Feminism / Films / TV

Mean Girls: Cattiness in Media Pits Women Against Each Other

Catfights have always garnered TV ratings and box office dollars.  Last week, Bravo aired the Real Housewives of New York City reunion in 3 parts (I mean seriously, did they really need 3 episodes?!) dishing and rehashing their verbal catfights from the past season.  On Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsey, chef Autumn continually told the camera how glad she is to be on the men’s blue team as women are so catty.  This is certainly not anything new or groundbreaking.  But it got me thinking about how we view women in our society, particularly how movies and TV portray women.

Last week, Vanessa Carmichael wrote in the Huffington Post about the Real Housewives of NYC and how their backbiting antics discredit women:

“We enjoy seeing the metamorphosis of Alex who went from a dignified adult woman to the Shannon Doherty Heather. We like to see Kelly pick fights with women she is no match for who in turn eat her alive. We like to see the Countess picking on everyone’s manners, which isn’t good manners, by the way; Jill Zarin mastering one-upmanship; and we like to see Ramona turn into a messy mean drunk. Above all, we love to see Bethenny Frankel slay her cast mates with one venomous comment after another.”

Carmichael is spot on; we enjoy watching emotional trainwrecks and verbal smackdowns.  While part of me relishes watching the crazy drama as a guilty pleasure, I’m still saddened that the media perpetually pits women against one another.  Now don’t get me wrong, I adore verbal sparring and watching women warriors battle it out.  But cattiness is different; it invokes malice and belittlement, verging on cruelty.  We should be cautious of the message movies and TV deliver about women.  Too often, women’s roles are relegated to simplistic caricatures, frequently in a virgin/whore dichotomy.  Women are far more complicated and nuanced than Hollywood would have us believe.

Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, discusses in her book, Mean Girls Grown Up, how many TV shows including makeover shows, competitive reality shows (like Survivor, The Bachelor) as well as “dramedys” like Desperate Housewives, often make women rivals.  Rather than embracing sisterly camaraderie, women become combatants fighting for men or attention.  She writes,

“Unlike men, however, who are inclined not to aggress against men in general or their friends in particular, women do both…Television shows and movies urge women to compete with one another in openly aggressive ways, the more extreme the better.”

In previous blog posts, I’ve shared my love of Sex and the City and Golden Girls.  The antithesis to catfights, these shows celebrated women’s friendships (as did the show Girlfriends which I also loved), all while exploring their diverse perspectives and honoring their lifestyle choices.  Many have criticized SATC2 for its overt display of consumerism, which is interesting as men in films often portray rich playboys flaunting their wealth a la James Bond.  While the show and movies highlighted fabulous fashions, it was done so in a fun escapist way, rather than a way to substitute personal fulfillment.  Rather than women competing against or demeaning each other, the crux of the story has always been the importance of girlfriends.

In her latest book Enlightened Sexism, Professor Susan J. Douglas (Where the Girls Are) exposes how women continually receive conflicting sexist messages in pop culture.  The media subverts women’s frustration with these contradictory images by telling them to achieve salvation through consumerism and control of their bodies, inadvertently fueling the “mean girl” fire.  Douglas argues,

“So by selling us the ‘faux feminism’ of freedom through skin creams and control through pantyhose, they urge us to substitute consumer feminism for the real deal…young women in particular, lament the gap between image and reality and the impossibility of bridging it.  Whether they know it or not, they are missing feminism.  There is an anger, however repressed, about how unforgiving this new boilerplate femininity is and an instinct, however thwarted, to fight back.  There is a desire for female solidarity based on having to figure out how to live, still, in a male-dominated world, rather than on having to lose five pounds.  Girls and women with plenty of help from Lancôme, Diet Pepsi, and the bathing suit industry, have learned to turn this sense of loss and this anger in on themselves, of course.  But with the rise, and hyperinflation, of the mean girl dramas, the media have done something else: provided fresh new scripts for where girls should really direct their frustration and rage – against one another.”

This is why feminism is still important today: because we have not yet achieved equality, neither in the corporate world or on-screen.  Not everyone may identify as a feminist.  Yet whether we recognize it or not, we yearn for female empowerment.  We don’t need to buy into the bullshit stereotypes that the media shoves down our throats.  We don’t need to cut other women down to size to make ourselves feel better.  Remember that we don’t have to play the role of the mean girl in order to be truly powerful.

6 thoughts on “Mean Girls: Cattiness in Media Pits Women Against Each Other

  1. It is so harmful to our society. If you want to destroy a culture, tear down the women. The bonds women form with each other are the most powerful in the world, mother/daughter, sisters, best friends. I never watch this crap on T.V. and I hate that it is such a common form of “entertainment.”

  2. In High School, i saw a lot of this.
    Women, whom were generally good natured & sweet in the company of men, became incredibly vicious towords other girls.
    They would usually form packs (like wolves), then just tear into other female groups or certain, solitary girls.
    Some of these ladies were my friends, and genuinely cool people.
    Somehow, in the company of other women & towords other women, they’d bare their fangs.
    Not all women, but quite a few.
    It always puzzled me.

    The recent case of the bullied Irish gal whom hung herself, Phoebe (i want to say Cates, but i cannot recall her last name), is a perfect, though extreme, example.
    She was torn to shreds, harassed & picked on, simply because she dated some brain-dead jockstrap, one of the other gals fancied.
    Suddnley, ALL the girls hated her, a lot of it stemming from jealousy & that “pack” mentality.
    If you hate her, than i hate her too!

    And why?
    Because of some idiot guy, or maybe something much darker.

    Have these suburban hellcats not heard, “We are Family?”
    Sister Sledge was preaching “sisterhood” way back in the mid-70’s!

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  4. when i was a little girl my dad told me 2 girls can never remain friends for more than so & so number of years…after a decade long strong bond with my best friend i asked him where does he stand on that point..he blabbered about something like time and place..my point is the kind of bond i cherish with my best friend is unique.it has been devoid of jealous and any form of competition for over 13 years now.we are closer to each other than any1 on earth.so the myth that my dad( and many others ) believed in was because of the kind of relationships he had seen..we couldn’t have been so close if we were not both girls..we couldn’t have been the way we are if we both weren’t the kind of people that we are..the gender is important in a relationship but so is the person.

  5. I’m on good terms with all my female friends so i reckon the ones who act all petty and catty are just shallow and not worth the time or day. that said, I’m on good terms with my male friends as well, and no I wouldn’t want to associate myself with the selfish backstabbing so called “friends” – a true friend sticks by you no matter what!

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