Are Women More Aggressive These Days?

For a book that might be mistaken for a treatise on violent women, Maud Lavin’s recent Push Comes to Shove covers territory of another kind: specific case studies of women’s aggression as heard in pop music, seen in films and increasingly experienced in professional and private settings over the course of the last decade.

Lavin argues that aggression, historically linked with poor women and treated as low-class behavior, has become normalized across race and class lines. From the rise of powerful female rappers like Salt-N-Pepa in the ‘90s to films like Kill Bill in the ‘00s, we’ve witnessed the trend-turned-convention of women as avengers and vigilantes in the media. We’ve also seen an increase in powerful female role models even beyond overtly aggressive Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type heroines. Women’s boxing has become as much an exercise routine at the gym as a competitive sport, and films like Bring It On have helped redefine gendered competition.

Aggression isn’t necessarily about harming others. Lavin points out that women’s aggressive behavior is often staking claim to space and identity rather than creating conflict. Radical dissent and street activism are just two ways in which women’s aggression is manifested for positive social change. Indeed, some forms of women’s aggression blur the lines between marking identity and entitlement.

When it comes to sex, aggression is also tied up with everything from lust–consensual sex initiated by uninhibited female partners–to sexual violence. Lavin ties aggressive sexuality to the work of black artists such as Kara Walker and erotica writer Zane, both of whom have arguably reclaimed the stereotypical hypersexualized images of enslaved black women that often dominate portrayals of black women’s sexuality in American media. While no book can be all things, it is admittedly frustrating that Lavin’s focus on aggressive sexuality focuses exclusively on black women, as if to reinforce the very stereotypes she seeks to undo.

Interestingly, the book never actually focuses on unjustified female violence. There’s no overview of female serial killers or infanticide–perhaps because other scholars, whose main focus is often one particular type of female violence, cover these specific topics. While Lavin could have easily looked at vandalism, robbery or stalking through the lens of women’s aggression, her study focuses on contemporary art or female boxers who upload sparring session footage to YouTube.

Lavin’s wide-ranging examples provide a framework for understanding female aggression, its portrayal in the media over the last two decades, and what it means to embrace something which can still be used to cause harm and inflict violence. As someone who used to box, who has chased harassers down the street and has let loose her share of epithets at ex-boyfriends, this academic overview of women’s aggressive behavior is welcome food for thought. Reading it during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, when TV shows have featured female-on-male domestic violence, it seems that a broader conversation about female aggression, for better or worse, can’t come soon enough.

Cover image via MIT Press.


  1. Vashonmidwife says:

    So, is that it?? Is it now a "if we can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality on aggression and violence?? Why in the world would women want to be more aggressive? Do we really want to emulate men? Has Feminist ideology to some become the "little sister" to the masculine model of communication? I'm not saying that we shouldn't defend ourselves physically when attacked, but other than the physical harm of our person or loved ones, aggression should not be revered by women. It does nothing but make us a part of a system that marginalized us in the first place. "Emulation of the Oppressor" has been the thesis point of many a dissertation.

    Patriarchy and the violence and aggression that it ensues has fucked up this world and women have paid a high price for that. If aggression = power for you, then you've been duped. Let's start writing and reading about feminine power. Let's demand for positive woman-power on TV, ads, our government and our medical system that has NOTHING to do with aggression. Strength = power and women have a primal strength that trumps aggression. Yes, women, let's talk more about that!!

  2. I have to agree with Vashonmidwife. I took kickboxing too, but I have to tell you, I feel a hell of a lot more powerful as a writer and advocate. I get a much bigger high off of fast-paced, intelligent debate than I ever did off of physically kicking a guy's ass. Maybe it's just my pen that feels mightier than the proverbial sword but, either way: I think media portraying it so the only way women can be "aggressive," "tough," or "strong" is to be violent is a poor way to foster female empowerment.

  3. Yes, women are definitely more aggressive these days! I am so happy to see more commentary about women’s boxing. With the 2012 Olympics coming up, this is so exciting.

  4. Arse Politico says:

    …so what you’re saying is themat there was no aggression in the book?
    There’s a headline. Not being fecetious.

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