women being mean to women: still sexist
The news has been rife with stories recently of women making cruel or nasty comments towards other women.
Later, we saw British Daily Mail columnist, Samantha Brick, claim that women are nasty to her because of her good looks.
Finally, actress Ashley Judd has commented that she has received many harsh comments about her appearance and that usually these comments are from other women.
Clearly, say some commentators, the fact that women are horrible to other women is evidence that the patriarchy isn’t the problem. Women are holding each other back! Women are oppressing themselves! Women are their own worst enemies! Women are the judgemental ones! Men don’t even care about this stuff! They say.
Such claims come from a poor understanding of what the patriarchy actually is. The patriarchy is not ‘men’, just like ‘democracy’ isn’t anyone in particular. When one talks about the patriarchy, they are referring not to men, but to an ideological, intangible system whereby men happen to hold a dominant position. It refers to the way a society is organised.
The fact that women are subjected to pressures regarding how they look is not the fault of men, it is the fault of our social organisation – the patriarchy. Those pressures are reinforced in daily life. Often by women.
What we need to realise is that when women critique each other, it is not just because they are psychologically flawed or mean-spirited. These critiques happen in a context where much money and entire industries rely on women worrying about how they look. Beauty is a huge industry and it is growing. From creams and lotions and cosmetics, to clothing, and now to surgical interventions. The cosmetics industry alone in Australia is worth $ 5 billion. The message to care about this thing is filtered to everyone – through the media, through advertising, and finally through to daily interactions.
The cruelty we have been witnessing, emanating from one woman to another, is backed by the patriarchy. It is backed by the way society is organised. In this case, it involves the economics of the beauty industry, backed by social institutions such as the media.
What many women have done is absorbed the social pressures and applied them to others on an individual level. Women have gotten the message from the patriarchal system that they need to look/dress/act/think a certain way, and then they personally share that message with those who cross their path. The fact that Woman A is being mean to Woman B is incidental. A is still representing the patriarchy. And yes, women can do that!
Ashley Judd agrees. She writes:
That women are joining in the ongoing disassembling of my appearance is salient. Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
Ariel Levy explores this very phenomenon in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs. She says that women are responsible for deriding each other and objectifying each other. Women who want to be respected in male dominated industries position themselves as ‘not really being like a girl’, writing off girls and pink and femininity as ‘silly’, saying that they don’t really get along with other women because they are too sensitive, not driven enough, full of drama and bitchiness, etc.
The fact that women feel the need to distance themselves from other women and criticise them mercilessly goes directly to the way in which femininity is not highly valued. Except for looking beautiful, which can be valued approximately in the billions of dollars.
In any case, the phenomenon of women being mean to each other reinforces old stereotypes and is the absolute extension of patriarchy. It shows that dominating social forces which undervalue women and overvalue looks have been internalised by women themselves.
(Image source: 1)