For a long time, I viewed other women as competition.
I can trace back conscious efforts to compete with other women to middle school. I’d compete with my friends for roles in the school play, the best grade on a quiz, to be deemed the prettiest, the skinniest, the sweetest, the one that was most ‘noticed.’ If a female friend was praised in class for her grades, I’d work extra hard to make sure the next praise and all the praise after it went to me. As my schooling progressed into high school, this competitive atmosphere only increased. As a writer, and a relatively well-known one amongst my peers, I felt threatened by other female writers I came across and would try to do more and do better. I’ve always been a competitive person, by nature, but let’s all admit it: competition between women is of its own breed. A dangerous one.
Competition between women, extending beyond the reaches of friendly, is something we consume every single day. It’s in a fair amount of our pop culture. Take the movie Bridesmaids, for example. Although it’s a hilarious movie, the primary conflict centers on Kristin Wiig’s character feeling threatened by her best friend’s new friend and fiercely competing with her to be better. And many more movies, some more serious than Bridesmaids, follow this similar mold. Of course, our favorite movie, Mean Girls, is a prime example. Television shows and books young girls consume are, perhaps, worse. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed The Clique books as a young girl and feverishly read about all of the terrible antics the girls of the clique got into with one another, and, most honestly, against one another — such as when Claire becomes a movie star and Massie and her friends kick her out of the group and humiliate her. Meanwhile, shows on Nickelodeon about tween drama that are centered around a female character have something similar: as a side plot, our sweet protagonist competes with a “mean’ girl, usually over a boy. An example of this would be the earlier episodes of Victorious, where Jade and Tori viciously compete for Jade’s boyfriend’s affections. Luckily, many of these films and televisions shows and books end in friendship — but, still, at the end of the day, Jade, Regina George, and Massie are still the “bitches.” We hate them. You hate the girls that win some battles, the girls you don’t think deserve to win. And we normalize this hatred and this competition. Girls will be girls and they’ll compete fiercely with one another to terrible, terrible places. It’s seen as normal. When two girls are competing for something, at least one will be seen as the “bitch” in the situation. And the media that teenage girls consume is ripe with this message which makes it even more problematic.
I am, at least, proud to say my competition with my female classmates never came to the levels of those movies or books — more like it was all in my mind, my internal competition. But still, I am ashamed to admit that I viewed girls that I thought had won some battle or another as “bitches,” as these terrible, gendered slurs. I knew it was wrong, deep down in my mind, as I progressed through my high school years and began to identify as a feminist, but somehow I couldn’t stop. Competition seemed normal and necessary. This isn’t to say that competition like this doesn’t exist between men, and as a woman, I really can’t speak for them on that at all. However, I can say that when we see male competition in our pop culture, we certainly aren’t calling one of them a “bitch,” and it can even be seen as more friendly than female competition. In Harry Potter, the competition between Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter does not leave us using gendered slurs against Voldemort. Rather, he is seen as “evil.” However, when we pit Bellatrix Lestrange and Molly Weasley against each other in a fight to the death, not even J.K. Rowling can resist, and Molly calls Bellatrix a “bitch” before killing her. It seems gendered slurs like this are constantly thrown around at the “bad girls,” the female villains. And what do we call our male villains? I can’t speak for all pop culture examples, but these are observations I’ve made that I believe have some role in influencing how young women interact (or rather, compete) with one another.
It wasn’t until college that this competitive atmosphere began to disperse and the cloud began to clear in my head. I joined my school’s chapter of Her Campus, an online women’s magazine, and, for the first time, felt no need to compete with my fellow writers. They became colleagues, not competition. I attribute this to the compassion within our meetings and the genuine interest everyone had in one another’s work. We were a team. As I observed my older classmates work together, using social media to praise and share each other’s writing, encouraging each other as they shaped their stories and planned events where we could all get together and talk, I began to do the same, praising the work of my fellow writers and, in turn, getting praise without a hint of competition. It felt great to work with my female colleagues, instead of against them, and I’m sorry it took me so long to mature to this point.
It takes years to unlearn the internalized misogyny that is women tearing other women down instead of empowering them. Like I said, it’s everywhere. It’s so easy to accept it as natural. When I entered college, I realized that without ceasing my competition with my female friends and classmates (beyond friendly competition) I could never truly identify as feminist. It took a bit of effort to reach this point. I had to accept what I had been doing in the first place, though it pained me to do so. I had to take a step back and wonder why I felt the need to compete. I felt like I needed to do it to stay ahead and because it was normal, right? Then, I had to take active steps to change that. I voiced the compliments I had for other women in my head instead of burying them under jealousy. I tried to have more confidence in myself, in my work, instead of comparing myself to other women. And when I did, I tried to do so constructively, without tearing down them or me. It did wonders for me. Today, when I feel pangs of jealousy and a need to compete, I remind myself why I don’t need to. Finally realizing that having the support of fellow women is more beneficial to me than competing ruthlessly with them was eye-opening.
As the author of Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay, puts it in her essay, “How To Be Friends With Another Woman,” we must “abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. This myth is like heels — pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”