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25 September 2017Last updated
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Why are women so mean to each other?

Columnist Charlene Naidoo dissects the ‘mean girl’ impulse and its disturbing consequences

Charlene Naidoo
9 May 2017 | 05:44 pm

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It may be “just a joke” or something worse, but we are doing ourselves no favours acting out Mean Girls…

Quick question: what do Cinderella’s stepsisters, Blair Waldorf, and yesteryear actress Joan Crawford have in common?

Mean girls. The lot of them. Capable of a reducing an enemy (and often a friend) to a quivering pile of insecurity; quick with a scathing comment; handy with the withering glare.

It may start unwittingly – innocently even. A slip of the tongue in the playground, a mean comment in retaliation to a perceived slight. And then, as we grow older, it takes on more feeling, nuance, intent and purpose.

Is it in our wiring?

A study by Finnish professor Kaj Bjőrkqvist in the 1990s was the first in a series that showed that girls are just as aggressive as boys; they just demonstrate it in different ways. Girls battle through social intelligence and emotion. Other more up-to-date research reveals by the age of four, girls begin to show symptoms of “relational aggression”. More sinister in a way than outright hostility, relational aggression brandishes friendship as a weapon.

The Journal of Behavioural Sciences describes the phenomenon: “Adolescent girls often perpetrate aggression by gossiping and spreading rumours, attempting to ruin relationships, manipulating and excluding others. Although girls and boys may not differ in the overall use of relational aggression they may differ in how damaging this use of aggression is to their peer relationships.”

But – that’s where it should stop right?

A teenage girl being a teenage girl is one thing, understandable even. Unfortunately, evidence supports the construct that queen bees still abound well into adulthood. 

Fight like a girl

“Cute girl. Pity about the chunky thighs.” A blog post by a CBS sports writer while watching a basketball match. The female writer was commenting on a cheerleader.

“Are you [expletive] stupid?!… For those who are offended at this email, I would apologise but I really don’t give a [expletive]. Go [expletive] yourself.” An email from a sorority girl at the University of Maryland in America that went viral. The email – ironically – was addressed to her sorority sisters for not being charming enough at social events.

“No way she’s in her 30s, she looks like a spinster. She’s ageing badly!” A comment – one of hundreds – on a gossip site about Kate Middleton.

Women fight dirty. And terrifyingly, it seems that as we age, we have more arsenal and opportunity to wound. Whether it’s through anonymous comments on a celebrity site, or insidious gossip-mongering, backbiting and sabotage at work. 

A 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (US) revealed that woman-on-woman harassment is increasing. It said that 35 per cent of Americans reported being bullied at work and females bullies more frequently engaged in under-the-radar behaviour such as sabotage and gossip.

In her book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (2011), author Rachel Simmons, writes, “Women tend to have a high social intelligence and a sophisticated understanding of relationships. Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumours, name-calling and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on victimised targets.”

The whys are varied, complex and subjective.

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The problem, says Dubai-based development coach Fatima Nakhjavanpur, is that women are still in the minority and fighting for survival, which creates competition.

“The many decision-makers anywhere in the world in almost every field are men. Only very few of them get chosen or spotlighted so when it comes to promotion or any opportunity for them to move forward, it is either them or another woman. Therefore they do things to get ahead of other women and along that line they might say or do things that will work against the community of females in the workplace.”

Reiterating this theory, Michelle Duguid, a professor of organisational behaviour at Olin Business School in the US, speaks of “collective” and “competitive” threats.

As she explains, “Competitive threat is the fear that another female candidate may be more qualified, competent or accepted than you. Women might also be concerned about bringing in another woman with lower qualifications, who could reinforce negative stereotypes about women and impact others’ impressions of them. This is collective threat.” It is also worth noting that imposter syndrome deserves a lot of blame for this burden of fear and rivalry and may contribute to us feeling territorial and protective of our space. This comes at the expense of not letting in, or actively sabotaging, other females. Women of all cultures and upbringing suffer from this fear that they will be unmasked as unworthy, unqualified and undeserving, explains Fatima. “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Environment is also a determining factor. In 1996, researchers found that women may not support each other as a way to distance themselves from women as an already-marginalised group.

In other words: “If I distance myself from her, those in charge will see me as one of the men – and hence, superior.” Sixteen years later, little had changed. A 2012 study showed that women don’t support each other’s progress, specifically in situations where they are outnumbered by men.

Emotional warfare

So, how do we win this war – with ourselves? Especially in an age where it’s cool to be cruel? A quick glance through social media shows how stealthy and accepted the practice of being mean has become. Our fave celebs are often in Twitter wars with each other, and people LOL and like snarky comments at another’s expense – it pays to be mean.

It’s telling too, that even as adults, one of the most gleefully wielded weapons is the one almost every woman has been hurt by – and yet we use it to hurt other women – the endless body-shaming cycle. The female body has long been an object of cultural stigmatisation (so much to mock! So little time!) Too fat, too thin, saggy breasts, stretch marks, natural, fake...

Earlier this year, Dubai-based presenter Diala Makki fought back against people who commented on her “ugliness”, following a selfie.

Cheekily, she reposted the image. “Someone told me I look ugly without makeup today,” she wrote. “It kind of made me want to take a pic with no makeup, no filters and zero touch-up. And guess what? I’m OK with my flaws and my imperfections and I nominate my fellow women to do the same.”

Admirable as her stance may be, it is still a drop of defiance in an ocean of nastiness that thrives like a many-headed Hydra. Where do we even start?

Intervention is key, agree most experts. We have to get girls and get them early; at school age, preschool, as toddlers, tweens and teens. Raising awareness is one of the most important roles we have as women in society, says Fatima. “It’s important to recognise the existing facts about women. There are clear stereotypes that have existed for more than a century and research shows that the more a group of people are aware of the stereotype of themselves, the more they act like it.”

Nor does it help, she explains, that the policies and structures of the world are designed in a way to put women fighting for the same thing and wanting to get ahead of each other.

Getting past the clichés and stereotypes and into a space of women-centric positivity takes conscious effort and thought. Key to this effort is recognising fears.

Says Fatima, “We fear not being liked, making the wrong decisions, drawing negative attention, of being seen as a bad mother/woman. Getting over these fears will go a long way in ensuring we appreciate our fellow women – and ourselves.”

Feminists have long argued that women need to build towards a collective community; a sisterhood; a re-establishment of the idea that one woman succeeding means all women succeed.

As an already-marginalised group, are we really doing ourselves any favours in perpetuating the idea that women can’t play and work together? As PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi, says, “The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling.”

Living out mean: the influence of reality TV 

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Don’t be fooled by the “comfort-food” nature of your favourite reality show. Examine the construct a bit more closely and you will sense there’s a theme. Rivalry. Bitterness. Jealousy. Woman versus woman.

It’s a winning formula. Shows like The Bachelor, The Real Housewives, and Love & Hip Hop convey the impression that female aggression is funny and entertaining. And this means a captive audience. Yet, it comes at the expense of women. And furthers the reality that women are simply our own worst enemies.

“From frenemies on lifestyle series, to flat-out enemies on competitive dating and modelling shows, reality TV presents women as being in constant competition for romantic love, professional success, and personal fulfilment,” writes Jennifer Ponzer in the book, Reality Bites Back. “When viewed repeatedly in an entertaining format, girls become desensitised to aggression, not unlike what happens when boys blow things up over and over again in a video game.”

Photos by Shutterstock

Charlene Naidoo

Charlene Naidoo