Who Wins When We Rivalize Women?
The following newsletter was written in June of 2019.
Earlier this week, we tapped into a worrying trend of cherry-picking acceptable female behavior when Nicole Curran, wife of Warriors owner Joe Lacob, leaned across Beyonce courtside to offer her and her husband a drink.
To retrodict the evening, Curran told ESPN “there was no hostility,” adding that she was simply “trying to be a good hostess.” But within minutes, the exchange went viral galvanizing responses that ran a monochromatic spectrum of “PSA: Don’t Lean Over Beyonce,” to “I would leave the Earth if Beyonce looked this ready to smack me,” and prompting a swarm of bee emojis on each of her Instagram posts.
The subtext to this frenzy is that however enlightened we perceive our “feminism project,” the cultural normalcy of rivalizing women for sport persists, and isn’t always offloaded into our laps directly by men. But often, by one another. “Y tho?” may very well be my epitaph.
I’m reminded of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proverb Beyonce samples in her 2013 Flawless and subsequent Homecoming:
We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
It isn’t a novel concept, I know; I use the recent escalation as an example because the social reactions and bylines highlight it’s gendered, speculative and bully-ish nature, but of course we see the same thing in our own personal lives, only with less bee emojis.
Last month, Phoebe Waller-Bridge flagged a network’s response to her acclaimed series Fleabag: “oh, but we’ve already got a woman show” and it stuck with me across a multitude of social and professional interactions whereby female co-existence is challenged. Like Waller-Bridge, we’ve all experienced deceptive cycles of not being given enough elbow room and told ‘but there’s an abundance of arm rests!’
“If women are told that there aren’t enough jobs or relationships, success or happiness for everyone,” Octavia Bright writes for ELLE, “then it creates a dynamic of scarcity that thrives on fear. Everything becomes a competition, and women end up encouraged to pit themselves against one another.” Of course, scarcity is not something that only afflicts women — it’s offspring, burnout culture, is an issue for most millennials. But it’s worthwhile to remember, for comparison, Jake Gyllenhaal leaning over Jay-Z courtside in 2014 which skated right past online capital punishment and into wholesome-meme territory.
Now, competition, I know, is not without purpose: it can trigger growth, momentum, hustle — but is hustle culture not also a clever tool of misogyny, repackaging “the American dream” and nudging women to hop on a self-improvement treadmill to outrun one another?
An unintended consequence of this, researchers have found, is that women find themselves heel-to-heel with one another for a predetermined allotment of spaces for them. Last year, for example, women earned over two-thirds of postgraduate degrees but Fortune 500 CEO offices were filled by only 6.6% of women with just *one* woman of color in a Fortune 500 C-Suite — that’s 0.2%, hitting women of color disproportionately hard. Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, estimated 77% of unpaid internships are women. To make ourselves as qualified as possible for jobs, relationships and happiness we’re told there aren’t enough, we “pay our dues,” optimize, optimize, optimize, and accept the onus of systemic failures and it’s side effects, eg. burnout, depression and anxiety instead as our own.
According to Suky Macpherson, PhD, the nexus between scarcity and rivalry is exacerbated by our social channels and encourages us to be mindful of how media outlets recycle these themes because it commodifies our fear, “they know it’s bear-baiting, gladiatorial, it’s the modern day equivalent of two gladiators in the ring but now, it’s women.” Macpherson explains our organizational culture is a byproduct of looking through the lens of a patriarchal perspective and social expectations can therefore be influenced by constructive conversation and critical reflecting on our behavior both as participants and bystanders. “We’re quite governed by fear at the moment,” she says, suggesting that we remember that our “acceptance and support of women and resistance to societal norms that don’t reflect our values” is the antidote to that fear.
I’d like to think that progress is starkly in motion — that our version of feminism is ebbing and flowing with greater intent — smarter, not harder. It’s easy to conjecture. It’s even easier to ignore it. But that’s how norms get normalized. The most important thing, for me, to remember is that feminism is about empowering women to make their own choices and while every society, however illuminated, will always produce norms, we, as cultural harbingers, get to choose how critically, intentionally and compassionately we respond to them.
Now that I put pen to paper, it’s abundantly clear to me that I find the subject of scarcity so personally vexing because it elucidates the vulnerability of the simple virtue that I find most dear and elusive: that I belong. As an adolescent tormented by rumors and mistruths, I wanted to belong so badly. And I still do. I want to be seen as enough. And as long as one woman’s success is perceived as another’s inadequacy, one woman’s lemonade, another’s lemons, systemic failures that require we get in formation to enact meaningful change will go on in disguise, masqueraded as individual failures of women who weren’t enough.