Neoliberal patriarchy gets inside your head and makes you pay for dinner before screwing you sideways. The number one way it does this is by making women and girls fight each other for the small amount of power and security we’re permitted to have, rather than demanding enough for all of us. Feminine power is a restricted commodity—a scarce resource that we’re forced to compete for. You know what they do to scarce resources in this world.
Girls can be so mean, can’t they? Female competition is still a largely unspoken script of internalized sexism, but when we do speak of it, when we dare to mention the problem of rivalry, jealousy, and resentment between women, we’re often told that that’s just the way women are. They can’t help competing for the attention of men. It’s in the genes, or possibly the brain. Harmful, gendered behavior that happens to produce compliant citizens of late capitalism is routinely dismissed as “natural,” with the dodgiest of data to back it up.
Standing ready to serve up any mythos the market demands, cod-evolutionary psychologists have convinced us to accept that female competition is all about hormones, not hegemony. “Human females have a particular proclivity for using indirect aggression, which is typically directed at other females, especially attractive and sexually available females, in the context of intrasexual competition for mates,” writes Tracy Vaillancourt at the Philosophical Transactions B journal of the Royal Society. Vaillancourt tells us that “Indirect aggression includes behaviors such as criticizing a competitor’s appearance, spreading rumors about a person’s sexual behavior and social exclusion [and] is an effective intrasexual competition strategy.”
Over at Florida State, a study by Jon Maner and James McNulty claim that young women’s testosterone levels go up when they smell T-shirts of ovulating young women and propose that this is a preparation for aggressive sexual competition. This is quite a presumption to make, and one must suspect, in kind, that a capacity to make grand intuitive leaps is required when one has to justify spending weeks getting young Floridian women to sniff each other’s shirts.
Female competition is a special sort of false consciousness.
There’s an obvious political dimension to the view that female rivalry is down to mate selection: it’s a great way to keep women isolated from one another. Female competition is a special sort of false consciousness. In the classic Marxist understanding of false consciousness, workers are encouraged to consider other workers looking for jobs as their competition for resources and security, and hence their enemy, rather than uniting to overthrow the bosses and property owners who are actually oppressing everyone else. The real menace to our jobs, to our love life and family lives, to our security and identity, is not other women. It never has been, but neoliberal patriarchy reduces every human interaction to the level of savage competition—including sisterhood.
Patriarchy punishes women who don’t know their place in the pecking order; it puts obstacles in their way. But other women are a key part of that system of punishment, and often, that hurts more. A year ago, a young friend I’m mentoring put out a cryptic tweet about her “nemesis,” another successful female she felt anxious about, as if every triumph this other girl had meant there was less space for my friend. I hopped into her Direct Messages like Jiminy Cricket. “Stop that,” I said. “Don’t talk about having a nemesis. I know you’re joking, but I also know you’re not really joking.” It turned out that the nemesis was an equally talented but completely different style of writer who happened to be getting attention in the New York press for her pixie-like good looks and attendance at a few fancy parties. I asked my friend about what it was that made her feel so sad and insecure. “I guess it feels like there’s only one spot for a young female writer to have a ‘moment,’” she said. “To be respected, and the go-to token ingenue on panels, in papers, on lists. She’s a version of myself I wish I could be—respected by the right people, and skinny and conventionally pretty, too. It’s like a practiced version of self-loathing—pick someone you assume has a perfect life and project everything onto them.”
“You’re right, and you know exactly what’s happening,” I said to my friend. “You’re worried that she’s That Girl, and you’re not. You have to stamp out that line of thinking. Crush it like a bug. It’s the number one thing that keeps women writers back, and if you don’t watch it, it’ll eat you alive. There’s room for both of you, and more. Don’t compete with women.”
The secret, sly struggle to be That Girl has cropped up in every social and professional circle I’ve ever been a part of and the fact that it’s a taboo topic makes it twice as toxic. It is uncomfortable to speak about and there’s a reason for that. If we nurse this tendency in secret, we’ll never stop tearing each other down. As women in any field, we are considered specialists—we are artists or academics or neuroscientists with an assumed expertise in “female,” and there are only so many of those positions to go around. Just ask Smurfette. It happens in the literary world, in the art world, in activist scenes. It happens on the left. Of course it does. Even within the left, patriarchy only puts aside a small number of spaces for women’s voices. It even happens, with bitter irony, within the feminist movement itself. Feminist activists are pitted against one another, often against their will, as male-led outlets ask us to determine who’s the best, as if women’s liberation were just another axis on which to judge one another and fight for prizes, as if feminism were not a movement that needed all of us.
Women and girls are expected to compete for male attention on a professional and social level as well as on the spectrum that runs from makeouts to marriage. In both cases, the suspicion of scarcity makes the competition desperate: there are only so many places in the world for talented people who happen to be female. Men in positions of social power—within a workplace, a friendship group, a family—make women jockey for their attention, sometimes instinctively, without even noticing. You have to win on the terms that patriarchy has laid out to ensure women are always battling themselves and each other: you have to win the girl game. What that girl game is changes as you get older, but it’s always about being good enough. It’s about being pretty enough, skinny enough, popular enough, cool enough, desired by men even if men are not what you yourself desire. Soon it will also be about having the perfect relationship, the perfect marriage, the perfect family; being able to balance your home and work life without being visibly exhausted. You will be invited, constantly, to compare yourself to other women and only to other women on each and every one of these axes.
It was this that made my young writer friend most anxious—the feeling that her “nemesis” was not necessarily a better writer, but better at performing the role of “young female writer”—a job that modern literary culture has demanded involve a relentless schedule of personal branding. “I feel like my work wouldn’t be good enough on its own. Who I am—a young woman, sometimes attractive in her own way—is how I’ll get noticed.”
Female competition is the sharp edge of internalized sexism and the death of solidarity. Whether it’s sniping and undercutting one another at work or on social media, or that sudden cold shoulder when one of your friends starts to do well, even though you know that this is probably a moment when she needs your support, it’s an intimate poison that eats you from within.
Female competition is the sharp edge of internalized sexism and the death of solidarity.
I’ve never had the emotional armor to deal with it, whether I was the jealous one or the object of someone else’s envy. The only way I’ve ever found to cope is to refuse to play the game at all. When I first made the conscious choice to stop playing the Best Girl game, it was for selfish reasons. Female competition was just making me desperately unhappy. My competitive streak was getting in the way of my work, and competition from other women—for love, sex, positive attention or simply the whisper of any of it in a world where most of us were starving for any sort of affirmation—was ruining my friendships. Throughout my life, I have faced jealousy from other women, and I have experienced awful pangs of envy, sometimes towards the exact same people. So when I feel those toxic twitches of comparison I forced myself, if at all possible, to try to befriend and actively support whichever girl—and it is always a girl—I happen to be feeling envious of that day. I make myself send a message telling her how much I admire her work, or her way of walking through the world—of course I do!—and ask if there’s any way I can help her. I’ve made some of my best female friends that way, and I’ve lost a few male ones I haven’t missed. It turns out that when women put one another first and deprioritize male attention—well, the boys get cross.
Performing gender takes work, real work, hard work, work that we’re hardly even allowed to speak about. Girlhood or, if we’re in an industry where grown adult females are considered valuable, womanhood, is a shift nobody signed up for, one on which the course of our lives still depend in shadowy, unspoken ways—but somehow we’re still expected to beat down the competition. The Best Girl game, though, is a competition with no winners. You certainly don’t win by being good at whatever it is you’ve actually decided to put the best energies of your one life towards. For men and boys, achievement is not a barrier to winning the gender game—it is the gender game. You can be unattractive, badly dressed, misanthropic or, let’s face it, simply an unmitigated dick with no manners, but if you’re a bestselling novelist or legendary hacker you have still won the social game of gender. Patriarchy considers the drive to achieve and create fundamentally unfeminine because patriarchy does not want women to be great thinkers, great artists, great politicians. Patriarchy does not want women to be great at all. It wants us to be good. Big difference.
If female competition is false consciousness, refusing to compete with other women is about the most personally revolutionary thing you can do with and for feminist liberation right now. Even if female rivalry were nothing more than a “natural” instinct, that’s no excuse to carry on torturing yourself with comparison and cutting other women down. You aren’t actually competing with that girl, whoever she happens to be. You’re competing with the perfect girl who lives in your head and is temporarily wearing someone else’s skin to taunt you. She is always beautiful, always cool, always effortlessly talented, never lonely or embarrassed or unsure. She walks as if she’s being followed by an invisible airbrush and never belches at the wrong moment because there’s never been any breath in her body.
So don’t compete with other women. Just don’t do it. If you must compete, compete with men first. It’s a risky strategy, because nobody likes a woman who competes directly with men rather than with other women for men’s approval—but it is also unexpected enough that you can get quite far before anyone catches on. Take the fight to the men instead. It’ll scare the shit out of them.