When women fight


Dr Michelle Johnston

Dr Michelle Jonstone on SBS's episode of <i>Insight</i> tonight.

Dr Michelle Jonstone on SBS's episode of Insight tonight.

Violent Femmes. It has the ring of the revolutionary, the artistic, possibly the admirable.

It is also the title of this week's Insight program on SBS on which I am a guest, discussing the female perpetration of violence.

For our known history, violence has overwhelmingly been the domain of the male. But listen to some of the voices on the program – a conversation predominantly between young women – and you may be disturbed to find that there is an entire subsection of female society that believes violence is an acceptable form of communication. As a tool to "teach people a lesson", to remedy an evening of boredom, to demonstrate strength, and many other motives.

A screen grab from 'Vioent Femmes' tonight's episode of <i>Insight</i> on SBS.

A screen grab from 'Vioent Femmes' tonight's episode of Insight on SBS.

I am an emergency physician in an inner-city hospital; a trauma centre that sometimes feels as though it specialises in violence, particularly that fuelled by alcohol and drugs. We see every imaginable form of violence that can be inflicted by one human upon another. And yes, we do see the result of acts committed by females against other females.


There is convincing evidence, particularly from police and judicial data, that this type of behaviour is increasing. In the emergency department, we don't keep those statistics, as our aim in data collection is to represent the victim, not the person responsible for the injuries, but tangential data suggests that one in five violent incidents that reach the hospital setting are initiated by women.

In the frontline of care we see a spectrum of injuries, mostly minor, such as bruises, abrasions, lacerations, ranging up to quite serious injuries. Often the physical injury has a disproportionately severe impact on the victim, and may be psychologically permanent in some cases. At the more horrific end, although rarely, we see devastating and disfiguring injuries – the results of glassing, burns, or other more purposeful crimes. Even unplanned violence can have potentially fatal consequences, such as the head injury from a knock to the ground resulting in an intracranial bleed.

The question that is never answered, satisfactorily at least, is why this phenomenon of female violence seems to be on the rise. There are many opinions. From my experience dealing with the immediate consequences of violence, I believe there is no single culprit to blame, but a heady mix of many modern cultural influences. Among them are a culture that celebrates and reveres violence, female role models in movies who literally "kick ass", social media inciting faceless bullying, mob mentality, loss of respect for positions of authority (as the legions of assaults on nurses, paramedics, teachers illustrate) and the liberal use of drugs and alcohol. Could this be a "masculinisation" of women? A bizarre swinging back of a lost pendulum, an unexpected direction for the evolution of feminism? The only certainty is that it is not one thing, and thus has no easy fix.

In the emergency department we are confronted by these values day in and day out. And they are worrying.

The term "Violent Femmes" was coined in popular culture by the legendary 1980s band created by Brian Ritchie and Gordon Gano in Milwaukee. Ironically, the cult band used the term as an oxymoron – the word "femmes" was a slang term for "wimps" back then. It was never meant to be an exotic, hedonistic, strong concept to aspire to. Female violence is not the pinnacle of a civilised society. I hope that the conversation that ensues from this program is far reaching.

Dr Michelle Johnston is an emergency doctor at Royal Perth Hospital. Tonight she is a guest on SBS' Insight program, Violent Femmes, a discussion about the rise in violence and fighting among girls and women. It screens at 8.30pm on SBS One.