Tanenbaum addresses “Catfights” among women in a feminist context

Carolyn Schultz

“Girls, we are all competitive with other women.” Leora Tanenbaum, a social critic, writer and lecturer from New York, began her lecture last Thursday with this little-acknowledged fact.
Women all know that they compete, and though they like to think that the animalistic and savage battles portrayed in “Mean Girls” are fiction, they are fact, according to Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum argues that the cutting remarks, backstabbing and manipulative behavior characterizing competition among women today is a result of a unique social dynamic at play in the United States.
Tanenbaum’s book, “Catfight: Rivalries Among Women: From Diets to Dating, From the Boardroom to the Delivery Room,” is the second of three she has written on women and specific gender issues at play in the United States. “Catfight” is a journalistic account of interviews Tanenbaum conducted with women of every race and economic standing, all over the country.
Through her research, Tanenbaum found a societal trend that underlies “catty” behavior between women competing in beauty, dating, motherhood and in the workplace. She claims that this behavior is encouraged by four prevalent societal dynamics.
First, “we live in a society that tells us that to truly be feminine, you need to get ahead of others,” said Tanenbaum. The media helps to perpetuate this stereotype through many avenues. A specific example is the recent hype surrounding the last four competitors on “Survivor: Fans vs. Faves.” They are all women, all displaying the best conniving and catty behavior that stereotypes their gender.
Secondly, women are surrounded by conflicting images of what it means to be a woman. There are two stereotypes of women, the old feminine woman, and the new feminist woman. The feminine woman is an excellent mother, devoted wife and is willing to sacrifice anything for her family. The feminist woman is independent, has a successful career and measures her success by getting ahead of others. Tanenbaum asserts that “we are told ‘you can have it all.’ Translation: you must have it all.”
Thirdly, when trying to have a successful career and also put family first, a woman needs to make her efforts appear invisible. Success should be effortless. This need to appear effortlessly successful forces women to hide their ambition, Tanenbaum says. Fourthly, expectations for women are higher than those of men. Both men and women compete, but women are held to this “double standard” by being unable to show it. It is socially acceptable for men to compete out in the open; it is in their nature to be aggressive. For women, an inability to compete openly in society leads to underhanded competition in the form of catty, conniving, and manipulative behavior. Based on specific societal conditions today, high expectations for women and a double standard lend validity to the catty stereotype seen in the popular television series “Gossip Girl” and “Desperate Housewives.”
Tanenbaum ended her argument with an optimistic outlook on the current situation. She asserts that secret competition between women is not good because it encourages cutting remarks and manipulative behavior. Instead she suggests that women compliment each other, admire each other’s strengths and mentor each other. She said, “I know these suggestions are superficial, but you have to start somewhere.