Daytime TV: Disorderly conduct

Teenage girls turning to crime should be no surprise when we look at society as a whole, says Gary Day

August 13, 2009

Shona stands by a tree. "You see things in your childhood," she shouts. "You see things that affect you." She doesn't say what those things are, but she is clearly angry about them. The cameraman sensibly took a step back. Abbie drinks to feel happy. She worked out that if she consumed 30 units of alcohol she would be drunk for nearly 18 hours. That rather shaky calculation made her day.

Shona is 20, Abbie is 17. Both were the subject of the documentary The Trouble with Girls (BBC Two, Monday 3 August, 9pm). Not so long ago we were worrying about young men, particularly working-class ones. What were they to do now that heavy industry, their traditional sphere of work, has disappeared? With its emphasis on personal development, team-bonding and customer liaison, the economy was becoming more feminine, forcing a wholesale rethink of masculinity. What a load of tosh. Wasn't the macho culture of reckless risk-taking responsible for the financial crash? Don't get me started.

Anyway, it now seems that young women are behaving like their male counterparts. Since 2003 there has been a 40 per cent rise in crimes committed by teenage girls, ranging from being drunk and disorderly to actual bodily harm. Shona punctuated her rants at the camera by asking anyone whose eyes strayed in her direction what they were looking at. "Do you want some of this?" she shouted at a boy on a bicycle, indicating her clenched fist. Abbie had bruises on her face from scrapping with two boys. "Why were you fighting?" inquired the director. "One of them was my boyfriend," she replied. And we had to be content with that rather cryptic explanation.

Neither girl was at all conscience-stricken by her nefarious activities. Shona takes orders before going on a shoplifting spree. What do people want? Clothes, jewellery, "toys for the kiddies", meat. On a good week she could earn between £700 and £800. It was like listening to a contemporary Moll Flanders. Abbie simply laughed when asked if she thought stealing was wrong. She gets only £90 a week benefit money and that barely lasts three days. "Other people manage on that," retorted her interlocutor. "How do you think they cope?" "They haven't got the bottle for anything else," came the instant reply.

Both girls regard spells in prison as part of their routine. "At least I know I'm going to eat," says Abbie. Her problems started when she fell out with her mother. Since then she has been in and out of children's homes. At her last court appearance she was sent to the Salvation Army. Her dad is not much help. "What can you do?" he shrugs. He looks like Ricky Gervais.

For Shona, prison is the sort of place universities used to be - somewhere to think and reflect. "I'm going to sort my life out," she announces. "All I need is a job." But Shona has no proper ID, no qualifications and we are in the middle of a recession. Her mood darkens. "This is a bag of shit," she screams, lunging at the cameraman who is now pretty good at dodging her. She is soon back inside. "I'm sitting in my cell asking why, why, why?/Get on with it rude girl and don't fucking cry." As well as being a tea leaf, Shona is something of a poet.

Television means that neither Abbie nor Shona "blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air". But that's about all. The camera was pointed, but it did not probe. We could have been watching Jeremy Kyle. "Just look at the antics of the underclass. What a feckless lot they are." But, this being the BBC, some attempt was made to explain the girls' behaviour. Or rather there was an unspoken assumption that antisocial behaviour results from broken families.

Perhaps. But how do families get broken? Unemployment, poverty, a consumer culture that promotes a "me mentality", and a pervasive sense that you matter only if you are famous also play a part in crime. Ironically, what came across most strongly in Shona's case was how close her sprawling, one-parent family was. It had just decided to declare war on the wider society, that's all. Wonder why.

A similar family was on view in Neighbourhood Watched (BBC One, Tuesday 4 August, 10.35pm). Janet lives in Housing Association accommodation and is constantly in trouble because of her endless desire to party. The threat of eviction eventually helped her to appreciate the existence of other people. Who, of course, are hell, as Sartre famously declared. They drop litter, they speed, they vandalise. These are the things that trouble us, claimed Nick Ross in The Truth about Crime (BBC One, Tuesday 4 August, 9pm). But the truth is a lot more complex than that.

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