Saturday, December 1, 2012

Her standards, high standards: Reinforcement of negative stereotypes as a collective threat

Liz and Jenna share their mutual disgust of Abby Flynn.

Abby, I’m trying to help you.
Really? By judging me on my appearance and the way I talk? And what’s the difference between me using my sexuality and you using those glasses to look smart?
. . . .

God, Abby, you can’t be that desperate for male attention.
You know what, Liz? I don’t have to explain myself to you. My life is none of your business.
Except it is because you represent my show and you represent my gender in this business and you embarrass me.
Dude, I am sorry, but this is who I am. Deal with it.

30 Rock, Episode 516: “TGS Hates Women”

Women, some would say, are infinitely harsher on their own sex. That is, we are more critical of other women than we are of men, we hold them to higher standards, and impose upon them exacting expectations. Whether that’s universally true, I don’t know. But I do wonder whether it should be.

The phenomenon by which members of stereotyped groups dissociate themselves from fellow underperforming members is referred to in social psychology as a reaction to a “collective threat.” That is, where one group member believes his or her peer might reinforce a negative group stereotype, that member engages in various self-protective strategies. She might, for instance, denigrate her fellow member to distance the member from the group, physically distance herself from the member, or cognitively distinguish herself from the group by downplaying her own social identity… Each to the detriment of the defending member as well as the threat? Perhaps, but this is what we do. We associate or dissociate and include or exclude based on our assessment of the risk -- the collective threat to our group identity.

This problem is painfully evident with respect to female public figures. In terms of disappointment, the first who comes to my mind is Sarah Palin. Without rehashing many of the points previously made about Ms. Palin on this blog, and without delving into any sort of political discussion, I will say this: from 2007 to 2008, where I saw great potential, I felt even greater loss. When I first heard John McCain had selected a female running mate, I knew that so many of my conservative friends and relatives might have the chance to relate to a woman in power -- to understand that women could don suits and be likeable and strong and brilliant and carry integrity and reason into the White House. Such unadulterated hope developed in my mind for women on both sides of the aisle, but thence from the dark Mama Grizzly emerged and slowly tore my political feminine ideal to shreds. I, in turn, shifted further to the political left and further from my rural roots. She, I made clear to myself and to anyone who gave me an ear, did not represent me. Quite simply, she disappointed me.

But am I to blame for constructing and adhering to my own essentialist view and rejecting a nonconforming member of my ideal group? Might my conservative counterpart have precisely the same feelings toward Hillary Clinton and be equally [un]justified in her reaction? It certainly seems to me that when any group is underrepresented in a given field or faces any sort of social or economic obstacle to success, members of that group must necessarily work harder than members of, say, a more privileged class to achieve the same -- or at least a roughly equivalent -- prosperity. My question then, of course, is whether our reactions to collective threats are justified. That is, is it right for a woman to be disappointed in the “underperformance” of another woman because of the way the latter’s behavior reflects on the female sex, generally? If so, then at what point do heightened expectations become counterproductive to support systems that those same women ostensibly seek to provide? And how can any single woman rightfully say that her own essentialist view of her sex is superior to others and is the standard to which her peers should conform?

The struggle is ongoing. As we seek to achieve both individual success and group equality, it seems we must self-impose relatively high standards. The challenge, though, will be to prevent those standards from creating schisms within the group itself.


Mo said...

Some additional reading for those interested in some of the psychology behind this: The concept of the “collective threat” is closely related to the “stereotype threat,” which generally refers to a group member’s fear that the member herself might conform to a stereotype associated with the group. See Studies concerning the threat have had extraordinarily interesting and valuable results. See The basic rule is that when stereotypical characteristics of the group are made salient to group members before they participate in certain tasks, their exposure to those characteristics directly affects their performance. For instance, where group members are primed with negative group stereotypes before participation, those group members tend to perform worse or engage in self-handicapping strategies. See One particularly interesting study found that priming for positive, negative, or neutral characteristics before mixed-gender negotiations had a material effect on which gender group outperformed the other. See The implications of this research are huge, with incredible potential to minimize the consequences of stereotyping by reshaping the way we assess individuals.

Happy reading!

KSergent said...

I really enjoyed this post. I have thought about the "collective threat" a lot but did not know there was a name for the concept. I have purposely distanced myself from women who I must have subconsciously believed made our gender "look bad." I agree that it is difficult to distinguish between holding women to a higher standard and the competitive attitude that often pits women against each other. In my experience, women often put each other down not because they are each other to higher standards, but because they want to make themselves look better. I believe this is a product of women's lack of power and lower status in society.

Sara said...

I definitely agree that the "collective threat" can be a problem. What I think this really comes down to is the fine line between inclusivity and exclusivity within the feminist movement. When is it so harmful for certain women to self-identify as feminists (because they don't believe in women's rights, etc), that they should they be excluded? Or should we be accepting of every self-identifying feminist, even if they ultimately may be doing women more harm than good?