Monday, December 5, 2011

Just be nice...

When I sat down to write this final post on our Feminist Legal Theory Blog, I started to think about the themes that came up during class discussion and throughout our posts. We discussed the role that media, educational institutions, and gender norms play in the feminist movement. Another issue that came up in discussion, but perhaps was harder to write about, is women’s treatment of other women. My colleague, Hanestagless, touched upon the topic in a recent post. Many of the post commentators noted the prevalence of this problem. So, is there any truth to the notion that women are our own worst enemy?

You don’t have to go far to find studies and commentary about this topic. A paper recently released out of the University of Ottawa, titled, “Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women,” suggests that hostility towards female peers increases depending on how the peer is dressed. According to authors Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, the less conservative females dress, the more their female peers judge and dislike them. The findings prompted Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer to write an article in response, titled, “Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches.” (Note, although I found the Professor’s commentary interesting, I did not appreciate his using the term “bitches” to described female to female animosity). He concludes that his female students are more hostile towards each other in spring then in winter (when we wear more clothing).

Author Susan Tardanico, a regular contributor for to Forbes, recently published an article addressing what she refers to as “Relational Aggression.” In her piece, “The Psychological Warfare of Women: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?” Tardanico explains that the same episodes of judging and criticizing amongst college women (as discussed in Schwyzer’s post) also occur amongst female executives. She uses the example of a female higher-up who, following her promotion, is essentially ostracized by her female co-workers. She questions why this happens so regularly and her answer is Relational Aggression, or as she puts it, “the single most damaging and often-used weapon in a woman’s arsenal.” I find it sad, but likely appropriate, that she deems this behavior a “weapon.” It’s likely appropriate because at the end of the day, it’s just that. Behavior that discourages female empowerment is destructive and counterproductive.

How does this destructive behavior play out in the real world? Tardanico points to an interesting study released in 2009, titled “Holding Women Back,” that researched the “glass-ceiling” within the female labor force. The study questioned what it was that is “holding women back.” The answer, as Tardanico reports it: “information about developmental opportunities is not shared (and therefore not known); recently-promoted women have little to no support when transitioning into a new role; and there is a startling lack of female advocates and mentors.” The suggestion being that opportunities aren’t shared, support is scarce and female advocates are lacking, because other women are holding back.

If this is true, it is something that we can change. Both men and women can take part…but especially women. Although it may take generations to make it “better,” it starts with a simple “just be nice.”


S said...

KayZee, excellent post. I first observed this dynamic (women hating on women) in high school. I found it interesting then and I find it interesting now.

In high school, I was shocked by how something seemingly simple could stoke fires of dislike for a particular girl. Anywhere from wearing a particular item of clothing to chit-chatting with members of the opposite sex could very well (and often did) result in being ostracized or treated poorly by other girls. After learning a few lessons the hard way (by wearing a particular item of clothing or chit-chatting with guys) I rationalized the treatment I received to reflect not only a sense of competition from the giver, but also their personal insecurities.

Furthermore, I saw women who were not conventionally good-looking were not taken seriously by their female counterparts. I felt there was a catch-22: good-looking women who came across as confident were disliked and women who were not conventionally good-looking were not taken seriously. Ani DiFranco's lyrics from 32 Flavors sums it up nicely: "And god help you if you are an ugly girl, Course too pretty is also your doom, Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room. And god help if you are a phoenix, And you dare to rise up from the ash, A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy, While you are just flying past." [1][2]

As I've grown older, it has been interesting to observe this dynamic evolve from its sophomoric manifestations to more mature, shall we say, forms. Ostracization and being subjected to poor treatment has been replaced with "sneaky, snide" comments (as a friend of mine and I refer to them as). To the lay person, these comments appear benign; however, they take on a more malignant form for the recipient. They are fact based comments that intentionally touch upon the recipient's insecurities. Mean Girls, the movie is filled with them.

Aside from not wanting to put this sort of negative energy out in the world, the amount of energy it takes to engage in this sort of conduct is more than I'm willing to exert. The old saying of "If you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing at all," makes the most sense to me in these circumstances.

[1] Ani DiFranco, 32 Flavors video.

[2] Ani DiFranco, 32 Flavors lyrics.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

I find your suggestion that men can take part in helping to advocate and support women especially interesting. As the Hanestagless post and related commentary note, there is a common notion that women can exhibit an increased aggression toward each other in competitive situations. But I don't think this hostility is limited to females alone. Men can also adopt hostile personalities toward one another.

One difference between the two sexes, however, is that male aggression commonly involves describing the target of their ire using derogatory, feminine terms. For all of the advancements in society toward gender equality, clearly there is still room to grow. Why is it still acceptable amongst men to degrade each other or establish power over one another through the use of female comparisons?

I think this is where males can make the biggest impact in gender equality.

Girl Talk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Girl Talk said...

Really interesting post, K. I've definitely noticed this "phenomenon" (if you want to call it that) for years now. In college, I decided to start keeping a sort of record of other females' attitudes toward me when I went out in certain situations. For example, I noticed that if I went out on a Friday night with my hair and makeup done, wearing nice clothes, other girls gave me the stank eye when I walked into a bar. The stank eye was significantly more fierce when I went to a bar with my then-boyfriend and a group of his guy friends, and on multiple occasions I could tell that a few girls were making those "sneaky side comments" S referred to. If I went out in jeans and a t-shirt, with my hair pulled back into a not-so-neat bun, wearing glasses and no makeup, it was like I was entirely invisible.

I am of the opinion as well that this judgmental attitude of women toward women stems from competition (for male attention) and their personal insecurities (also stemming from their desire for male attention). I think a lot of the blame goes to the media for perpetuating unrealistic beauty ideals and values for women. Women are portrayed as sex objects that men drool over. This is a sign of female success. Magazines like Maxim certainly don't help. I don't really blame women for the way they act because I know that many have essentially been brainwashed to desire to be the prettiest girl in the room. Anyone prettier than them is a threat.