Several times a year, there's an incident that prompts a national freakout about Kids These Days. In January, if you recall, it was the security video of three Florida high school boys beating a homeless man. (In fact, the fellas beat up three homeless men that night, one of whom died.) Now, an article in Sunday's Miami Herald asks why some teen girls, friends of the guys who knew what had happened, did not initially go to the police. As one 16-year-old later told the cops: "We basically said, 'Oh, it's messed up, I can't believe they did that stuff,' and that was about it. Never went into a whole discussion about it.'' The ex-girlfriend of one of the guys, according to her friends, even seemed to get all hot for him again after the murder.
Sure enough, the beginning of the article made my girl-blame radar start to beep. But as it turns out, it's a refreshingly measured and pretty thorough piece that seeks, if not to defend the girls' inaction, at least to explain it. This sets the article apart from many others I've read that, more facilely, call for a national freakout about Girls These Days.
The reporter, Nikki Waller, makes an assertion that -- while not categorically false -- often goes underexamined: "It's a clichi that often holds true: Young women are attracted to bad boys." And hooray, she goes on to examine it. First of all, as the article points out, it's hard to separate girls' issues entirely from those of Today's Youth in general: "Experts say girls' attraction to dangerous, even violent boys, and their ability to emotionally detach themselves from the boys' crimes are typical of adolescence and symptomatic of modern teen life." Sure: if some boys can shrug off the beating, it would follow that some girls could shrug off their bragging about it.
Jill Murray, an expert on dating violence, says -- sadly -- that many teens walk around with a certain numbness to reality and the suffering of others. ''I see a lot of girls, they are so blasi about all of this. Nothing means anything. There is a sense of hopelessness,'' said Murray.
The article goes on to say: "Psychologists say the urge [to hang with the tough crowd] can be a normal part of sexual and social development, an outgrowth of youth seeking excitement and danger. Bullies, tough guys and delinquents cross the boundaries of social norms." And girls, specifically, "draw a vicarious thrill from boys who break the rules," said Mitch Spero, director of the Florida-based firm Child & Family Psychologists. ''Teens attracted to bad kids may not be bad kids themselves,'' said Spero. "They may enjoy knowing of or being a part of what goes on after hours. Hearing bits and pieces . . . brings about an emotional charge."
Here's where Waller could have dug in a bit more. Really, what Spero is saying is: bad boys are cool (when have they not been?) -- and who doesn't want a part of that? Specifically, who wants to be the priss who rats?
Speaking from my own experience, which includes seven years as a teenager as well as close familiarity with such seminal "power of the bad-kid in-crowd" texts as Killing Mr. Griffin, River's Edge, and Freaks and Geeks, it's way, way cooler to be in on -- to show that you're trustworthy with -- a big fat secret, no matter how toxic. In other words, couldn't some of that "we're so blasi" business be a bit of an act? Just a thought.
From there, Waller also would have done well to take a stab at the massive and perhaps unanswerable question, "So what do we do about all this: the violence, the indifference?" Failing that, though, I suppose I was pleased that the piece ends not with a heavy-handed call to arms, but with a glimmer of hope -- at least for girls. "Few young women will face such a dramatic reality check [as realizing that yes, that was your ex-boyfriend beating the shit out of a defenseless homeless man on CNN]," Waller reports -- but, experts say, "with guidance and growth, most eventually gravitate to healthy and safe relationships." I'm not 100% sure, frankly, but it's always nice to see someone giving girls a little credit.