The trope of women hating on other women is frequently played out on our movie screens and think pieces du jour. A recent New York Times opinion piece postulated that cattiness comes from hating oneself, which resonates as an accurate analysis: Insecurity breeds contempt. Still, it’s natural that we must compete with one another for evolutionary purposes, to attract the best mate, even as our culture enforced it’s not lady-like. What do you do when you live in a society that tells us it’s not nice to compete, but your instincts are saying that you must?
Men compete also, but aren’t taken to task for it. Their behavior seems appropriate for what we expect of them. A 2005 study by James Mahalik at Boston College asked participants to describe feminine and masculine ideals. For men, “emotional control” and pursuing “status” were at the top. For women, it was “nice” and “modest.” We expect men to pursue status and show no emotion while doing it. We expect women to “act like a lady,” which apparently means being nice and polite and not making waves. It makes sense, then, that women would become passive-aggressive to one another. We have to appear polite. We’re being told to play fair, be nice, say “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” but how realistic is that when we’re competing for partners and jobs?
Trying to conform to gender stereotypes can be difficult, stressful, and sometimes damaging for those who don’t fit into them perfectly. Both men and women suffer when they are told to act in a way that feels unnatural.
Women need to be competitive to get ahead, but not in a way that tears other women down or is catty or cruel, and not in the way that men do it, either. The reason we are so mean to each other is because we’re being told that what we’re feeling is not okay. It’s not okay to want to run faster than the girl next you on the treadmill; it’s not okay to feel like you deserved the promotion more than the person that got it. It’s a deeply held societal delusion to expect women to constantly be soft and smell like rose petals — to defer to authority.
It’s just as unfair as telling men not to have emotions, or giving them the pervasive underlying message that work is all that matters. You can’t tell women not to compete because they’re going to. And if the climate says, “Not okay,” they will still do it, but undercover. Trying to conform to gender stereotypes can be difficult, stressful, and sometimes damaging for those who don’t fit into them perfectly. Both men and women suffer when they are told to act in a way that feels unnatural.
The world is competitive; the human race is competitive. We have to be; it's the law. But the sooner we loosen our ideas of “shoulds” and stop should-ing all over each other, the sooner we can turn backstabbing and whispered insults into a healthier and more transparent way of competing. Maybe, too, we can change the definition of what it means to “act like a lady.”
Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations.
PHOTO CREDIT: Marlene Dietrich as taken by Eugene Robert Richee/Moviepix