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Catfights: The Problem with Pitting Women Against Each Other

Type “catfight” into your search engine, and you’ll pull up thousands of videos posted to YouTube featuring two women at one another’s throats, pulling hair, screeching… over what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a catfight.

The modern public has been primed for a catfight between women since the 1970s, when the debate between feminist Gloria Steinem and staunch conservative Phyllis Schlafly (who was a proponent of traditional gender roles) played out in the media to the fascination and glee of male audiences everywhere. The substance of the debate itself took a backseat to the fact that these women were getting really worked up about something that had to do with women’s rights.

This blueprint for a catfight was so engaging that it has been replicated many times over in all forms of media and entertainment, applied to everything from politics to pornography: “[Two] women, often opposites, locked in a death grip that brought them both crashing down into the muck. Both women were sullied; no one won. Meanwhile, the men, dry, clean, and tidy, were off in some wood-paneled den relaxing, having a drink and a smoke, and being reasonable,” summed up media critic Susan J. Douglas in her book Where the Girls Are.

Nearly half a century after it became a media trope, the catfight still infects women in the workplace, in politics, and in the arts, always pitting women against one another to their own demise. It is especially visible in pop culture, and the audiences are not just male anymore. Remember the years-long catfight between pop goddesses Katy Perry and Taylor Swift? Or the recent beef between rap superstars Nicki Minaj and Cardi B? If you haven’t been following these pop cultural catfights, all you really need to do is consult the Internet. There are countless catfight timelines that track every possible barb exchanged, every perceived incident of shade-throwing on twitter or in song lyrics, with followers eagerly playing detective upon receiving any salacious bit of potential evidence.

One could argue that catfights are actually beneficial to celebrity figures in the short run, but beyond that circumstance, catfights ultimately degrade how women are perceived and treated in society.

Nearly half a century after it became a media trope, the catfight still infects women in the workplace, in politics, and in the arts, always pitting women against one another to their own demise.

Catfights Distract from Legitimate Discourse

For one thing, labeling a conflict a “catfight” distracts the rest of us from what might have been a legitimate discourse.

The day after the Michelle Obama book tour took the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, seemingly every media outlet was in tizzy over the fact that the former first lady had cursed on stage while being critical of whether “leaning in” really helps working women rise to the top in their careers. “It’s not always enough to lean in because that s— doesn’t work all the time,” Obama said. This critique clearly endeared her to her live audience, who laughed politely; Obama’s candor was utterly relatable and attuned to what women across the United States have actually been experiencing in the workplace.

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While twitter was awash with praise and positive emojis following the event, an overwhelming proportion of headlines instead reflected the media’s interest in anticipating or manufacturing a catfight between two powerful women who are perhaps the closest figures that America has to royalty. Michelle Obama “disses,” “slams,” and “swipes” at Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy, they wrote. I mean, “swipe” is literally a move that an actual cat makes in an actual catfight.

Amid all of the titillation, little attention was given to the more important conversation at hand: While Sandberg’s perspective reflects a common misconception about women in the workplace, Obama’s critique was on point. Sandberg’s perspective deserves airtime among critics so that it can be properly debunked; the research clearly shows that “leaning in” is not a panacea for women in the workplace because the underlying problem isn’t the player, it’s the game. The Harvard Business Review published a piece last summer titled “What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women” that debunked the popular misconception that women are not succeeding because they are not as assertive as men, causing them to miss out on opportunities that would earn them raises and launch them into leadership roles. “[When] women fail to ‘lean in’ and seek growth opportunities, it is easy to assume that they lack the confidence to do so—not that they lack pertinent information,” explained the authors.

Having a national conversation about these circumstances would have been one of the most powerful, positive, and actionable takeaways from Obama’s critique. Instead, the media was licking its chops for a catfight. Sandberg, who is currently laying low after some major public relations bombs went off late last year, never ended up issuing a public response to what had been set up for her as a battle royale. With nowhere to go, the feisty, “lean in”-shredding headlines disappeared into the endless churn of the Internet.

Catfight Trope Catastrophizes Conflicts Between Women

Labeling conflicts between women as catfights ends up catastrophizing what might have been a mundane issue, or even a non-issue, had it occurred between men.

There are plenty of misconceptions about women in the workplace that hinder their opportunities to advance their careers, including what is essentially a catfight bias. A study conducted by the University of British Columbia determined that both men and women felt that conflict between two female managers was less likely to end in resolution than identical conflicts between two males or between a male and female manager. The participants of the study also felt that female-female conflicts would be more likely to have a negative impact on the workplace and team morale than the male-female or male-male conflicts. The researchers cautioned that this biased, more bitter perception of conflict between women could be one reason why they aren’t equitably represented in managerial positions.

We can see how this bias plays out in the world of politics. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s high-profile appearance at Sunrise Movement’s protest outside of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, media outlets pounced on any opportunity to begin pitting the two against each other as a way to symbolize a growing rift between the established Democratic members and the freshmen progressives.

Fox News described the protest as a “dust-up” despite the fact that both women had only transmitted messages of positivity to the public. “We need to tell [Speaker Pelosi] that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” AOC said at the gathering, emphasizing that Pelosi was already on board with their energy proposals. Pelosi, though she ultimately did not establish a Green New Deal Committee, shared her support and admiration for the protesters voicing their concerns and priorities. “[We] welcome the presence of these activists,” said Pelosi in a statement.   

Politico, by no means a conservative publication, also played into the catfight narrative by staging the two politicians’ disagreements as a sort of duel. The headline “Pelosi 2, Ocasio-Cortez 0” introduced an article that employed metaphors straight from the professional wrestling ring with plenty of dramatic flourishes: “establishment fortress,” “Instagramming army of rebels,” “Tea Party of the Left,” “brute grassroots force.” Notably, Congressman Ro Khanna had taken the same “rebel” position as Ocasio-Cortez on one of the issues covered in the piece, but his name is barely mentioned.

Catfights Are Actively Leveled to Delegitimize Conflicts Between Women

The piece in Politico went out of its way to suggest that the two women do not actually respect or like one another and that they were simply sharing positive messages to save face for their party or somehow manipulate the other into capitulating on their demands. It’s hard not to suspect the publication of weaponizing the catfight as a way to delegitimize the agenda of at least one of the congresswomen: “[Ocasio-Cortez] is more focused on building an audience than building cases for her positions among her congressional peers,” it claimed, as if to indicate that her activism and work ends when she powers down her phone each evening. In other words, Politico’s take is that the conflict between Pelosi and AOC isn’t based on anything of substance: this fight is just a catfight, nothing more.

Characterizing their differences as a catfight distracts from the reality that differences, even conflict itself, can ultimately be productive in politics and activism. The Hill recently published a piece that addressed the two politicians’ real differences without debasing itself with the catfight trope. Instead, it held up the two women as figureheads for the “yin and yang” of democratic politics in an empowering think piece. “Both women are tough as nails. They bring different but complementary skill sets to the table.” Discussing both Pelosi’s depth of experience and AOC’s adept engagement with millennial citizens as well as her populist anti-establishment points of view, the article emphasized that the two women have similar goals but differences in opinion on how to reach them.“[If] everybody focuses on their common concerns, they will accomplish a lot and lay the groundwork for a big Democratic victory in 2020,” concluded the article.

Where to Catch a Genuinely Empowering Catfight

Netflix’s fictional comedy series GLOW, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, centers around a real professional female wrestling federation from the 1980s called the Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling. “[GLOW] understands the misogynistic roots of women quarreling with one another and turns it on its head,” praised The Daily Beast. The women in the ring are clad in badass costumes that accentuate not their sexuality but their self-sufficient power, and they battle it out not for the pleasure of men but for their own sense of resolution.

Beyond satire, the catfight trope needs to recede back into the shadows. Pitting women against one another in the media — even in eye-rolling pop cultural contexts — inevitably chips away at the general public’s ability to take conflicts between women seriously.

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