herald

Sunday 19 August 2018

Are we all bitches at heart?

Is there always a dark side to female friendships, asks Maia Dunphy, and are women hard-wired to hate?

THERE is no male equivalent for the word 'bitchy'. It was contrived to describe the unique nastiness that can exist between women.

There's no denying that some women are unpleasant to other women. But, equally, there are plenty of men who are awful to both women and men, and many women who give men a pretty rough time. But, as a society, we have an obsession with 'bitchiness'.

A recent book by American writer Kelly Valen has caused consternation with claims that it is in women's nature to hate other women. In The Twisted Sisterhood, Valen investigates what she calls the "dark side of female friendship".

It is important to note that Valen's book was inspired by a horrendous experience in her early life. She was part of a college sorority, but after an incident in which she was raped, her 'sisters' blamed her, cut her out of the club and made her life hell."Their betrayal cut so deep that it has left me anxious and cowering to this day," she writes.

This book is about a terrible experience but this incident does not qualify Kelly to comment on women in general. The concept of sorority clubs is deeply divisive, and it's quite possible that as many transgressions happen in their male equivalents. The book is really about how excluding and damaging 'elitist clubs' of this sort can be, and the long-term effects of serious bullying.

"I was floored," she says. "On the one hand I had all these women writing to me, hundreds of them, to say that finally someone was talking about it. I thought, this is interesting -- who knew I wasn't the only one? But there was also so much venom. All these loud voices, with so many misunderstandings and personal attacks: 'she must be a terrible mother' or 'she has post-traumatic stress disorder'. I appreciate that this is an emotional issue: when you write about gender, you get strong opinions. But it was very hurtful."

Women are different to men. It is true that where teenage boys have fisticuffs, teenage girls often use words instead. And a girl who throws a punch is frowned upon even more than one who lashes out with her tongue.

At the risk of sounding like any sort of a feminist, women do have it harder these days. We are expected to be all things to all people, career women, friends, lovers, mothers while constantly being reminded by magazines how we should look a certain way on top of everything else. With this sort of pressure on us, is it any wonder that some of us will occasionally see other women as competition, particularly in the workplace or, unfortunately, when men come into the equation? But cruel behaviour doesn't emerge from nothing. Insecurity and low self-esteem are two of the main culprits. If we continue to make girls feel this way, they will undoubtedly see other women as a threat. But they will also see the rest of the world in a distorted way, not just other women.

I consider myself fortunate to have a mother who doesn't have a jealous or insecure bone in her body. As a result I was raised not to see other women as potential menaces, but to just take people as I find them, be they male or female.

Yes, we can be bitchy in a way that many men don't tend to be, but most of the time we are faithful and loyal to our fellow women.

Women will always be chastised for something or other -- yes, we do have rather strong opinions and aren't afraid to share them, no we are not always sugar and spice and all things nice.

But here's a real turn-up for the books -- we never were.

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