When I was much younger, I was fully exposed to the censure of female criticism. Female bullying – which often occurs with words rather than physical violence – can happen anywhere from grade school right through adulthood (these ideas have been extensively portrayed and popularized in movies like Mean Girls). Stereotypes about women are as diverse as individual members of this sex: women are often regarded as empathic, but can be ‘bitchy’ to each other at times. Are hormones purely to blame for these swings in mood?
Survival mechanisms may have at one time explained the differences between men and women, but in the modern age there appear to be fewer reasons for these discrepancies in thought and behavior (Sabbatini, 1997). Recent research suggests that even empathy, thought to be inherently more powerful in women than men, may be a trait learned through early socialization activities (Simon-Thomas, 2007). A recent McMaster University adds that, at least in some areas of life, women indirectly work against each other in a form of cooperative subversion (Khazan, November 2013):
“Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge have also theorized that women, not men, are largely the ones who suppress each others’ sexualities, in part through this sort of indirect aggression. ‘The evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage’ they wrote” (Khazan, November 2013).
Essentially, if Jessica bullies Tiffany into feeling negatively about herself, Jessica will benefit by receiving a greater level of male attention. Similarly, behaviors like ‘aggression’ and ‘intelligence’ in a woman are traits interpreted by both genders as ‘obnoxious’ and ‘arrogant’ – thus squelching them early in a girl’s life, through indirect peer pressure, is the way to go (because who doesn’t want a sweet, modest girl over a brash, loud one? Such are the didactic lessons presented in many realms of life).
Female bullying continues later in life as women compete for marriage partners. What we commonly forget about marriage is that it was once exclusively meant to bring together clans of families into cooperative units with greater socio-economic status – not provide a love match (O’Brien, April 2012). In the 1930s and 40s, diamond engagement rings became a form of ‘virginity insurance’ for women, essentially providing them with the means to financially survive if the man left before providing a home and source of income via marriage (O’Brien, April 2012).
More recently, woman have taken to rating men using apps like Lulu – warning other women away from men who might not be worth an investment of time and energy. Or, perhaps, sabotaging other women from possible marriage partners.
What do all of these issues come down to? I summarize with this list:
- Women indirectly, but aggressively, peer pressure each other into behaving in certain ways (thus maintaining a certain standard of female behavior, despite advancements in cultural expectations and work opportunities);
- Women continue to seek out only the most powerful mates (despite the wide range of acceptable partners and lifestyles in the modern age); and,
- Women bully each other throughout life to achieve perceived ‘better’ landmarks in marriage, childbirth, etc. Yet women have the opportunity for many life paths and need to follow their intuition and gut feelings about the ‘right’ way to live (regardless of external or assumed expectations).
I would like to suggest here that female bullying may be a powerful cultural force keeping the creative, intelligent, and loving sides of women suppressed and out of sight. Consequently, I echo Susan Sontag, Anna Banti, and Virginia Woolf when I say that women should eschew restrictive labels whenever possible and think for themselves always.