequently beyond socio-economics or education is thus race, or culture.

If we accept the 'boys will be boys' adage, from a criminal sanctions point of view, then the reader of all the above will be ready for O’Neill's assumptions about the biases of the criminal justice and welfare systems.  She points out their dualistic approaches to females who do things that males might do, but without escaping punishment, which might be the case with offending males.  Social construction theory applies here, and females face strong sanctions against them, often by professionals, if they do non-criminal things that boys might do, but in their gendered case, are held to be deviant in doing so. Consequently professional intervention might lack coherence in response to the made-invisible needs of such girls.

Lloyd herself presents the next chapter, looking at EBD or emotional and behavioral difficulties girls. In her own words, she says she explores the social construction of the label EBD in order to challenge the dominant psychomedical views which she feels deny the individual human experience of these girls as girls.  Problems of labeling and lack of support, or provision of poorly targeted support, resonate here to the sound of the 'voice' of the girl being either lost or subsumed in society.

If one is invisible, one is never really there, and so Collins and Johnston-Wilder write of girls' non-participation at school.  An individual's perceived ability, they say, to become an active learner will depend in no small part on their perception of themselves, their relationship to others, and the demands of the situation in which they are working.  If you have followed what has gone so far you will see how a gendered society can influence that. It comes as no surprise to me that my sister was given only limited bites of the university apple, and then shunted off to secretarial school, while I was given far more access as a potential breadwinner.  She in fact never married, leaving her hard pressed to support herself.  These authors’ research indicates to them that where collaboration and participation are expected within a supportive environment, then all but the most reticent girls will engage with the classroom community.

Continuing to engage 'girls voices', Cruddas and Haddock begin their chapter with a quote from bell hooks, a black female author, written in lower case after her Native American Great-grandmother (She herself was born Gloria Jean Watkins, an Afro-American of modest means, but born to be an educated child and doctorate-level adult revolutionary feminist).  It was bell hooks who coined the phrase they use, the engaged voice.  They too look at deconstructing EBD labels for girls, and how they are blocked from learning, not experiencing, the 'transitivity' of teaching.  As before, girls go to school not to learn necessarily, but to see and be with their friends, the latter creating the support necessary for the former to be transitive. 

My fellow Australians finish off the series of chapters.  Well, two of them, Mcquade and Rochford, hail from my prior home, Adelaide, and Thomson is an adjunct Professor there, but from the UK.  The former two have won awards for their work in aboriginal education.  They write of changing the physical environment in order to facilitate the changes they wanted to see in their pupils at Clifftop School, and with much pragmatic success.  On ya gals, on ya!

The book does what it sets out to do without becoming preachy or over political. The authors quietly, and with scholarly grimness, set out to awaken in the reader the knowledge and the view that all is not as it seems in the classroom, and not equal in neither vision nor purpose.  Gendered assumptions hold sway, and must be recognized and dealt with affirmatively. This is not a matter of leveling the playing fields, but in creating affirmative action sets that elevate girls out of years of disadvantage.  This disadvantage arises out of speaking with the voices of others, a disengaged voice of prejudice and stereotype.  The affirmation asked for is for facilitation of engaged voices, where girls can embark on behaviors that are neither bad nor good necessarily, but contextualized and correctly attributed to the social factors leading to their arousal.  With their own voices girls can confront the world as it is, and help move it and themselves in a mutual engagement to where it should be.

The book's authors are guilty of a lot of repetition, with not too many solutions or stories of success, certainly not in the pragmatic way of Thomson and her colleagues at the end, which is sad.  The book, without its dust cover, is somber black, and not romantic in its approach.  Its somber tones are sufficient to awaken the need in one to not lose sight of what the book seriously and repetitively asks educators to concede.  There is a lot wrong, society has contrived in one way or another to disadvantage more than half of its population, especially the poorer half, and keep them on the wrong side of the Bell Curve.  This is not the final word however, and there is a host of information available to suggest that an affirmative approach will rid the world of most of its Problem Girls, in a good way.



© 2006 Roy Sugarrman



Roy Sugarman, PhD, Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, A-Dir of Psychology, Royal Rehab Centre Sydney, Australia


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