Female competition, in its many forms, is essentially a search for validation in which women derogate the status of other women in order to elevate their own. But is there some sort of real gratification in this? The short answer is: no. You can never be wholly satisfied in a system which is directly positioned against you. Yet the important message perhaps lies in how female competition quintessentially shapes the daily lives and self-perception of women today; and the emotional and disheartening experiences which underline this vicious undertaking for self-status.

 “It is a damning experience.” My fellow law school friend asserts as we discuss the realities of the so-called female experience. I had just pointed out her poignant repetition of the verb “fail”, during a conversation about how she had felt when other women had attained levels of “prettiness”, which she believed she had not achieved. She argues that when we perceive other women as attractive we often compare our own attractiveness, potentially leading to unfavourable conclusions; conclusions which oftentimes pinnacle into an overarching, all-consuming moment of failure.

 The world of the RUG Law Faculty’s Röllingbouw continues to whirl and exist all around us; students rush in and out of the building — many of them ostensibly being women. I begin to wonder if this sterile, white-walled haven is immune to such feelings of defeat, and if these highly educated women also find their lives devolving into stubbornly patriarchal concepts of attractiveness. Well, the answer is simple. Absolutely. I have personally always felt that a part of me had been fuelled by intense competition regardless of gender, but there is a particular sting to failing to be as beautiful as another woman — failing to fulfil that role as a competitive contender for attraction.

My personal experiences have always been inundated with some level of female competition, but I’ve always felt that they mostly existed on a subliminal level. If I felt a girl was prettier than me, I did not feel the need to gossip behind her back or prove I could win over the affections of a guy over her, but I would take this as a signifier of my own deficiencies and potentially work more stringently at attaining a certain level of beauty. Throughout  the last two years of high school,in which girls from Grades 11 to 12 were permitted to wear makeup and their own business casual clothing, I would maintain a certain level of presentability simply because my female peers did as well. Indeed, there was rarely a day in which I did not put in effort into my appearance. I admit, at times I would worry when I felt I was not getting the attention I wanted from boys at school- the stares, the intense eye contact- it was a level of vanity I felt did not align with my personal values but which I still strongly subscribed to in practice.

‘…patriarchy is enforced: an elegant machinery whose pistons fire silently inside their own minds, and whose gleaming gears we mistake for our own jewellery’- Melissa Febos, Girlhood

 In other words, patriarchy is arguably inundated into our psyches regardless of how individual we believe our choices are- the way we present ourselves holds truths we would hope would only speak of our personalities, yet betrays our deepest social and/or biological programming. The question thus seems to be to what extent that inundation stems from biological interference or societal moulding- or rather, where those lines intersect.

The Biological Roots of Female Competition

 Indeed, it has long been argued by academics that female competition has been some sort of biological mechanism in-built from evolution, ostensibly to secure a mate. Academic Anne Campbell contends that “competition is an inherent part of our biological status”, a claim which according to some is reflected in the high intensity of female competition found in other mammals such as chimpanzees; a species in which aggression towards immigrant females is not uncommon. 

 Additionally, according to a seminal paper by Tracy Vaillancourt, women oftentimes engage in behaviours such as “criticising a competitor’s appearance, spreading rumours about a person’s sexual behaviour and social exclusion.”; supporting some of the more stereotypical descriptions of female “catty behaviour.”

 But can this simply be attributed to biological pre-conditions? Is the world of chromosomes and raw anatomy the only explicit reason why we engage in these behaviours? Perhaps, it would be conceivable to argue that women’s lives are not just coloured by our potential biological worlds but other overarching societal factors as well? Just maybe, we are complex beings.

In our juvenile but earnest conversation about female competition, me and my friend posit that the leap to these (biological) conclusions represents a phenomenon possibly akin to the Puddle analogy:- a metaphor which describes how people oftentimes explain the existence of god. Within this theory, people commonly argue that the universe is simply as it is because it was made for our creation. Similarly, one could argue that people often believe that there are some general behaviours within a gender because that’s the way we’re meant to be; our behaviour fits squarely within an overall biological goal.

 Now, this isn’t to say there are no similar patterns of behaviour within other genders. Indeed, studies have often found that men often enter into competition with other men, in contrast to women, who are found to do so to a lesser extent. (Gneezy et al., 2003; Niederle & Vesterlund, 2007)

 Yet, the main difference is arguably found in the type of aggression women typically choose to employ over men; namely indirect aggression. It is suggested by Campbell, that this is because women tend to have a greater parental role than men, and thus, the physical costs of direct aggression are too severe to risk.

 Perhaps, this is our way of conforming to expectations of female demurity and poised-ness, while still managing to derogate other women into inferior positions.

 While discussing our experiences in high school and beyond, my friend Sunaina Rayaprol from Monash University, states that “They [women] try to get their revenge in a very subtle manner, like silent treatment and kind of talking behind your back.”

 Again, these all very general descriptions of complex female behaviours and the actions of individuals cannot arguably be summed up in one or two psychological studies or character testimonies. Moreover, descriptions of female competition do not cancel out the very real moments of female solidarity that many women feel throughout their lives; as Sunaina says, these are very “general” descriptions. But this is not to say generalisations cannot be made to understand patterns of behaviour, and perhaps the cultural values which underlie them.

The Socio-Historical Reasons for Female Competition

 Sociologists often argue that since women have been historically barred from power and prestige in all spheres of societal life, there has oftentimes been a need to compensate for this inferiority through utilising “exaggerated femininity as a way in which to compete for men rather than against them. (Freedman 1986; Kimmel 2000),” as critically underlined by academic Lee Taylor.

 Indeed, to elaborate on this prestige-focused competition, Sunaina then exposits a classic example of inter-women undermining: “… If a [another] girl is getting more attention from this specific guy, or just guys in general, she’s[a girl is] going to be uncomfortable when they’re all in one setting. It can be any guy, as long as it’s a guy. If that friend and that guy start to get along, the girl brings up negative things about the friend and makes it a joke, and just brings it up so the guy knows and kinda feels turned off , so the guy would be more interested in her [the girl making the comments].”

 This situation whilst increasingly less common in a world where female solidarity has been underlined repeatedly to us, is not something alien to me at all. Now, this is not to say that women should be admonished for simply echoing the patriarchal sentiments which have been spoon-fed to them over and over again; but it is a commentary on how even in our purportedly ‘post-feminist’ world, traditional gendered competition manages to thrive in perhaps, more insidious ways.

 Building on this, there seems to be a deeply historical reason for this indirect, “catty” means of competition. As a result of the continued lack of access to traditional means of power such as “physical strength, education, and money” women are argued to attain power by wielding “charm, dependency, or love withdrawal.”(Freedman 1986: 74). 

 Additionally, it is potentially the widespread assimilation of the male perspective into female self-perception which arguably fuels much of the patriarchally-motivated competition (AKA the ‘Male Gaze.’) This injection of degrading desire, is for example perpetrated by the world of cinema, as outlined in Laura Mulvey’s ground breaking work ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Since I was a little girl, I have noticed the aestheticised and polished depictions of women on the silver screen; it got so intense that I started hating my barbies because of how perfect they were (common feminine experience, I gather). Indeed, it is arguably these rose-coloured, objectifying depictions within popular culture which indoctrinate  “male-centric” standards of beauty, into women’s minds from a young age- creating the foundation for heated competition throughout a one’s life. There is arguably nothing worse for a young girl than desiring to be something greater than you, beyond you; because you simply cannot meet its standards, and not having the words to vocalise that desire.

 In our latent conversation about male validation, my friend further states that she has “watched other girls who circle their whole life around getting their attention from guys.” As damning as this sounds, I feel this simple insight is enough to characterise the all-consuming nature of patriarchal desire, even though women’s stories are so much more than the moral darkness that surrounds them.

“Our faces and bodies become instruments for punishing other women, often used out of our control and against our will. At present, ‘beauty’ is an economy in which women find the ‘value’ of their faces and bodies impinging, in spite of themselves, on that of other women’s”- Naomi Wolf

 Indeed, it is this seemingly limited bastion of male-assigned privilege, that keeps us going, fighting and competing. And although it is those wider societal concepts which essentially drive these wrongdoings, we are mature enough to assess how we semi-willingly play into those notions; without assigning too much blame onto our individual selves.

In the light of this tumultuous academic debate, it is conceivable to say that there is both a surface-level biological reason for female competition, which is underlined by a much deeper and torturous societal motivation. It is thus potentially foreseeable that bio essentialist arguments can be undermining to the rich, complex and fraught experiences which drive our lived realities. Our lived realities in which female competition thrives, are alienating experiences which drive us away from more wholesome female connections, and keep the misogynist machine going.

By Kayla

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