Stop the Bitch Wars!
From cyberbullying to sorority hazing to The Real Housewives, women are putting one another down like never before. Here’s what you can do to retire the gloves for good.
Not long ago, I was hanging out with a few women I didn’t know that well. We were sputtering along making small talk. But when The Real Housewives came up, it was as though our conversation finally found gasoline and a match. We gleefully shredded those women—and, later, the women of The Bachelor and The Millionaire Matchmaker—for nearly an hour, which proves at least two truths about gossip: People are still the most fascinating subjects on the planet, and you should never underestimate the bonding power of tearing other women down.
I don’t need a psychology degree to tell you that this is borne partly of insecurity, from the fear that we ourselves are failing in some way to be beautiful, to be successful, to buy the right low-waist jeans. But getting high off the fumes of our sisters’ misfortunes is a cheap buzz, and it feels like we’re all a little too drunk on it these days. The bitching is out of control! Sororities—that bastion of Southern politesse—have seen an increase in verbal abuse and even violence in hazing rituals. Mommy blogs regularly devolve into all-caps throw-downs over everything from breast-feeding to baby slings. ANew York Times story reported bullying is trickling down to younger girls—one survey found that nearly half of the third-graders in a Massachusetts school had been bullied.
Of course we have more tools for cruelty than ever before, thanks to Facebook and the Internet, home to knee-jerk reactions of all ages. Seven years after Tina Fey turned “mean girls” into a household phrase in her classic movie—putting the lie to the notion that women are all sparkles and sunshine—bitchiness is more ubiquitous than ever. We have met the mean girls, and they are sometimes us.
“Is this a new trend? I wouldn’t say that,” says Kelly Valen, a lawyer who turned her own searing tale of betrayal at the hands of her sorority sisters into the book The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships. “But the behaviors seem to be absolutely more accepted—even expected—and we have become more complacent about it all.”
Personally, as a Texan who occasionally suffered under the oppression of “smile and act nice,” I can understand the allure of the bedazzled ms. bitch T-shirt. There’s a kicky thrill to nasty behavior, in which confidence gets swapped out for nastiness. But the problem is one of proportion and volume. And if you look at our culture right now, we are seriously out of whack.
Watched any reality TV lately? “Ten years of reality programming has eliminated virtually all traces of strong female friendships,” says Jennifer Pozner, media critic and author of the book Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. Shows like The Real Housewives and Bad Girls Club portray women as shrieking harpies who love nothing more than to plant their manicures in one another’s hair and torpedo the reputation of whichever comely lass just exited the room. What’s shocking about reality TV is that, for a genre so ingenious and vast that it can encompass both The Biggest Loser and Ice Road Truckers, its depiction of women is painfully narrow. From the romance of The Bachelor to the grotesquerie of Bridalplasty, it’s all “men, handbags, Prada—this catfight is on!”
Which doesn’t mean I don’t watch those shows. They are masterfully engineered to tap into our earliest childhood fantasies about money and fame, while allowing our snarky adult selves to sneer in judgment: Those dumb bitches. Ditto the tabloids, where one simple divorce can be spun into a seven-year cautionary tale about Other Women. Jen vs. Angelina: the Ulysses of girl-on-girl crime.
It’s hard not to mourn the glory days of Buffy and Xena, shows that understood how female friendships could be as inspiring and complex as any romance. These days we’ve traded the plucky sisterhood of Gilmore Girls for the slick villainy of Gossip Girl. Even the best hits on TV (Glee, Modern Family) thrive on friction between women. (Meanwhile, tween shows like iCarly too often mistake sarcasm for self-expression.) And for every one of Taylor Swift’s nice-girl ballads, we also get lyrics like this: “Tell them bitches get a stick/I’m done leadin’ the blind,” courtesy of popular female rapper Nicki Minaj.
Me, I avoid confrontation. The only catfight I’ve been involved with ended in an exorbitant vet bill. But I am guilty of mainlining pop-culture misogyny, and thinking that it doesn’t affect my attitude toward other women is kind of like consuming a Quarter Pounder at every meal and hoping I don’t get fat. Bitchiness is not attractive—not to men, and certainly not to other women. What is attractive is the confidence to swing your hips as you walk into a room, knowing that another woman’s beauty does not diminish your own. Listen, it helps to have a rockin’ bod and chic clothes. I get it. But when it comes to seduction, a spark of generosity and the inner glow of healthy self-esteem trump snarkiness every time. By putting others down, you end up looking insecure. And no guy wants to date someone who’s cruel.
“Part of me thinks girls and women need a big shake-by-the-shoulders wake-up call,” Valen says, “a reminder that none of this serves us well—individually or as a gender.” On a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, yet another dinner party dissolved into a name-calling spat. “We’re not doing this anymore,” Taylor Armstrong said, throwing up her manicured hands in a sign of surrender. “These are not the ladies that we are. Enough.”
Of course, by the finale, they were all fighting again. They’re on contract, after all. But we can do what they can’t: We can cut it out.
- Here are five steps you can take to end bitch culture.
1. Challenge yourself to be honest about what you think rather than putting on a phony face and whispering behind someone’s back later. Think someone looks awful in that dress? Don’t say she looks great, then turn around and roll your eyes. Furious that someone made you wait? Don’t say it’s “no problem.” Dare to disagree, to tell the truth about how you feel in a mature way rather than relying on squinty adolescent aggression or silent martyrdom. Maybe you won’t feel the need for the pressure-valve release of gossip if you give voice to your own opinions.
2. Understand that success is not a zero-sum game. Because the space for women in the workplace has traditionally been so narrow, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one woman’s triumph is another’s failure. But we’re not competitors; we’re collaborators. Anna, 28, was locked in a petty feud with a female coworker. Both threatened by the other, they knocked each other’s ideas in meetings and “forgot” to invite each other to after-work get-togethers. Then half the staff was fired, work grew dark—and they realized they were actually in this together. “We really did become friendlier, sharing ideas and asking each other’s opinions and encouraging each other as we both searched for—and finally got—new jobs,” Anna says.
3. Stop doing the things that feed your own worst ideas about yourself. Maybe it’s watching The Real Housewives. Maybe it’s lurking on Facebook out of envy and spite while eating fried sausage cheese. Whatever is making you feel bitter, resentful or “less than” in some way, cut it out. Seek out activities that build your self-esteem, not ones that strangle it. Being kinder to yourself will help you be kinder to other people.
4. Before you tear another woman down, use this simple trick: Imagine what that slight would sound like coming out of the mouth of your daughter, your favorite niece or any young girl who is dear to you. Because if you keep it up, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
5. Have a problem with another woman? Be adult and handle it with respect and dignity the timeless, old-school way: Talk to her.
Sarah Hepola is the culture editor at salon.com.