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The woman in the pink shirt ain’t afraid of none of you bitches. She’s not afraid of the tiny waitress with a teetering tray of drinks winding her way through the stagnant crowd, nor the Britney Spears doppelgänger playing pool with the wrong end of her stick. Apparently, she isn’t even scared of the 6-footer, with Heinekens in both fists, on the other side of the room, because Pink Shirt is talking shit loud enough for even her to hear.

Her declaration cuts through the music, the chatter, and the startling crack of pool sticks smacking balls on this Saturday night at Fast Eddie’s Billiard Cafe in Alexandria: “I ain’t afraid of none of these bitches up in here,” Pink Shirt says.

Pink Shirt definitely ain’t afraid of the “bitch” in the orange shirt, because that’s the one she’s scowling at when she repeats the phrase again, with greater emphasis. “I am not afraid of none of these bitches,” she says, talking to her friends, but motioning in Orange Shirt’s direction. “You hear me?”

Orange Shirt doesn’t respond. She just hovers around Pool Table 12, within spitting distance of Pink Shirt’s clique. As the four women, each with a touch of pink—earrings, purse, shoes, or shirt—huddle against a dark wood wall on the bottom level of the cavernous club, whispering and glaring in the direction of the pool table, Orange Shirt continues to nurse her drink and sway with the music. She keeps to her routine even when one of the women in pink hisses, “I’d love to whup her ass.”

And as the pink ladies size up Orange Shirt, her matching orange-shoe-clad feet stay put. Is she brazenly brave? Hearing-impaired? Maybe she’s just plain dumb. Whatever the case, she finds herself surrounded.

The pink ladies jump on Orange Shirt, each concentrating on a single task. The 20-somethings pull the victim’s hair, swipe fingernails across her face, punch her about the midsection, and kick her below the waist—merging into one violent lump. Within seconds, Orange Shirt’s own crew descends on Table 12, and the beat-down splinters into four distinct one-on-one battles.

One pair are hair pullers, latching on to each others’ long locks. Another set are slappers. Two others are kicking each other with sharp stiletto shoes. Pink and Orange, the most vicious duo, are punching and pummeling.

The guys in the room love it. Forming a horseshoe around the pugilists, the men jump up and down and hoot. They never expected a $20 cover charge to yield this kind of entertainment.

Minutes into the mayhem, the bouncer dives into the fray, attempting to separate the warring factions. Orange Shirt is on the ground. Pink Shirt hovers over her, stomping. The bouncer rams his body between them, holding Pink Shirt back with one hand and shielding himself with the other.

The goal is to separate Pink Shirt from Orange Shirt—to remove the queen from the hive, leaving the drones without reason to continue.

Bad idea. With the bouncer distracted, the drones escalate the battle. They flock to the wall, where they find handy implements: the pool cues. They pull them down, one after the other, in a swift motion that resembles the opening of a Venetian blind.

With the cues in play, other bouncers intervene, steering the melee out the bar’s front entrance, leaving bystanders to assess the carnage. A scan of the area around Table 12 reveals: one tuft of hair, one small silver earring, one woman lying on the floor. She’s either too drunk or too injured to stand.

The bystanders watch the woman struggle to get her footing. “Oooh, look at Sneaker Pumps! She can’t get up!” says one. After Sneaker Pumps exits on the back of a burly Samaritan, chatter among the onlookers turns to the motive for the barroom brawl.

“You know it was about a guy,” says a weathered blond woman. “But what they don’t know is, he’s fuckin’ both of them, and next week he’ll be fuckin’ another one, so why even go there?”

Everyone is quizzing the bouncer who first jumped into the fight. Does he know the girls? Does he know why they fought? Did they get locked up outside? All the bouncer knows is that when he saw Pink kicking Orange in the head, he jumped in. He’s teary-eyed—the still-swinging women were hit with pepper spray outside, he says. He got caught downwind.

And just as the bouncer is regaining his composure, another fight breaks out. This time, two guys. Near the exit. When the first punch connects, people run back into the belly of the club. They try to navigate escape routes in case the scuffle gets out of control—in case throwing punches graduates to tossing chairs and hurling Corona bottles.

This time, when the weepy bouncer cuts in, the fighters surrender. The two men walk out of the club and mingle outside among the huge crowd by now streaming out of the doors. An impatient Fairfax County cop gets on his bullhorn and yells, “Fast Eddie’s is now closed! Please move along!”

But people won’t move along until they find out what happened. They question the men, who, with swollen eyes and bleeding faces, remain on the scene. Was it over a girl? Was it over money? Some old shit that happened back in the day?

One guy attempts to lighten the mood by bringing up what, in his mind, was the more comical scuffle of the evening.

“Yeah, but did you see those bitches fighting up in there earlier?” he asks, laughing.

It seems to always start with a “bitch.” The five-letter expletive is a fighting word, a warm-up for scratching and clawing.

For my 21st birthday, three friends and I ventured out to celebrate at a Prince George’s County hot spot. After a long night filled with Red Stripe and rum punch, two of us gathered by the exit and waited for the stragglers. We were promptly caught in the middle of a fight between two groups of guys.

As they were hustled out the front door of the bar, my friend pulled me back from the exit and out of harm’s way. In yanking me to safety, she inadvertently elbowed the girlfriend of one of the brawlers—delaying her rush outside to check on her man.

When we left, a few minutes later, the men were nowhere to be found, but the woman and three of her friends were waiting out front to have words with us.

“Bitch, you hit me,” the woman called out.

“‘Bitch’?” my friend replied. “I was trying to move my friend so she wouldn’t get hit.”

“Fuck that,” the woman answered, unsatisfied with the explanation.

And with those words, the teams fell into time-honored feminine fighting roles.

The hype women—antagonists who yell and shout, but don’t really want to get hit—shrieked and taunted each other. They screamed loud enough for everyone in the parking lot to hear, but remained at arm’s length, of course.

The heavies—strong, mostly silent women, who provide the muscle needed to do real damage—stood across from each other with arms crossed. They let the instigators talk trash as they glared at each other, waiting to be called to action.

The mediators—women who fear the boys in blue more than black eyes—tried to rationally dissect and diffuse the situation. Wanting to mix it up, but aware of penal consequences, they tried to talk things out so that no one would have to spend the night in lockup.

The flight risks—the kind of allies who always claim to have your back, but usually show you theirs when violence is imminent—slowly backed away and headed toward their respective vehicles.

The cooler heads prevailed, with the flight risks shouting, “C’mon, let’s go!” and the mediators exclaiming, “It’s not worth it!” Everyone eventually calmed down, persuaded by threats of police intervention and promises of late-night pancake breakfasts.

Clubgoing women love to trash each other. The precipitating circumstances vary from the eminently real to the entirely imagined. One night, it could be a sought-after man. The next, it could be a bump or a shove that felt a tad excessive. Or it could be a perceived slight that, when filtered through a drunken stupor, becomes a fighting matter.

Once, at a Springfield, Va., club, for instance, a pal of mine was talking to friends and minding her own business. Yet a wildly dancing woman on the dance floor kept smacking her with a long ponytail. My friend warned the woman that one more hair whip was going to gain her an ass-kicking. Were it not for a laughably unfair size advantage and a large group of peacekeepers, the two surely would have brawled.

Another time, at a small Maryland bar, a buddy’s $12 drink was spilled by a tipsy woman rushing through the crowd to greet her cousin. When the clumsy woman refused to buy a replacement, the two exchanged escalating threats—until a kind stranger offered to replace the drink himself.

One night, trouble started before we even got to the club. Our designated driver was hustling to get us on site before the hour when the entry fee would jump from $10 to $20. In the process, she accelerated past a slow-moving tan-colored Nissan Altima. Caught at a red light, the Altima driver pulled up to our right, rolled down her window, and spat brown liquid toward our car.

“I knew it had to be some bitches that did that shit,” she said, laughing. “Didn’t I tell you that shit?” she asked a friend riding shotgun.

“Yup,” the friend replied.

Threats were tossed back and forth between two light changes until, finally, we decided to get out of the car. Two of them, four of us. Easy. But as soon as we cracked the doors and the interior lights flickered on, we caught sight of the two large men sitting in the back seat behind tinted glass.

“Yeah, come on!” the driver urged.

We got back in our car and, still determined to hang out, headed for our original destination. But we were worried: What if they show up? What if the dudes have guns? Should we just go home?

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We decided to sneak makeshift weapons into the club to protect ourselves, just in case. The male security crew, who were not allowed to perform full-body searches on female customers, would never find the contraband—flat-head screwdrivers taken from an auto-care kit—stuffed into our bras and panties.

Fueled by adrenaline and alcohol, we waited for our enemies to walk through the door. We planned exactly what we would do—the approach, the attack, the getaway. They never showed.

The car ride home was silent. We looked stupid—if only to ourselves and a car full of people we would never see again. And we knew we’d have to explain the two missing screwdrivers from the auto-care tool kit that had fallen out of undergarments in the ladies’ bathroom. We were disrespected and not even afforded the opportunity to set the record straight, to let them know we couldn’t be talked to any kind of way.

“I can’t believe this shit,” said one friend, taking a long drag from a cigarette.

“Ain’t this a bitch,” said another.

An angry woman can be a good thing. Women who express their rage in healthy ways help shatter stereotypes painting women as demure and passive and willing to repress their emotions merely so that others won’t feel uncomfortable. The ability to express anger by fighting injustice and uncovering wrongdoing can be transcendent.

Anger that morphs into stuffing a screwdriver in one’s bra, on the other hand, is anything but empowering.

My own first girlfight was a case of anger gone awry. I was a teenager, and my best friend played a harmless joke on me: She had someone call my house and administer a short quiz. I was promised that, if my answers were correct, I would win a Jeep. I aced the test, but a few weeks later, when my truck still hadn’t materialized, I wondered aloud about the authenticity of the contest.

“Oh, that was me,” my friend said matter-of-factly, sitting in my bedroom and snacking on potato chips. “I was bored one day, so I did that to everyone.”

Something in her flippant explanation set me off. She had lied, she had schemed, and, most important of all, she had made me feel stupid. And instead of engaging in an hourlong discussion of friendship and feelings, I hauled off and hit her with a right hook. The jab, like the sentiment behind it, was soft—intended to teach a lesson rather than inflict real pain. Nonetheless, her head bobbled slightly to the left, and her eyes watered from the impact.

Thinking that socking her had evened the score, I plopped back down on my futon to watch TV. My friend, not fully convinced that the punishment fit the crime, delivered a left hook to my jaw.

After a few minutes of rolling around on the ground, we silently retreated to separate corners of the room to lick our wounds. We vowed never to speak of the incident again. (Eventually, we were able to talk things through.)

My friend’s behavior was simply too egregious for me to let go with a verbal fight. In my adolescent wisdom, I felt her actions and her attitude warranted some sort of physical reprimand.

Like men before them, girls and women in our society have taken to delivering jabs rather than soliloquies when they feel mistreated. Bombarded with images of men gaining or retaining power through force, women don’t always walk away when threatened.

And that’s particularly true on the nightclub circuit. When women hit the town, they create the same sort of group dynamics that often account for the brawling ways of men. If outsiders threaten your group or otherwise blow your night, it may be time to throw down.

Dana Crowley Jack, author of Behind the Mask: Destruction and Creativity in Women’s Aggression, says that women are starting to follow the lead of men in their willingness to fight when they feel slighted.

“Women are urged to follow male behavior—not being dissed, humiliated publicly, showing strength,” says Jack. “It comes from believing power should be expressed like men express it—and being in a setting where you’re loosened by alcohol and onlookers.”

Also, when venturing out, women tend to be surrounded by friends—an instant buffer should some sort of confrontation arise. Men may be similarly accompanied when they go out, but when men fight, their friends often sit back and let them settle disputes one on one. Women, on the other hand, seem ever ready to pile on.

Just a month ago, a small woman clad in jeans sprinted down 9th Street NW, just below the U Street party corridor. Chasing her was a large group of women dressed in clubgoing finery. When the target was caught, only she and one of her pursuers exchanged blows at first. But when the jeans-clad woman seemed to gain an advantage, the entire group rushed to their friend’s aid, kicking and beating the foe on the ground until several men came over to intervene.

Drivers on 9th Street slowed to behold the spectacle.

Women who come to blows over some slight are dead serious about their fights. They get self-righteous and irate. Yet everyone around them stands and laughs. The public views catfights as sport—a risible reversal of gender roles that couldn’t possibly be lethal.

When two women decided to duke it out at the Dinosaurs club (now called Club Amazon) in Laurel, Md., a few years ago, they meant business. The two brunettes pushed and shoved each other with force while all the men stood around laughing. As the slight women continued to tussle, the guys were visibly torn between focusing on their battle and staring at a blonde in a bikini standing in a washtub of ice handing out cold beer.

“Men pump it up,” says Cynthia Houston, an Alexandria resident and frequent clubgoer. “If two women fight, you laugh at it—it’s funny. But if two men fight, you’re thinking about your safety more. You’re wondering if they have guns, knives—you’re wondering if you have to duck. But nowadays, women have guns and knives, too. There are more women strapping up than dudes.”

An assault is an assault, to hear law-enforcement officials tell it. Regardless of whether the players are men or women, local police jurisdictions say, the protocol is the same.

“We don’t differentiate between combatants,” says Cpl. Diane Richardson, spokesperson for the Prince George’s County Police Department, adding that the department doesn’t capture gender-based crime statistics.

“We don’t approach the situation differently if it’s two women vs. two men,” says Officer Courtney Young, public-information officer for the Fairfax County Police Department. “We just try to separate the people, and if they try to fight with us, we take appropriate action.”

But many of the area’s barroom catfighters never make it down to the police precinct. Fairfax County Police heard that there was a fight going on at Fast Eddie’s on the night of the Pool Cue Brawl. They responded to a complaint of public drunkenness at the establishment. But by the time officers arrived, the fight had fizzled out. The call was closed out with no report.

The fight was dead on the cops’ arrival because it was handled by the unofficial crime fighters on the scene—bouncers. These typically burly security guards often successfully defuse incidents without having to call in the higher authorities.

Bouncers, like cops, say that their ultimate goal is the same without respect to sex—if someone is causing a commotion, they want to contain the dispute before it gets out of hand.

“Security doesn’t discriminate,” says one local bouncer, who insists on anonymity.

But how they reach that end varies according to the configuration of chromosomes of those involved.

Women’s fights, many maintain, can be especially difficult to navigate when they involve a love triangle of some sort. Although women fight about shoves, bumps, and stepping on each other’s shoes, when a man is involved, a routine bar fight can become a more sticky situation.

Jerri Butler, a resident of Temple Hills, Md., says that one of the worst catfights she has ever seen involved two women fighting over a man. The squabble, which took place about three months ago in a small bar near her home, was taken seriously only after one of the women produced a knife.

“Two of them started fighting—one pulled her wig off,” says Butler. “They went outside and started fighting again. The police broke it up. They told them to go their separate ways, but one of the girls cut the other one on the wrist with a knife. They took her away in handcuffs. It was all over a man. It’s not worth it—they should have let it go.”

Local bouncer “Rottweiler,” a member of the Hyattsville, Md., Force-N-One private security firm, says he has noticed a surge in woman-on-woman combat in area clubs, an unscientific impression shared by several other bouncers across the region. “They think it’s the in thing to do,” says the 15-year veteran of the club-security scene. “They’re trying to impress people, make a name for themselves—but most of them are really scared.”

Bouncer Sharon Benbow, also a guard with Force-N-One, says that a spurt has come in the last year and a half. “They think they’re superwomen,” she says. As a female guard, she is normally charged with breaking up fights between women and says that she has sometimes had combatants turn on her.

“There were a group of girls—they were drunk, and I asked them to move from behind where the money was being taken,” says Benbow. “One girl got rowdy, got in my face, and swung on me.”

Benbow says that when she was ambushed by the woman, her fellow guards jumped in to break up the fight and sent the ladies on their way. But the women were undaunted.

“We got outside, and the girl tried to hit me with the car,” says Benbow. “She got charged, and we went to court and everything.”

Anthony Smith, head of security for the Legend, a Prince George’s County nightclub, says that there have been only a few fights in his establishment, but if a scrap between women arises, there is a very touchy subject that he and his staff must be mindful of.

Breasts.

“With a guy, you can restrain him differently,” says Smith. “With women, you have to be careful, or you can get a sexual harassment charge. You have to be more delicate. You can grab a guy around his chest, but you do that to a woman and they’ll say, ‘He was groping me.’”

Derrick Parks, of the Hyattsville, Md.-based Metropolitan Protective Services, says to prevent such scenarios, women are patted down by women guards even before entering clubs. “Females are on females for safety,” he says. “They can tuck weapons in places that a lot of guys are reluctant to go.”

A week after the Pool Cue Brawl, not a lot has changed at Fast Eddie’s. The men circulate, greeting friends and making small talk with the ladies. And the women are looking one another up and down, glaring and whispering snide comments.

The only noticeable difference is the presence of a female bouncer outside. Absent the week before, the woman is back at her post in front of the club, checking purses and pockets and tugging on bra straps to make sure no one is sneaking in contraband.

But the inability to sneak in weapons doesn’t seem to discourage the blood lust of the women inside.

Wobbling through the crowd, drink in hand, an old friend catches sight of me. She walks over, gives a hug, and the first words out of her mouth to me are: “If that bitch right there bumps into me one more time, I’m going to fuck her up.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Fred Harper.