Why do women tear each other down?

Violet columnist Ilona Harding-Roberts argues that women as a whole should stop bitching

Ilona Harding-Roberts

We don't have to be mean, girlsinstagram

In the current social climate, there’s a lot of talk about the behaviour of men – and rightly so. Time’s up for those men who use their power to intimidate rather than inspire; those men who think a woman’s will is an obstacle to overcome; and those men who consciously, subconsciously, or passively participate in rape culture. These conversations aren’t new, but now, at least, they are prominent.

But we need to be talking about the contribution women make to this culture too. In 2011, a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that 85% of the women responded negatively to a peer who was dressed provocatively, viewing her as a sexual rival and not allowing their boyfriends to spend time alone with her. The unsurprising effect of this on the receiver's end, another study found, can be intense psychological pain and a feeling of social exclusion.

So it seems that there’s a science behind bitching – perhaps we view other women as sexual rivals, as attention seekers, or simply get ‘that feeling’ of intense dislike for no apparent reason. But does this mean we have to accept it as a natural part of the way women interact with each other?

Well, on the one hand, it’s pointless to suggest that bitching could stop overnight. When you’re standing in a Cindies queue getting increasingly bored, cold and sober, there’s nothing quite like a quick bitch about ‘some girl’ wearing a tight dress or being annoyingly loud to spice things up. I’m not saying this behaviour is excusable or acceptable – I’m just acknowledging that it happens (and admitting that I’ve definitely taken part).

If feminism is all about raising the social status of women, how can it be that we accept any kind of bitching, whether it’s a one off or sustained? It may seem fairly obvious what the feminist response to this will be; women should support the sisterhood and raise each other up, rather than tearing each other down.

But surprisingly, the feminist answer is not necessarily clear-cut. Caitlin Moran, who has become something of a icon in modern day liberal feminism, argued both in her book How to Be a Woman and in an online Guide To Being a Modern Feminist that bitching is natural. ‘You’re a feminist’, she reminds us, ‘not our Lord Jesus Christ. Why would being a feminist mean you can’t still find other women capable of being annoying, stupid, vain, bombastic, wholly deluded about that beret actually suiting them, and just plain mean?’

Is this the line we should remember from Mean Girls?instagram

Now, I’m a Moran fan – she was one of the first writers to get me excited about feminism. But I think she’s wrong about this. As I’ve said, I’m not claiming to be an angel - I have definitely judged someone based on their clothing, appearance or any other way they express or present themselves. However, I don’t believe in condoning this behaviour – I think people like me should feel ashamed about their behaviour towards other (potentially very lovely) women. There’s a big difference between a woman being ‘plain mean’, and a woman being ‘deluded about that beret actually suiting them’; and the difference is between them being a dick, and you being a dick.

If somebody has deliberately made you feel small, intimidated, upset, or excluded, then you absolutely have cause to have a chat about it to a friend, because that’s a healthy way to deal with your emotions. But this is a thousand miles away from judging a person on their beret.

Moran’s justification for this lies in two areas; women shouldn’t be expected to be perfect and kindly all the time, and bitching can actually bond people together. To an extent, I get it – we’ve all had that moment of relief when a friend has casually verbalised something you’ve been thinking about for ages – ‘why does she keep pulling that face in pictures?’ Unfortunately, that still doesn’t make it OK.

Women are, as we now know, under pressure from many areas of social life, from job promotions to childcare, everyday sexism to maintaining the perfect outward image. There are many more issues like this – subtle, complicated, and susceptible to accusations of moaning or overreacting. But that’s surely why women should be a little kinder to each other; some of the harshest and deepest cutting comments are made by women, whose opinions often matter more than a man’s.


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This isn’t a call for mass action – feminism is as much about an individual’s way of life as it is a movement – but I do think that if we can alleviate some of the pressure by not judging someone based on their appearance, we should try.

So next time you (and I’m talking to myself here too) are about to bitch about someone based on their appearance, try thinking about what you’d feel like if it was said about you. I know, I know, we can’t be 100% wholesome 100% of the time, and we’re bound to slip up, but even the small changes in your behaviour could make a big difference.