Feminism has done a lot for women, right? And it’s changed a lot too. After three waves of bickering over what is and isn’t appropriate patriarchy-dismantling conduct, the movement has now adopted a more laissez-faire attitude towards women’s behaviour: Fuck the Madonna/whore complex, the fourth wave declares, and put it in a NutriBullet. Fuck the housewife/CEO binary and the girly girl/tomboy dichotomy. Women can be sexual or puritanical or maternal or spawn-phobic or heavily made-up or #nomakeup or waxed or shaved or any number and mixture of things once categorised as either patriarchy-sanctioned or patriarchy-condemned. It’s all OK! You can be cheer captain and on the bleachers! Radical softness! Woo!
With one glaring exception: Many believe that good feminists cannot be competitive with other women. Google “girl-hate” or any variation of “girl-on-girl hate” and “women-on-women hate,” and you will find a veritable shi-tonne of think pieces decrying competition between women. It’s an age-old sexist trope, and yet curiously, these think pieces are authored by feminists.
Summarised, the concept of “girl-hate” is that women are socialised to resent other women for outshining them in some area (be it looks or ability or personality), that such resentment is wrong, and that women should support, rather than compete, with each other. Or, in Madeleine Albright’s words (a saying often plastered at the top of such think pieces), “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This phrase was most recently bellowed at a rally in New Hampshire in support of Hillary Clinton, a woman who has consistently aligned herself with corporations and has a decent track record for military occupation. She has found support from Lena Dunham and Jamie Lee Curtis, but should we be rooting for women just because they’re women?
“Where is the condescending, self-satisfied plea for gentlemen to stop competing with each other in the workplace or academia and start supporting each other?”
Albright’s catchphrase is, with all due respect, a sexist turd coated with a sheen of très-marketable, 140-characters, #girlgang #squadgoals faux-feminism. For one, it reduces women-on-women hate to be solely motivated by gender-specific insecurity. The concept of “girl-hate” depicts women as one-dimensional fairy tale villainesses, vapid cronies or Botox-deprived stepmothers who isolate, exile, and poison other women for being prettier, younger, and more desirable. Or more charismatic or smarter or more talented or better paid or bequeathed with a larger number of Twitter followers.
There are plenty of valid reasons for women to compete with other women (vying for the same position, having the most expertise on the same topic, accidentally showing up to a networking event with the same personal brand) that have little to do with gender. It obviously sucks when confronted with someone who can one-up you in an area, especially if that area is something in which you take pride. Even more so when they seemingly did so with less effort or were handed their achievement. Women compete with and resent men for these same reasons, and yet women are only policed when they feel threatened by other women.
For another, it demonises female competition while accepting male competition as normal. Where are the ThoughtCatalog or EliteDaily essays on stopping dude-on-dude hate? Where is the condescending, self-satisfied plea for gentlemen to stop competing with each other in the workplace or academia and start supporting each other? Where, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, are the people calling arguments between men a “catfight” rather than a “healthy debate”? Men are simply given a pass, and indeed, rewarded, for competition and mutual dislike and aggressiveness, even when this competition is spurred by insecurity or threat or comparisons.
Two men who hate each other are arch-nemeses in a lifelong saga, while two women who hate each other are jealous, paranoid bitches who should realise they got each other all wrong and become BFFs. When men give each other shit in jest, it’s called healthy male bonding, but women are supposedly incapable of such behaviour. This construction of “girl-hate” versus a healthy competitive spirit for men is just another iteration of men being praised for ruthless, self-advancing behaviours while women are criticised. It’s permitting men to be individualistic while forcing women to be collectivist.
“Two men who hate each other are arch-nemeses in a lifelong saga, while two women who hate each other are jealous, paranoid bitches who should realise they got each other all wrong and become BFFs”
This double-standard forces women to be paragons of morality, a la the “angels in the house” of the Victorian cult of domesticity. Women mustn’t be jealous. They mustn’t feel threatened. They mustn’t fight or put each other down or antagonise each other. They must be part of a perfect, Kumbaya-singing sisterhood where yucky feelings are outlawed and support is unconditional. When women want to ban girl-hate, they are in fact saying a.) women are incapable of competing for reasons other than insecurity b.) it is wrong for women to feel threatened by other women and c.) women are so fragile that they cannot handle competition with each other.
Indeed, girl-hate is a male invention, a reduction of female competition based on a male fantasy that all women inherently despise one another, that has been unwittingly perpetuated by many well-intentioned feminists. There is some validity to the critique of girl-hate, such as pointing out women who internalise misogyny and put down other women so they can receive validation from men. Similarly, a sexist work or academic environment that pits women against each other for a shitty token representation should be critiqued and dismantled. But characterising all female competition as girl-hate, holding women to a higher standard of “morality” and civility, and punishing women for a behaviour deemed normal for men is sexist.
This is respectability politics. It’s being so scared of how men will perceive you that you still pander to their idea of female relationships. It’s internalised misogyny masquerading as a feminist critique of internalised misogyny. Women have long since reclaimed the term bitch. Perhaps it’s time to reclaim bitchy too.
Follow Evelyn Wang on Twitter here @evelynwangst