A woman scorned: The psychology of female aggression

Piper Chapman isn’t your typical prison inmate. She’s not butch, muscular, violent and she ain’t got no swag.  She doesn’t sport any tattoos and she doesn’t have a history of psychiatric disorders. Yet, timid Piper Chapman surprises viewers of the show Orange is the New Black by assaulting a fellow prisoner at the end of season 1. What made her snap? The psychology of female aggression is a dark and twisty road. Come walk it with me.


We know that female aggression is an anomalous violation of the feminine gender role. We know that in the US, girls account for 33% of arrests of simple assault the number of women in prisons has grown by 800% in the past three decades.  And we know that girls who grow up without fathers in high-poverty neighborhoods rely on mothers to teach them strength in the form of aggression to avoid victimization. What we do not know is why femininity’s definition has been so drastically altered lately: from caretaker to turf-protector.

Evolutionarily, men have been the ones to show aggression in response to a competition. The most popular of which still remains attaining a female. 

Women value resources, ambition and generosity which reflect their need for material and emotional support in raising children. Men value youth, attractiveness and fidelity which reflect preference for high reproductive value and the avoidance of cuckoldry.

Yes, cuckoldry. In other words, when competing for a mate, men will adore a faithful woman and a woman will defend her sexual reputation in order to be adored.  Verbal attacks in the form of promiscuity accusations are powerful because they jeopardize a young woman’s chance of finding a reliable mate.

The term ‘whore’ is used not only to tarnish a rival in men’s eyes, but also to mark her out as someone who has selfishly sold other women out.

While in the outside world female aggression could be used in order to attain a mate; no such goal exists behind bars. Women use words as weapons and a prison environment is like a pressure cooker for ultimate aggression. The challenge here isn’t merely to survive.  Words are swiftly exchanged on a power chessboard.  Since it has been repeatedly shown that women “suppress expression of fear in order to avoid victimization” one woman’s play on another’s fear means checkmate. 

This mirrors the narratives of aggressive girls who describe the importance of fearlessness and use of pre-emptive aggression in the development of a fierce reputation.

Case in point:

What a fierce brain looks like.

Ample evidence exists which proves that women show a “greater activation to threat in the limbic system compared to men,” activating more of the area and for a longer period of time – suggesting women register external threat more strongly and persistently than men.  Threat, in this case equates to fear, which can lead to anger. Although the amygdala (part of the limbic system) has been associated with fear stimuli, it has also been linked to aggression – in women, but not in men. It can be supposed from the available data that

women feel fear first then react aggressively, while men behave in the opposite way.

Enter hormones.  The amygdala has a myriad of testosterone receptors and it has been shown that in a man’s brain, testosterone has a calming effect.  However, “administration of testosterone to young women increased amygdala reactivity to angry faces.” Despite the inconclusive evidence, a working theory is that

testosterone in a woman’s brain mimics a male response, reducing the fear and  causing aggression first.

By the end of season 1 of Orange is the New Black, Piper Chapman found her fierceness. An interesting debate can arise from whether she already possessed this or her brain molded to the harshness of the prison habitat.

I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am.” ~ Piper Chapman.

The behavioral response to being starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened, and called Taylor Swift” is regulated by the orbitofrontal (OFC) region.  This area is larger in women and suggests they are more efficient in spontaneously regulating emotional response than men. Women also have a higher concentration of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Depletion of this particular little molecule reduces connectivity between the amygdala (emotion) and prefrontal cortex (thinking). In other words, women’s brains are wired to accept an attack, feel fearful but take the time to think about retaliation.

 Orange is the New Black isn’t entertaining because of the action. It’s gripping because of the power plays among its female characters, which are forced to strip down to their mental minimum and sentenced to follow the ruling of their brains.  

Credit for some statistics to the writer of Orange is the new Black, Piper Kerman

ResearchBlogging.org Campbell A (2013). The evolutionary psychology of women's aggression. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 368 (1631) PMID: 24167308
Campbell A. (2013). The evolutionary psychology of women's aggression, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 368 (1631) 20130078-20130078. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2013.0078