One truism accepted in our culture is that women are brutally competitive with each other and that the competitiveness arises from insecurity over our looks and ability to catch a man. This type of sexual competition, aka cattiness or catfighting, is generally scoffed at as one more example of women's essential pettiness and inferiority. It denotes a lack of seriousness and inability to achieve anything in more important arenas.
One woman I know insists that sexualized rivalry is inevitable whenever you get a group of women together. But I have to say any such thing is absolutely outside the scope of my experience. Sure, I felt hurt when a date once abandoned me for another girl, and I have had other women make the occasional insensitive remark. But I have never witnessed or felt hostility or sexual jealousy among any group of girls or women I have known. I have never sensed sexualized resentment from another woman nor have I ever felt any such resentment towards another woman.
But when I made just this observation to a male friend once, he said, "Oh, well, it's just that you are such a good person." But that's not so at all. I am just as competitive and self-interested as the next person. Sexual competitiveness, however, has simply never been on my radar, nor has it seemed to be on the radar of the many girls and women with whom I have lived, socialized and worked over the course of my life. Indeed, I have probably joined in the view that those girls and women who DO engage in such antics, if they exist, are lesser, inferior beings who simply are not serious about themselves or their lives or anything truly important.
In a recent post, Hugo made a generalization that got me thinking anew about my experience and about those other "catty" women:
To generalize enormously, the less privileged the background, the more intense the sense of [sexual] competition among young women.
While I have no way of knowing or proving that Hugo's observation is correct, it makes sense to me. It seems to me that sexualized competition and hostility among women is likely to fluorish in communities in which a woman's success is defined in terms of the ability to attract the most successful man possible. What communities are those? Well perhaps traditionalist communities of new immigrants (the milieu of many of the students at the college where Hugo teaches), less privileged communities where the ability to marry "up" might be (or at least believed to be) a woman's most likely ticket towards upward mobility, and certain very wealthy circles where marrying right may be valued more than one's own achievement. In contrast, your educated middle class Americans today (like my family) expect their young women to get good grades and forge a professional career. Whether a young woman from this background is considered "successful" by the terms of her family and community is no longer contingent on her ability to marry an overachieving doctor or lawyer, but rather on her ability to become an overachieving doctor or lawyer. Thus, I don't define myself in terms of my sexual and marital success, and therefore I have no reason to feel threatened by other women in this arena.
This idea has led me to reconsider my previous unthinking disdain for those women out there who do feel threatened and hostile towards more attractive women, or who are inclined to get into fights over men. I do not condone this type of competitiveness but I no longer see it as inferior or different in kind than competitiveness in, say, the professional world.
After all, men can be competitive and hostile and backbiting and petty over things that matter to them. It's just that we don't scoff at it quite so much because we value those things more. I have operated in a competitive professional environment for many years and I grew up watching my father operate in such an environment. I have seen my share of unhealthy situations in which men have (metaphorically) bit and kicked and scratched their way to the top in some very unproductive ways. While we do have some scornful terms for this kind of behavior (like "pissing match"), we still don't have quite the same degree of scorn for this as we do for a couple of women catfighting over a man.
Self-interested competitiveness is a common human behavior among both men and women. It has not at all been my experience that men are more prone to it than women, or vice-versa, or that one sex is better able to channel these impulses in productive ways. But women, depending on their background, may be situated such that sexualized competition makes more sense. And to them, it is not petty or unimportant at all. Rather such women are fighting over the very thing that gives them status and opportunity in their community, just as much as those men who are trying to fight their way to the top of the corporate ladder.