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In It for the Fun

One big draw of being in a street gang is that you get to throw away the normal, boring story of your life and replace it with a much more dramatic story—a heroic story.

The gang from 1975's Switchblade Sisters

A bunch of years ago I was a radio reporter doing a story on girl gangs—the tough kind in Chicago where girls carried guns and sold drugs. One girl that I interviewed wanted to be sure I understood: she didn’t get into the gang because she came from some rough background. She didn’t grow up in the projects. Her parents worked. She was a “good” kid. Her teachers liked her. They were nice, responsible, get-up-and-go-to-work-even-if-you’re-dead-sick kind of people.

So why’d she join the gang? “Because it was cool!” she said. (Duh.) “Everyone was doing it.” She wasn’t in a gang because she had no other options. She was smart. She was in it for the fun.

Most of your time in a gang is doing the most normal teenage activity in the world: hanging with your friends. Teasing one another and goofing around and looking for stuff to do, for hours and hours and hours. Being around girl gangs in Chicago was like being around any group of girls. I don’t know why I didn’t expect that, but of course when you think about it, what else would it be?

Except when it came to one thing. The leaders of the groups, the ones who rose to the top, weren’t just charismatic like the top girl in any group of girls. They also really loved being tough. They loved having power.

I did a radio story about this a few years back. Click here and jump to 12:48 to hear this part of it. You may need a RealPlayer to listen; that’s here. This was part of a radio series called Soundprint, which does all kinds of stories.

“It’s a power trip,” one girl said. “It’s power. When you’re 13, and can walk down the street, and everybody looks at you like, ‘There goes the pope.’ And you could say something to someone and they wouldn’t dare—I mean not even dare to say something back? That’s a power trip. When you sit there and you’re just like: ‘Just say something.’ And they’re like: [mopey voice] ‘No, forget it.’ And they walk away. And you’re like, They know not to mess with me.

Maybe you relate to that, maybe you don’t. I think lots of kids–hell, not just kids, lots of people everywhere–walk around with tons of anger, and this is what these girls do with it. They let it out. That same girl said: “Why is it fun to fight someone? Number one, you’re in control. Number two, if you know you’re a good fighter, it’s likely you’re going to win. I’d be like, ‘God, I’d love to smack the shit out of someone.’ And it would be because I knew there’d be somebody I could find. You just walk around, talk shit about everybody, till you spot somebody, you scope them. You say, ‘There’s my victim.’ This is a self-esteem booster.”

(When I interviewed the girl who said that, she’d actually been out of the gang a few years, and held a job counseling gang kids in the neighborhood. She seemed pretty great at that. She cared about kids a lot. But she admitted, “I still have those feelings [of anger]. I come to work some days and feel like, I just want to get a hold of somebody and kick their ass in.” Of course she wouldn’t kick anyone’s ass in. She’d learned to handle the anger differently.)

The toughest girl I talked to was a girl whose name I didn’t give over the radio, but every gang kid in Chicago knew about her. She’d committed a murder that made all the papers, and was caught for it. If you want to hear what someone sounds like when she’s a teenage murderer, go to 16:18 in the audio file. Be prepared to like her, no kidding. Talking to her was a weird mix of things I think anyone would relate to, and funny stuff she’d say—she knew when she was saying something that was totally out there, and knew when she was being funny—but of course as soon as she started talking about how great it is to put a bullet in someone’s head, the relatability dropped a bit.

She was such a force on the streets that when she was only 14, one of the big Chicago street gangs—a gang that controlled territory all across the city—gave her four city blocks that she was in charge of for them. That’s how it works in Chicago. The big gangs divide their territory into smaller sections and put a different person—usually a guy—in charge of each section. So this girl ran a crew of 20 girls, and set the rules for those girls in those four blocks. She required every girl to carry a gun, which was unusual, and she required every girl to sell drugs, which was also unusual. She insisted on that because she wanted all the girls to have money. Money is power, and the whole point was: they were going to be as powerful as any guys. Here’s how she put that:

We wanna show off too. We wanna let ’em know, the guys ain’t the best. The girls can do better. The guys are scared to jump out of the car and blow somebody’s brains out. But the girls right away will do it, just to get attention. Just to be known.

’Cause we try to be bigger than guys, so we walk like guys and we’re tough like guys. Some of us even look like guys! A lot of us, we didn’t like to wear makeup. You know, we’re too tough to wear makeup. Unless we go out to a bar or something, we’ll get dressed up, in miniskirts and stuff. Usually we’re in our jogging clothes and our gym shoes, ready to fight. We always have to watch our back. I used to always wear my little gym shoes and my gang-colored jogging suits and, you know, I had to just be a stud. I’d walk with my hand between my legs like I had something there to grab.

And a lot of guys would be like “You’re so attractive, but why are you acting like a boy?” I be like, “If you don’t like it, just step.”

And then when they see me go into a bar with miniskirts and makeup and heels and stuff, it’s like, “Look at her!” They will really freak out. They’ll freak out. And it used to feel good, because one day I’ll be a boy and the next day I’ll be a girl.

ME Why did you want to be like a boy?

HER I wanted to be tough.

ME Why?

HER Well, I’d know nobody would mess with me. Nobody would tell me, “You can’t do this.” I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do.

The main thing I had a hard time understanding was the lack of conscience that these girls had about killing other kids. I mean, sure, I know they figured they were at war—it’s us or them. But still, it was weird to meet these girls I liked so much who felt this way. I interviewed these two sisters, one 13 years old, one 15. Each had been in the gang for two years, then the older one got out when she had a baby, whom she brought to the interview. They’re at 9:25 in the radio piece. I asked them about some boys they shot three times in the head: did they feel bad for them? They said no: “They’re in another gang, and you don’t care if they’re hit.” I asked if they thought that could be me and again, the answer was no: “I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just trying to scare them. To—to think I’m tough and stuff. To tell my friends, so they can talk about me and say, ‘This girl’s tough and she’s down,’ and stuff like that. I was just doing it for fun. To try to show off with my friends.”

Horrifying, right? But at the same time, who doesn’t want to prove herself to her friends? I think one big draw of being in a street gang is that you get to throw away the normal, boring story of your own boring life and replace it with a much more dramatic story—a heroic story. It’s you and your band of friends against the world. And it’s life or death. And you guys are the stars of the movie. You know? That’s hard to resist. ♦

You can listen to the full radio story here.

Ira Glass is the producer and host of This American Life.

42 Comments

  • ravenflamingo May 29th, 2012 7:06 PM

    This is so interesting. It would be soooo much fun to join a girl gang. I don’t think I have the toughness that it requires, though.

    http://agirlnamedraven.tumblr.com

    • AnguaMarten May 29th, 2012 8:44 PM

      i’m sorry, but do you realize what you’re saying? joining a gang isn’t a walk in the park. it’s not “fun.” did you read the part where these kids beat the shit out of other kids, shot other kids in the head, and sold drugs on the streets of chicago? this isn’t aspirational.

      • ravenflamingo May 29th, 2012 9:56 PM

        I’m sorry if I offended you. I probably should have thought out my comment a little better. I think it’s just kind of like when little kids pretend to be pirates or cowboys. They don’t think about the violence and instability involved, they just think it would be fun to be a badass. As a lifestyle, I’m sure that being in a gang is far from ideal.

  • Adrienne May 29th, 2012 7:07 PM

    Totally agree with the last paragraph. Dang, I can’t imagine being in a girl gang, or having girl gangs around… I live in a pretty close-knit, sleepy suburban community.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • ielo_x3 May 29th, 2012 7:09 PM

    Wow. I always joke around about being in a girl gang and cults and whatever but the fact that it was a way of life and utter satisfaction and gratification for these girls blows my mind. Some of them are badass x10 but the whole gun thing and not feeling remorse is scary.

  • steph_142 May 29th, 2012 7:14 PM

    This is very interesting. It’s weird how relateable it all is, while still being totally foreign and a whole new world. Very strange and insightful.

    http://hazmat-life.blogspot.com/

  • ladylaurenia May 29th, 2012 7:22 PM

    I really like this article. It’s scary but so interesting XD. And I’m no criticizing or anything…but how is any of this stuff heroic? Nobody who uses guns to kill people are heroic. Heck, nobody who kills people are heroic, they are pretty ballsy though. I wouldn’t want to glorify people who do this. I like girl gangs, just not these types :(

  • ninacharlie May 29th, 2012 7:26 PM

    I loved the article! So interesting! It must be so much fun being in a girl gang, but at the same time so scary.

    Nina Charlie

    http://charliesfashiondiaries.blogspot.ca/

  • ellieks May 29th, 2012 7:44 PM

    Intriguing article! I never would have considered the power dynamics that large city gangs have.

  • camboozle May 29th, 2012 7:48 PM

    im glad this article kind of settled the suburban fantasy of gangs and matched it with the reality of gangs,

    while i embrace the power of these girls and equality in the gang realm, it was humbling to read about the real gangs embedded with violence, warfare, and the gritty nature of it all
    that isn’t presented when you look at it from a fashion or a trend viewpoint

  • psychedelia_delia May 29th, 2012 7:53 PM

    it’s so interesting to me how the most dangerous people can be the most likable. i think it has to do with how sincere and ‘real’ they are compared to other people in our world. if you ever read ‘a good man is hard to find’ by flannery o’connor, the murderer/”outlaw” is purposefully the most intelligent and charming character in the story!!! anyways, i loved this article, mr. glass!

    • moonchild May 29th, 2012 9:44 PM

      Oh my god YES! I was thinking about that story as I read this!!! I think it’s because, though they express their anger in totally aweful ways, you can actually SEE their anger, as opposed to the normal person, who hides it all inside.

      Gwen

  • MissKnowItAll May 29th, 2012 7:57 PM

    two words. Jets and the Sharks. Actually, that was more like four words -_-

    • eliselbv June 1st, 2012 12:17 PM

      Haha as soon as I’ve seen the word gang I immediately thought of West Side Story. And then I read the article and it was the same thing except that here we are talking of girls and in the movie it’s boys. But if I remember well, there’s a girl in the movie who absolutely wants to be part of the gang and she kind of illustrate this article

      http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • plutosproject May 29th, 2012 8:09 PM

    It’s funny to realize that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. From movies and media, etc, I’ve always glorified these badass girl gangs; sexy, tough, and nonchalant. Effortlessly cool.
    I’m surprised that these girls would do such horrifying things to prove themselves… It’s a little sad.
    I guess in real life, badass is actually legitimately, “badass”.

  • beesNtrees May 29th, 2012 8:31 PM

    Fun to be in a gang? Heroic?
    Are you f*&%((& kidding me?!?
    How do girls get to be IN gangs in the first place… oh YEAH they are GANG RAPED IN!!!!! What moron would try to make gang life look cool to young girls? This article is insane!

    • gato May 29th, 2012 9:13 PM

      gang raped? where do you get this from?

      kids that form gangs can be (as this article states) boring regular kids who find fun in wrecking stuff and controling people, but they are also teens and kids, and they like hanging out with other kids who like that shit. they are fucked, but they exist.

      at my point of view, that’s what the article is trying to say, not exactly gloryfing and even less promoting this lifestyle.

      • gato May 29th, 2012 9:21 PM

        also i mean my question of what’s your reference for “gang raped” with true curiosity

        i can relate it to guerrillas or cartels, in places where there is no choice, but i dont think it’s relevant to the kind of gangs this article refers to.

        p.s. a note to rookie i really liked this article… more crude journalism please!

        • Ira May 29th, 2012 11:48 PM

          Here’s what girls in Chicago gangs told me, back when I did this reporting. They said that in theory, in some gangs, when you join as a girl, you have a choice: you can have sex with gang members to get in, or you can get “jumped in” the way the guys get in. They said in practice, nobody has sex to join the gang. They were sort of offended that anyone thought that was real. What kind of weaklings did boys think they were? They saw it as something boys said to each other about how girls got in gangs. It was disrespectful on its face.

          In weeks of reporting, I never met a girl who admitted to sleeping her way into the gang. Or who would point me to anyone who did. Everyone said they were jumped in. That means they got beat up to join the gang. Everyone punches and hits you and beats on you. Then you’re in. They do the same thing if you want to quit.

          And by the way, I don’t see the gangs as heroic. But when you’re in the gang, the story you’re telling yourself is about yourself is heroic. You’re one of the good guys. It’s you and your scrappy band of toughs against the world. I see the appeal. That’s a really awesome story to think you’re living.

  • Maddy May 29th, 2012 8:45 PM

    Interesting, I’d love to hear the piece. Unfortunately, I downloaded it, clicked on it, and my computer proceeded to open and update Dreamweaver? Mac problems or do I just need to try RealPlayer?

    • Anaheed May 29th, 2012 8:55 PM

      Try RealPlayer and let us know if it works.

      • Kathryn May 29th, 2012 9:06 PM

        Is there a mac version of RealPlayer? All I could find at the link was for a PC.
        Anyways, very interesting article. It’s terrifying, but interesting all the same how some peoples’ morals can become so twisted.

      • Be June 23rd, 2012 5:01 PM

        I use Ubuntu and downloaded the Real Player for Linux and it opens the archive it shows the title, the autor and the time, it seems like it’s playing but there’s no sound.
        I asked my boyfriend to check out if he could hear it, he uses windows, and the same thing happened.

        Are you sure the archive is fine or is it just us?
        Is there anyother way I can hear it?

        I really want to listen to this. Please.

  • teenager May 29th, 2012 9:53 PM

    wow, this is SO interesting. I’ve never really thought about the kinds of people that are in gangs… yanno, they’re PEOPLE… it just never fully crossed my mind.

    wonderful piece, I’ve started listening to the interview now :3

    http://interstellarsuburbia.wordpress.com/

  • anisarose May 29th, 2012 10:01 PM

    Once I saw “Ira Glass”, I was so excited to read this piece. It’s interesting to see that obsession with 90′s grunge and tough-girl culture that can be seen on Rookie translated into a more extreme setting. Personally, I don’t care for the “woe is me” teenage girl attitude and I was really turned off by the girls that were described. I haven’t listened to the audio— mainly because I should be doing homework right now— so I don’t understand the appeal of these girls but anyone who is willing, even for a second, to shoot a gun at someone (and I might even argue, to carry a gun) or sell (or do) drugs, is the opposite of appeals. These girls sound so naive and their lack of empathy made me sick. No, they aren’t like those gangs in corrupt Central American countries but they are still perpetuating an image of American youth that makes us out to seem like the bad guys (and girls).

    Thank you Rookie (and Ira Glass) for sharing this and I hope that all of you readers take this as an opportunity to look at the consequences of a society based on materialism rather than moral qualities.

    http://anisarose.blogspot.com/

  • Aria May 29th, 2012 10:06 PM

    This article is (as many other commenters said) very interesting indeed!
    It gives us a different perspective on gangs and it informs us about them.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • Sorcha May 29th, 2012 11:41 PM

    Ira is a superstar

  • taste test May 30th, 2012 12:04 AM

    very good article. I think everyone who thinks of “gangsta” as just a fashion to try on should read this…

  • Caden May 30th, 2012 3:44 AM

    I was mesmerised as a kid when I read the book The Cross and the Switchblade which was about street gangs in New York. I never wanted to join one, of course. I just found their power systems and friendships so interesting. Gangs and guns and drugs seemed like another universe compared to my suburban private school life! That was before my friend was just sentenced to two years in jail for drug dealing in a gang :S. Gangs are not at all glamorous in real life..

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

  • insteadofanelephant May 30th, 2012 5:45 AM

    it’s weird how they seem so much like me at some points and then turn into something i am terrified of at others. some crazy stuff, what people will do. gotta love ira glass.

    instead of an elephant

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini May 30th, 2012 9:05 AM

    Very interesting point of view. Good article!

  • Kaetlebugg May 30th, 2012 2:53 PM

    Wow wow wow wow. at everything. including Ira Glass writing for Rookie.

  • Stephanieocnj May 30th, 2012 6:03 PM

    Happy to be here!!!

  • RachelTri May 31st, 2012 1:27 AM

    I would never join a gang. The idea of gangs existing terrifies me. I get afraid to go outside if I hear of a drive-by shooting on the other side of the state, and then I freak out every time a car is driving with its windows down at night… it’s irrational for where I live, mostly, but I’m horrified of the mere idea of teenagers with guns. If I want to be in a group of girls to hang out… I join a team or a club, where putting bullets inside of other people seems just as *sick* as it really is.

  • Aubrey May 31st, 2012 10:31 PM

    Such a fascinating article — Ira Glass is my hero. Thanks, Rookie!

  • owalma June 1st, 2012 5:00 PM

    Ira Glass did such an excellent job, as usual, at balancing the reality (there probably are some aspects of being part of a gang that are fun), getting real stories from real people, and also managing to neither endorse nor look down upon what is being discussed.

    Maybe it’s because I live in a very urban area that those comments about wanting to join gangs rub me the wrong way. But the girls for whom the streets offer some solace have often suffered previously. I say this and I say it with a certain amount of personal knowledge.
    Maybe I’m particularly sensitive because my best BEST friend just began dating a member of the Bloods and it’s horrible and strange, partially because he’s a total douchebag, partially because he’s a gangster who walks around with his bloods bandana hanging out of his back pocket, and lastly because he seems so completely nonchalant about his gang behaviour.

    One of my friends, in a different city than where I am (I go to a boarding school, so lots of different cities!), lives on a street where a young girl was shot yesterday because of gang violence. Five years old. It doesn’t matter if it were a boy gang or a girl gang. It matters that young people end up in situations where such violent organizations are what appeals to them. It’s horrifically sad–I think in many ways, Ira captured this–and my sincerest apologies if that wasn’t his intent.

    A cop was shot last week on my grandmother’s street. This story is a good example of how empowerment can lead to more struggle, more pain. Being in a girl gang is not fucking fun. It’s tragic.

  • Iin June 3rd, 2012 12:08 AM

    therre are two girl gangs in my school -and in every most of schools in my town- they didnt really do violance but their seniors always asked them to collect money from non-girlgangs member -$30 each day- and its quite bothering me because they are like parasites even though i understand and once i’m in eleventh grade they wont do that anymore.

  • Gracie June 3rd, 2012 8:09 PM

    I come from London, here gang culture and gangs are something you here about pretty much everyday- especially being a young person. You’d find it tough to find a person who doesn’t know anyone of my age who hasn’t been affected by gang violence/ activity in some way. Some of the more violent cases I’ve heard about have come from people affected by girl-gangs (especially as most male gangs won’t try to mug a girl, but female gangs don’t have a problem with this, and are often more brutal) They are less common, but as this article says- they feel like they have more to prove.

  • boringbrick June 8th, 2012 8:04 PM

    That’s sad. They end other peoples’ lives just because they have low self-esteem.