Critique of ‘Portraying and Pushing Female Competitiveness’

90% best friend; 10% bitter enemy; 100% genuine. — Osh Kosh B’Gosh

Yesterday, Dr. Lisa Wade wrote for Sociological Images that women are often pit against one another in media images and are unable to be friends in real life, due to “gender inequality.” She states,

gender inequality makes it difficult for men and women to be friends with each other, for men to be friends with men, and for women to be friends with each other. Regarding the latter, I argue that, in a society that values men and masculinity over women and femininity, everyone values men’s opinions more than women’s. Inevitably, then, women are placed into competition with one another for attention from men. Meanwhile, women’s opinions of them have less value and can’t substitute for men’s, so women can’t hold each other up; they must all turn to men for self-esteem.

So we have an obvious truism — that women are often in competition with each other for male attention, and that women are often pitted against each other generally — being pointed out, which is a good first step. Figuring out why that might be so — and why that obvious truism is of feminist concern — is the logical next step which is, unfortunately, never taken. In other words, so what?

Analyses of “gender inequality” are a type of limited, equality-based analysis which seek to isolate and remedy various perceived slights and statistical inequities that are deemed undesirable on their face. Liberal politics, including liberal feminist politics, relies on an equality-based analysis which is useful in some contexts — specifically, an equality framework is useful in examining the effects of racism, and there is a very good reason for that. There is simply no legitimate, non-racist reason that white and non-white men would not be represented equally in all areas, including in employment, education, politics, and in the criminal justice system. That is because there is no functional, biologically-based difference between white and non-white men that would account for statistical over- or under-representation in any area: men are men are men, but for various -isms that privilege rich, white, able-bodied (etc.) men over all other men within the patriarchal hierarchy, and where some men have more and easier access to the good things in life, such as financial and material wealth, unearned deference and respect, and unfettered sexual access to women.

Obviously, this analysis will be of limited usefulness in a feminist context, where the goal is not statistical equality and more and easier access to patriarchal privilege, but rather, where the goal is the eradication of patriarchy and women’s emancipation from male control and from institutionalized misogyny. And where our political and interpersonal oppression at men’s hands is actually rooted in our female reproductive biology and men’s exploitation of it. Men can literally incapacitate women with their penises, and often do — men, and not women, are in control over when and whether women become impregnated, through mandatory PIV and rape. And men have created their institutions and norms to further marginalize and victimize women based on our female biology, such as state controls on pregnant women and mothers, and the 40-hour work week, unforgiving, sized-clothing and other male-defined norms that do not change, and thus are not compatible with female biology which as its “norm” is in a state of constant change.

In other words, there are functional, biological differences between women and men, and thus there may be legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for statistical inequalities. Notice I said may. What this means is that various sex-based inequalities we see under patriarchy could theoretically be skewed in the opposite direction, and that equally-skewed result could in practice be more fair, and would not necessarily be equally unfair. For example, it might be more fair — not equally unfair — if women were allowed to out-earn men for performing the same work, considering that women have to spend more due to fuckability mandates, and are often single parents caring for multiple children; and also considering the various abuses men perpetrate on girls and women when men have too much (any) disposable income. Clearly, the reason it is currently skewed in one direction and not the other is not because inequality; the reason is because patriarchy.

So rather than simply pointing out “gender inequality” or worse, using “because gender inequality” as a reason for statistical difference (i.e. the circular reasoning that is “gender inequality is due to gender inequality”) feminists must ask ourselves how and indeed whether various inequalities or patriarchal manifestations are supportive of male power. The answer of whether is easy: in a patriarchal context, the answer is “yes” although this is rarely stated out loud, but the “how” is where it gets interesting. Of course, liberal and liberal feminist analyses customarily lack both: the lack of “whether” in liberal analysis is a failure to name the agent, and the missing “how” makes liberal analyses intolerably bland, and does not shed meaningful light on the mechanisms of women’s oppression by men.

In the case of women being pitted against one another, we see a couple of patriarchal manifestations that have nothing to do with so-called gender inequality: one is Handmaidens of the patriarchy. This concept applies wherever we see women, instead of acting in solidarity with one another or working toward common female-positive ends, actually policing each other’s behaviors, dress, or life choices and situations; engaging in girl-fighting; handmaidensplaining to other women how to shift their perspective to a more male-centric one or why a woman-centric perspective is wrong; and otherwise enforcing patriarchal mandates on themselves and others.

And handmaidens of the patriarchy are enormously supportive of male power: by getting women to do patriarchy’s dirty work, the patriarchal agenda is advanced even within female-only or female-dominated spaces, such as the household and female friendships, and there is simply nowhere for girls and women to go to get away. When women do this to each other, it appears as if girls and women have meaningful power over each other, or over their own lives, or that men are individually or collectively kind, benign or blameless compared to women, when none of these things is true. In reality, patriarchal mandates, all of them, regardless of who enforces them, benefit men and men only; girls and women who are stuck in patriarchal families, workplaces and communities are almost completely powerless to radically change patriarchal mandates or the anti-woman, pro-patriarchy value system, or to create a culture to benefit themselves. This dynamic of the female patriarchal enforcer invisiblizes who has the real power, what that power looks like, where it comes from, and how it is used: namely, men have power that they frequently wield over women, and use it abusively; it is sexual, physical, economic, and structural; and they get it from other men and male-centric institutions, and by abusing women through economic coercion and sexual violence, and decreasing women’s power through sex-based discrimination.

Also evident in the pitting of women against each other is the PIV-centric narrative, where the goal is to “land a man”. Here, the harmful PIV-as-sex paradigm is normalized and invisiblized, where all women are expected to engage in extreme male-pleasing behaviors and to constantly vie for male attention; the endgame is marriage or a long-term partnership with a man, where it is expected that PIV will be a requirement of the continuation of the partnership. When successfully “landing a man” through extreme male-pleasing behaviors and deferring to men on all issues, the female-centered world of a woman’s upbringing including female relatives and friends (if she was lucky enough to experience that) is replaced with a male-centric world that requires constant male-pleasing and being compliant and pleasing to the patriarchal institution of marriage itself. Where the goal is to land a man, lesbianism or spinsterhood are not options; so-called “women’s sexuality” becomes penis-centric, despite the reproductive consequences to women and regardless of whether the intercourse is pleasurable or wanted by the woman; and female friends and relatives take a back seat to the romantic heterosexual partnership and are not welcome in the co-habitative or marital home.

Women who reject other women in favor of men and male-centric perspectives are also buying into Mansplaining/women’s perspective is wrong. Mansplanations are an exercise in forced-perspective, where men force women to view the world the proper way, which under patriarchy means through men’s eyes. Mansplanations are intended to and do actually stop women’s thought processes and women’s discussions in their tracks, where those processes and discussions are coming dangerously close to representing a female-centric reality, or where men’s interests are not being properly represented and catered to. The intent of mansplaining is to get women “back on track” to furthering the patriarchal agenda, and to undermine the true revolutionary potential of majority-female or female-only spaces where women are free to go to the ends of our thoughts, based on our shared reality and experiences and our hope for a better future, and our shared, sincere desire for the end of patriarchy and undermining of male power.

And because of male entitlement, men are simply used to unearned deference on every issue (especially from women) and having sexual and other access to women and women’s spaces, including inside our discussions and in our heads.

Because patriarchy. Not because inequality.

An analysis based in gender-inequality does not even begin to address the problem of pitting women against each other, and the patriarchal intent and effect of bombarding everyone with this particular brand of woman-hating, pro-patriarchy propaganda through media images. The problem with it, and the patriarchal purpose and effect, is that it supports male power at women’s expense.