Of all of the things that get me riled up, almost nothing upsets me more than women tearing each other down. It could very well be the biggest threat to feminism, as it actively prevents the advancement of women as a whole. It is completely antithetical to everything that feminism stands for. You know what I’m talking about: female competition. Girl-on-girl hate. Cat fights. “She’s such a bitch/whore/slut/prude.” All of the petty quarrels and gossiping that are so ubiquitous in the relationships of teenage girls (and are sometimes carried into adulthood). Mainstream media & culture encourage female competition in a variety of ways, often by sexualizing so-called “cat fights.” The Bud Light commercial that is forever burned in my mind, for example, features two women getting in an argument that leads to them ripping off each other’s clothes and “fighting” (humping) in a mud pit. In the end, the whole scenario ends up being merely a fantasy thought up by some guys at a bar. This is just one poignant example of the glorification of female competition – a phenomenon that pits women against each other, often for the benefit of men.
From Cinderella and Snow White to Mean Girls, the central theme of female competition hasn’t changed much over the years. Most commonly we see women fighting over, you guessed it, men. Because as women, our lives revolve around “getting the man” – we are inadequate otherwise. In the always endearing classic Cinderella, we see jealousy rage in her stepsisters and stepmother as Cinderella is courted by the prince because of her mysterious beauty. The entire plot centers on who will win the prince’s affection – a prize that Cinderella’s stepsisters will do anything to acquire. See below, the scene in which her stepsisters rip apart the outfit she meticulously sewed with the help of her animal friends:
Cinderella doesn’t have much going for her besides her beauty, but that’s enough to make her lustful stepsisters mad with jealousy. Snow White paints a similar scenario. The Queen positively loathes Snow White because her Magic Mirror reveals that Show White has out-competed her as “the fairest in the land.” The Magic Mirror of course, which speaks with a man’s voice, represents the male gaze. The Queen decides she must completely eliminate her competition (read: MURDER) in order to reacquire her title as “most beautiful.” She takes jealousy to a whole new level as she attempts to poison Snow White and prevent her from connecting with the Prince (who will surely court her because she is so lovely, submissive and domestic).
Our modern day stories still address the same theme. One of my favorite movies of all time (and probably yours too) is Mean Girls, brought to us by the wonderful Tina & Amy. This movie is great because it highlights everything that is wrong with female competition and demonstrates the dire consequences of girls turning on one another. We see sabotage, back-stabbing, name-calling, slut-shaming, gossiping, and even physical violence – female competition in every form imaginable. And of course, a central plotline involves the fight for the guy, Aaron Samuels. Lindsay Lohan’s character will do almost anything to win his affection, even if she has to flunk math and put her friendships in jeopardy. She becomes so obsessed with getting what she wants that she loses sight of everything else that is important: namely her dignity.
Tina Fey’s intervention with the girls after the Burn Book is discovered has a deeply embedded feminist message: if we can’t respect each other, how can we expect to gain the respect of men? That’s the problem with female competition. When we tear each other down, we give men the opportunity to take advantage of us. We give them the opportunity to sexualize us and marginalize us. We become “crazy bitches” who will never be taken seriously. The whole climate of girl hate in high school is terrifyingly pervasive and real. I’ve been a part of it. When life gets boring, conversation turns to gossip. I’m ashamed of the things I have said and listened to in high school that were just, well, mean. I remember the cat fights in the school hallway; especially the ones between black girls (of course, race plays a role worth discussing as well). These fights were like an entertainment spectacle for the student body. Reality television profits from making spectacles of women in the same way (e.g. Jersey Shore).
When it’s not fighting over boys, it’s criticizing or comparing other girls’ appearances. “I can’t believe she’s wearing that” or “Her new haircut is so ugly” or “Her makeup makes her look like a clown” or “She would be so pretty if she wasn’t so fat.” In high school, you can literally be criticized for almost anything related to appearance. From weight to hair to makeup to clothes and accessories, girls judge each other like it’s their JOB. It’s petty and it’s cruel and it continues to tear us apart. And adult women do it as well. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. I know women who still sit around for hours and talk shit about other women they know, criticizing their appearance and sexual behavior (as if that is any of their business). It is mind-numbing to listen to but utterly appalling to think about when one considers the implications. When we call each other ugly sluts we are perpetuating the devaluing of women that is so rampant in our society. If we don’t take each other seriously, how can we expect anyone else to?
I’ve decided to do a few things to change my own behavior in hopes of growing into a better feminist and human being. Feel free to join me, if you’d like.
- Drop the B word: Starting now, I am going to make a conscious effort not to call other women bitches. Long term I’d like to completely eliminate the word from my vocabulary. When it is used as slur against women I don’t want to have anything to do with it. Besides, the English language has so many more eloquent words to choose from.
- Stop gossiping: It’s none of your business. I find that I am less and less interested in gossip as I’ve grown older, thankfully. When you’re so worried about other people’s lives you tend to forget that you have your own. I know for certain that I have enough of my own problems – I don’t have the time or energy to devote to dissecting other people’s lives. And frankly, listening to gossip bores me.
- Stop judging: And stop comparing yourself to other females. There is no competition, so there is no winner. We don’t need to ask our “magic mirror” who is the most beautiful, because in doing so we submit to the power of the male gaze at the cost of our own self-worth. Starting now, I am also going to make a conscious effort not to criticize other women based on their appearance (whether vocally or in my mind).
- Start supporting & encouraging: Lift up women around you instead of tearing them down. Start with your friends and family, and be a genuine supporter of their endeavors. I know that I need to work on this myself. Strangers deserve the same respect. Be kind to those you meet instead of judgmental.
There is so much more that I’d like to say here, but I just want to emphasize that the consequences of Mean Girl culture are severe and real. Words can hurt more than anything else and self-harm is far too common among teenage girls. This is serious stuff. And when we look at the big picture, tearing each other down is doing nothing to advance the feminist cause. We have got to stick together and treat each other with the respect that we all deserve.