I’ve been all kinds of catty in my life, and every instance can be boiled down to this arc:
—I envy something in another woman (her style/smarts/skills/confidence).
—I feel threatened by that trait in some way (she will take my job/man/place in a friend group).
—I make a dig.
—Inevitably what I fear never comes to fruition.
—Later I realize that envy was showing me something (a skill, a trait, an attitude) I’d like to cultivate. Or it’s something I’ll never, ever cultivate, but it would be so nice if I would!
I’d never made a connection between cattiness and misogyny until recently.
Something happened to me with feminism this month. I am like a woman on a hot day who put on polarized sunglasses and suddenly I’m seeing—no really seeing—the crisp contours of blatant, oldskool sexism and micro-misogny everywhere.
I’d always assumed that the biggest problem isn’t sexism, it’s biology, and feminist debate—as it’s practiced in America, in my echo-chamber—can be boiled down to: it’s really hard to work and have kids and most of us haven’t figured this out.
But this summer I started seeing little digs on women everywhere: on how a woman earns a living (Michael Phelps’ girlfriend being slammed because she’s a part-time model), how a woman chooses to have relationship (people hating SO MUCH harder on Kristen Stewart than on that married dude), how a woman chooses to balance motherhood and work (Marissa Mayer getting getting slammed for not taking maternity leave right after starting at Yahoo!)—and it’s all disguised as opinion and commentary.
And most of it’s coming from women!
Why is this so bad? We’re allowed to disagree!
Yes, and disagreement is a beautiful thing if it forces me to flip-flop and understand better.
What I’m seeing is collective cattiness, a large-scale version of my own personal cattiness. Which is why I think I understand how this can be insidious.
Just as my own cattiness takes the focus away from the real issue (my own fears of inadequacy and what I can actually do about them), collective cattiness takes the focus away from what we can be doing better—what’s not working in society. You know, things like: flex-time, paid maternity leave, re-thinking “success” as defined by a male paradigm, a focus on spending our disposable income on tanning and waxing, etc. etc. etc.
It’s also a subtle diminishing force (like credit card debt hanging over your head) knowing that every time you make a choice, you’ll have to be prepared to defend that choice to other women.
So I thought I’d write a cheat-sheet to keep my own cattiness in check. And then I came across David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, in which he advises graduates on how to think. He doesn’t tell them the right way or the wrong way; he says that one of best things you can do with your life is to choose “what to think about.”
So rather than focus on the right or wrong way for me to be catty, I’ll think about how to funnel that feeling!
A FIELD GUIDE TO JUDGING OTHER WOMEN
I’ve tried to arrange this in order of difficulty.
This is never a good idea and always a waste of time.
But what if it’s a celebrity who works out like crazy and pretends as if she doesn’t?
This is a waste of time. This means you’re spending valuable life energy focused on someone’s looks. Ugh.
Perhaps a better use of my time is: why are we so obsessed with tans and waxing and toning? What does this signify? How hard is it to refuse to play this game? Are we endorsing this game by buying into it?
OK for award shows, but generally a waste of time.
For example, it’s fine to discuss outfits at the Oscars. That is the deal celebs make with the devil when they walk down that red carpet. However, the collective tear-down of Bjork’s swan outfit has created a climate in which gorgeous women are terrified to step forth in anything other than a mermaid gown.
Let’s be careful—we screwed ourselves.
OK in certain cases but generally a waste of time.
It’s fine to comment on a celebrity’s interview in a gossipy magazine about her relationship. That’s having an opinion on what you read.
However, having an opinion on an actress who is covered by a gossip magazine against her will is a waste of our time.
Maybe the question to pose is, “why does this celebrity sell magazines?” Why does this magazine feel compelled to cover this starlet? What about this starlet is speaking to our culture’s psyche? WHY ARE WE BUYING INTO THIS?
JOBS AND OTHER CAREER DECISIONS
For example, all those anonymous haters crapping on Michael Phelps’ girlfriend for being a model: not OK.
Perhaps the conversation there is, “What effects, positive or negative, does the modeling industry have on society?”
Slamming Marisa Mayer’s decision to not take maternity leave is not Ok. She’s a woman making a choice about her child. If she implements apolicy that hurts parents during her tenure at Yahoo, totally OK to judge her!
Slamming Elizabeth Wurtzel for essentially saying that all women should work if they want to be taken seriously is OK because Elizabeth Wurtzel is announcing that opinion in a public forum.
Almost always OK, as long as the woman is expressing her viewpoints on behalf of women or making a blanket statement about women.
Totally fine to disagree with Sheryl Sandberg giving a talk at Barnard that goes viral. Ditto Anne-Marie Slaughter writing about “Why Women Can’t Have it All” in the Atlantic.
They’re big girls putting their views out there, they can handle it. In fact, they want respectful discourse.
Slamming Lolo Jones for being a virgin? Not Ok, as she’s not trying to make a statement about how the rest of us should live; she’s simply sharing her preference.
It depends. Generally OK if the woman is a politician; generally a waste of your time if it’s anyone else expressing a belief. (Unless of course, it’s a friend and you can talk to her and understand her thinking. But duh.)
Always OK if the woman is a politician. For example, it’s totally fine to say, “Sarah Palin makes me want to hit my head on the Planned Parenthood wall.”
However, a better version of that statement above is: “What about her views are appealing to the American public?”
As with above Lolo Jones example, not great if the woman is just sharing her beliefs.