The stereotype of the inherent feminine compassion, equanimity and generosity is not to be trusted. Beneath the radar of men's awareness, women play emotional chess with each other. Or maybe a more active and personal game would make a better analogy. Poker. Backgammon. Battleship. Risk. Capture the Flag. Paintball. Boxing. War games. Games that not only simulate war, but are war. There are allegiances and enemies. Treaties made and treaties broken. The stakes are high, and real. The war is ongoing. Lives are saved and lost. There are no bombs, guns, knives, punches or kicks. This all takes place in the vast, labyrinthine playing field of relationships between women. How do I know this? Because Margaret Atwood said so. So did Walt Disney.
Power relationships between women play out in a number of Margaret Atwood's novels. They're often the central conflict. They might even be her major theme. Classic Disney movies have received a fair bit of heat in people's estimation for their active, heroic princes and helpless, passive princesses. But watching these movies again recently helped me see another pattern in them. The villains are women. The allies are women. The men are largely, if not entirely, unaware of the battles that rage between the females. And many of the men are hardly involved in the story at all. In Margaret Atwood's novels the men might be malicious and devious - rapists, bullies, cheating husbands, criminals - they certainly have roles to play. But they're oblivious to the majority of what's going on in the lives of the women around them, much of which not only affects them directly, but controls them. From the women's point of view, the men are pawns. They believe they're in charge, and see almost nothing.
Men generally coast through life blind to these conflicts and power dynamics. Or they'll minimize them, maybe chuckle at them. What's the big deal if women are all catty and shit? Rairrr! Maybe they'll hurt each others' feelings… Author Emily White, in her book Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, describes how her male colleagues would crack up when she brought up topic of the stigmatizing and persecution of girls perceived to be promiscuous in high school, laughing at the notion of this as a subject worthy of a investigation, looking at her like she was "a little bit cracked." But to the participants of female conflicts, these are powerful and important engagements. Everything's at stake. These tangles can change the course of a woman's life.
I don't presume to speak for women. I was inspired by noticing this theme in Margaret Atwood's novels and Disney movies. These books and films have sustained a high level popularity over decades, speaking to millions. These themes are prominent in these works. Why do they keep coming up? Why have so many women found themselves drawn repeatedly to these tales of women who want to destroy other women, and other women who step in to help a women when she needs it the most?
First, let me back up my case.
The Handmaid's Tale
We're in the not-too-distant future. Women's fertility has plummeted. An extreme religious right has taken over. Only men have jobs, education and power. Their wives manage women from lower down the social ladder assigned to them as cleaning staff ("Marthas") and surrogate mothers ("Handmaids"), who wear long habits, keep their heads down, don't make eye contact and never speak unless spoken to. The titular handmaid, "Offred," is assigned to the politically prominent Commander, and falls under the immediate resentment of his wife, Serena Joy, who asserts her status from their first meeting and never disguises her resentment. "Aunts" - older women employed by the state - marshall the handmaids and Marthas, reinforcing the regime's moral standards and leading them in shaming exercises:
It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true.
But whose fault was it, Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.”
The Commander turns out to be a softie. A ways into Offred's service in his house, he secretly brings her to his office for the simple intimacy of a Scrabble game. She feels guilt over being complicit this modest betrayal, but lets herself admit she enjoys it too, having a secret advantage over the powerful wife.
Soon, as a move in their ongoing power play, Serena Joy offers to get a current photo of Offred's daughter, who'd been confiscated by the state years before when Offred had been conscripted as a Handmaid.
She knows where they’ve put her then, where they’re keeping her. She’s known all along. Something chokes in my throat. The bitch, not to tell me, bring me news, any news at all. Not even to let on. She’s made of wood, or iron, she can’t imagine. But I can’t say this, I can’t lose sight, even of so small a thing. I can’t let go of this hope. I can’t speak.
She’s actually smiling, coquettishly even; there’s a hint of her former small-screen mannequin’s allure, flickering over her face like momentary static.
Trust a woman to know exactly where the vulnerable spots are on another woman, and how to hit them with precision. The story goes on to chart Offred's secret and very risky alliance with Ofglen, handmaid at another house, who connects her to an underground resistance network (which includes men), as she attempts to escape.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the unnamed queen's overriding preoccupation is her status as "fairest in the land." Wars, famine, plagues, peasant unrest, taxation - none of these seem on her radar. Well, it is a fairy tale. Upon learning from her magic mirror that Snow White's beauty outstrips her own she dispatches a hunter to take the girl into the forest and kill her. And bring back her heart in a box as proof.
The Queen, like other Disney villains we'll look at, is no lightweight antagonist. Do not fuck with this lady. She'll have you murdered for something that's no fault of your own that you're not even aware of. If you're female and prettier than her, that is. She might not perform the act herself (having a male minion get his hands dirty)(and he proves unreliable, secretly sparing the girl's life and bringing back a pig's heart in the box)(those weak men!), but she won't be squeamish about what she's had done. When the mirror later reveals Snow White's alive and still fairest in the land, the queen opens the heart box. She'd kept it handy all this time.
The Queen takes matters into her own hands, turning herself, through magic, into a wizened old hag, and poisons an apple to bring on sleeping death. On learning this condition can be cured by love's first kiss, she surmises the dwarfs will think Snow White dead and bury her alive, and cackles wildly at this prospect. The Disney animators really ran with the notion of the Queen as a villain without the slightest speck of mercy. We get a great big eyefuls of her face expressing pure, unadulterated evil, seemingly right to the "camera." She's practically aware we're watching, and she's okay with us seeing the pitch black shade of her soul.
She brings the apple to Snow White directly - no more untrustworthy subordinates. She fights off the woodland animals who suspect her, and plays on the girl's sympathy to get herself invited into the dwarfs' cottage. She induces Snow White to eat the apple by telling her it's a "wishing apple," practically shoving it in her mouth. As Snow White bites the fruit the frame shows the Queen watching it happen, her eyes bugging out in evil delight as the girl collapses. She exclaims "now I'll be fairest in the land!"
The unnamed prince shows up and kisses Snow White awake, and that's our happy ending. But it's a quick scene, and we've only seen him once before, singing in the forest. He's not a major player. The Queen is by far the most active character. And her actions revolve entirely around her hatred for a girl who has inadvertently challenged her status as top female.
Elaine Risley, successful painter, prepares for a retrospective of her work and goes through an inner retrospective of her life, focussing on childhood. We see her friendship with three female classmates in elementary school. How could there be any conflict worthy of an adult novel amongst a bunch of sweet little girls? Elaine comments:
Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence, but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.
Aggression between women, especially preadolescent girls, rarely gets expressed as physical violence. But the weapons of arbitrary judgment, exclusion and shunning are no less wounding than boots to the gut:
Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers into my ear: “Stand up straight! People are looking!” Carol is in my classroom and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day. They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime. They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. “Don’t hunch over,” says Cordelia. “Don’t move your arms like that”
This relational violence is all the more painful and insidious for its covertness.
They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever.
Who would notice these things, much less put a stop to them? Elaine's mother doesn't, thinking of Cordelia, Grace and Carol as Elaine's closest friends. And they are.
Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. ... You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girlfriends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.
Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.
Elaine outgrows these relationships, but retains this impression of females. In the 70s, enmeshed in the feminist community, she never considers trying out a lesbian relationship:
Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shape. They pass hard, legitimate judgments, unlike the purblind guesses of men, fogged with romanticism and ignorance and bias and wish. Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted. I can understand why men are afraid of them, as they are frequently accused of being.
Despite having made a career for herself, despite a marriage, kids, and life on the West Coast, as her gallery show looms she finds herself preoccupied with the worry that her old friend Cordelia will show up. Old wounds can still throb.
It's female vs. female in this story, with a strong female ally as well. The wicked step-mother, Lady Tremaine, by name, keeps Cinderella firmly under her thumb, assigning her an excessive list of tasks:
Lady Tremaine: Now let me see… There's the large carpet in the main hall. Clean it! And the windows upstairs and down. Wash them! Oh yes, and the tapestries and the draperies…
Cinderella: But I just finished…
Lady Tremaine: Do them again! And don't forget the garden. Then scrub the terrace, sweep the halls and the stairs, clean the chimneys. And of course there's the mending, and the sewing and the laundry…
When it's announced the King will hold a ball, to which "every eligible maiden shall attend," Lady Tremaine sets up the caveat that Cinderella can attend only if she finishes all of her chores and can find something suitable to wear. Once Cinderella has left the room, she reveals she intends to prevent her from going.
Drizella: Mother, do you realize what you just said?
Lady Tremaine: Of course. I said "If."
But with the help of her animal friends Cinderella completes her duties in time to go, and wears a beautiful dress the animals have fashioned for her. Lady Tremaine agrees to honour their agreement, and then casually points out Cinderella's bead necklace belongs to Druzilla. The two daughters find other items from their wardrobes in Cinderella's outfit and rip the dress to pieces, leaving her humiliated, heart-broken and in rags. The sisters and step-mother leave, smug and triumphant at having put a hated female back in her lowly place. Check out the merciless glee they show in bringing down their upstart step-sister:
Cinderella's fairy godmother provides the solution, giving the girl the warm mother love she's been perennially denied. Using magic she helps Cinderella get to the ball, where the Prince falls in love with her at first sight.
The Prince attempts to find this mysterious lass, sending his Grand Duke to have every lady in the kingdom try on the glass slipper. When the Grand Duke arrives, Lady Tremaine locks Cinderella in her room. She lies to the Grand Duke about there being any young ladies in the house other than Druzilla and Anastasia. The mice, Cinderella's animal companions, steal the key and free her. And even on her arrival to try on the slipper, Lady Tremaine still tries to relegate her to a status too lowly to contemplate.
Cinderella: Your Grace. Your Grace. Please, wait. May I try it on?
Lady Tremaine: Oh. Pay no attention to HER.
Anastasia: It's only Cinderella.
Drizella: Our scullery maid…
Anastasia: From the kitchen.
Drizella: It's ridiculous.
Drizella: She's out of her mind.
Lady Tremaine: Yes, yes. Just an imaginative child.
Grand Duke: Madam, my orders were every maiden!
The servant approaches, holding the glass slipper, and Lady Tremaine, in a final move of skulduggery, trips him. He drops it and it shatters! Luckily, Cinderella had the matching glass slipper with her…
So all is well, but once again, the Prince did almost nothing. Jealous, malicious females oppressed Cinderella, and a kind loving female provided respite and help. Cinderella's own ingenuity and determination, combined with her kind nature, which earned her the service of the household mice, brought about the story's resolve.
The Robber Bride
In Toronto circa 1991, three women, friends for decades, witness the reappearance of an old friend/enemy they'd believed dead: Zenia, who'd stolen each of their men. The novel's title is a variation on a fairy tale (The Robber Bridegroom) and the narrative directly references the Three Little Pigs at one point, reflecting how the almost superhuman Zenia destroys each woman's home in succession through her infinite guile, good looks that never seem to fade, and a love of taking away what another woman has. She's a villainess worthy of the brothers Grimm and the animated landscapes of Walt Disney.
We explore the backstory of each of the three main characters, and power relationships between women come up repeatedly. Roz, a successful businesswoman, reflects on her relations with female employees:
It's complicated, being a woman boss. Women don't look at you and think Boss. They look at you and think Woman, as in Just another one, like me, and where does she get off? None of their sexy little tricks work on you, and none of yours work on them; big blue eyes are no advantage. If you forget their birthdays your name is mud, if you bawl them out they cry, they don't even do it in the washroom the way they would for a man but right out where you can see them, they hang their hard-luck stories on you and expect sympathy, and just try getting a cup of coffee out of them. Lick your own stamps, lady.
They'll bring it all right, but it'll be cold and also they'll hate you forever. Who was your servant last year? she used to say to her own mother, once she was old enough to be defiant. Exactly.
Whereas the very same women would fetch and carry for a man boss, no question. Buy the wife's birthday present, buy the mistress's birthday present, make the coffee, bring his slippers in her mouth, overtime no problem.
Is Roz being too negative? Could be. But she's had some bad experiences.
Maybe she handled it wrong. She was dumber then. Threw her weight around, acted normal. Had a few tantrums. I didn't say tomorrow, I said now! Let's see a little professionalism around here! By now she knows that if you're a woman and you hire women, you have to make them into girlfriends, into pals: you have to pretend you're all equal, which is hard when you're twice their age. Or else you have to baby them. You have to mother them, you have to take care of them.
Women might undercut you, but they also might be your greatest support, as Roz pontificates later:
Is it fair, to send inexperienced young girls out into the wild forest to fend for themselves? … What would help would be a wise woman, some gnarly old crone who would step out from behind a tree, who would give advice, who would say No, not this one, who would see down as far as the heart. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? An older woman knows.
Although Roz doesn't feel this "older woman" wisdom, she and her two friends support each other. They reveal themselves to each other. They help each other survive the malicious force that is Zenia. Their husbands remain mysterious - sometimes foolish, sometimes clever, but ultimately untrustworthy and hopelessly outclassed by the machinations of an attractive, designing woman.
Female allies and a grand female foe are present and active from the start in this story. Maleficent, the witch queen, is about as formidable a villain as I've encountered anywhere in fiction, evil in her use of magic and in ordinary interaction. On arriving uninvited at the baby Princess Aurora's christening, she notes the noble guests, chucklingly dismissing the fairy godmothers as "the rabble." She proceeds to curse the princess to die before her sixteenth birthday, doomed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel. The fairy godmothers, who'd previously blessed the baby girl with the gifts of beauty and song, now bestow a possible alleviation of the curse: love's first kiss (as feminists today groan). King Stefan orders all spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but we'll see how well that works.
The fairy godmothers raise Aurora in a cottage in the woods, restraining themselves from using magic to aid in their concealment. It's noteworthy that the King and Queen hold them in high enough regard to allow them this responsibility. Their strategy proves clever, as Maleficent's minions can't locate the girl. She soon gets involved directly to fulfill her own curse. On finding the girl, she hypnotizes her, having Aurora walk spellbound through secret corridors, wide-eyed, irresistibly drawn toward a hidden spinning wheel's protruding prick (Freudians, go to town with that one). Maleficent gloats maliciously when the fairy godmothers show up, helpless to awaken the young maiden.
Prince Philip, certainly the most active Disney leading man we've seen so far, is no Indiana Jones. In attempting to track Aurora's woodland dwelling, he walks right into a trap and is soon chained up in Maleficent's dungeon, where she laughs at his impotence. He's freed not with his own strength or ingenuity, but thanks to the fairy godmothers, who also help him and his horse make the leap to safety when they jump off the end of the rising drawbridge. Maleficent sends bolts of lightning, knocking down a tree, toppling a bridge and causing giant brambles to sprout, encircling the King's castle. She laughs as he hacks through them, and then turns herself into a dragon, saying: "and now shall you deal with me, young Prince, and all the powers of HELL!" In the final confrontation, Maleficent (in dragon form) sets her own bramble forest ablaze and corners the prince, knocking his shield away. In the instant before she can kill him, one of the fairy godmothers enchants his sword and sends it into Maleficent's heart in a killing blow. The Prince makes the throwing action, seemingly unaware of the godmother's spell. His attack, it's implied, wouldn't have done the deed without her. Does he know that? Who can say. If he thinks he's the hero, let him believe it. The fairy godmothers know he wouldn't have even escaped Maleficent's clutches without them, and as long as he's there to kiss the princess, wake her up and marry her, who cares who gets the credit. And he does these things, of course. But once again, the story hinges on the desires and actions of women amidst ignorant men.
And in the Real World...
So do these fictitious creations have analogues in the real world? You bet. In the aforementioned book Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, Emily White interviewed women who are or were their high school's notorious slut. She found that her interviewees had a number of things in common. Most of them hadn't done the majority (or in some cases, any) of the acts attributed to them (such as going down on the entire football team in succession). Most significantly, they reported that the shaming from the boys was done to impress their friends, and often came mixed with sexual desire toward the "slut." "The really vicious ones were the girls." one woman said. "They said awful things about you with no other aspiration but to hurt you personally."
The various "sluts" had hit puberty early, developing women's bodies while their peers still looked like girls. No one has control over the onset of their of physical development. And yet, if you're a girl and you cross the line, even inadvertently, watch out. The bevy of jealous rivals (yesterday's friends) will destroy you, a la the Wicked Queen and Snow White. They'll do it in a way the teachers won't notice, nor the parents, like Elaine Risley's friends in Cat's Eye. They'll make it look like it's your fault. They'll seem clean and innocent, possessing the moral high ground, or even uninvolved. Or their spite might come out as direct aggression. One interviewee tells of being physically attacked by a classmate. As White says, "Girls manifest a verbal and physical hostility. They ambush the slut in parking lots, whisper threats over telephone wires, and wait for her in the bathroom with fists clenched. Although warning pamphlets about sexual harassment in schools focus on acts perpetrated by boys, girls also harass one another. Girls are predators, too. "
Some of White's interviewees grew into adulthood adopting the label of "slut" with pride, flaunting their sexuality with a deliberately provocative style of dress as their everyday attire. Others left the towns, cities and suburbs where they'd gone to high school and created new lives for themselves, seemingly free of that baggage. Either way, their experiences at the hands of cruel girls left a lasting mark. They all gravitated toward various subcultures, having internalized the sense of not belonging to the mainstream. White notes that despite having been stigmatized for a supposedly excessive and uncontrollable sexual desire, many of the sluts, well into their twenties and thirties, rarely experienced orgasm. They described pulling back before the moment of climax, overtaken with "the feeling that something bad was about to happen." One woman, Madeline, was approached by one of her former (female) tormentors in a bar, who drunkenly apologized and attempted to explain what had been going on with her and her friends, why they'd done what they'd done, that "when something is beautiful, you want to destroy it." Madeline punched her in the face.
Does it Have to Be This Way?
No. As Carol Gilligan describes in her book In a Different Voice, (which Br. Bergen elaborates on in another piece) female moral development begins at the egocentric stage ("selfish") and then moves to ethnocentric ("care") and eventually (in the right circumstances) to worldcentric ("universal care"). Girls start at square one in terms of moral development, just like they start at square one in terms of learning language and motor skills. They aren't inherently sweet and nice, just like grown women aren't inherently kind and compassionate. As a society, we need to acknowledge this and learn to recognize the signs of female bullying, stopping it when we see it, and reaching out to the victims, letting them know they can bring their concerns to the adults in their lives at any time, and that we'll be there for them, very much in the way the It Gets Better project seeks to send this message to LGBT teens.
We also need to acknowledge that anger and aggression are part of human experience, no matter what a person's gender is. As Sr. Chela argues, in our culture women have been censured for expressing anger. They're not comfortable with it. It's seen as antithetical to femininity. (And please do pardon this use of generalizations - these statements will of course have a million exceptions or so) But if it's held in, anger doesn't disappear, it finds more acceptable channels - in the case of our society, cruelly shaming and undermining other women. This needs to be recognized as well, and seen the same way we'd look at a man who picks fights with strangers, or goes on gay bashing rampages, namely, the sign of someone stuck in a pathology, who needs help, and whose actions demand intervention.
I can also picture this inclination to keep other women down changing as women take over the world. And they are taking over. According to Hanna Rosin's article The End of Men, published in The Atlantic in 2010, women have become the majority of the American workforce for the first time. More than half of managerial positions are now held by women. Women are earning more college degrees than men by ratio of three to two. Rosin notes "Of the fifteen job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women." Having grown up in a man's world, women have learned adaptability, showing themselves more willing to retrain than men, and now commonly out-earn their husbands and boyfriends - a point Don Peck explores in his book Pinched: How The Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It (which Br. Dierkes describes in this article). Give it a few decades and we very likely will see women dominating the fields of medicine, law, politics, the sciences, computers and business. In poorer regions of India, women outpace men in learning English and getting call centre jobs. In her TED talk, Sheryl WuDunn describes Third World women taking out micro-loans, starting businesses and learning new skills. Noam Chomsky makes the same point in an interview transcribed in What We Say Goes: "One of the things that is very noticeable in communities that have been crushed and are barely surviving is that the women seem much more able to do things than men are. And you can see why. The women's responsibilities continue no matter how rotten the situation. They're still taking care of the children, doing all the housework, cooking. Often men, when their usual opportunities are gone, are lost. They have nothing to do. They turn to drink, to crime. You see it all over the place. So giving microcredit loans to women is a very smart thing to do." The world is shifting into women's hands. What will they do with it?
In the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale, a fictitious scholar hundreds of years in the future writes about the "crack female control agency known as the 'Aunts'," saying "no empire, imposed force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. … When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting." Women won't be the powerless underclass for much longer, it seems. Like Br. Bergen, I don't believe that if women ruled the world, there would be no wars. But the more common it is for women to head up businesses, law firms, industries and nations, the more their scope of concern will need to include wars, famine, plagues, peasant unrest and taxation, not to mention finite natural resources, alternative energy and how to address longstanding policies that have created the massive gap between rich and poor. Being fairest in the land will be the fixation of the young as they progress through an early, necessary and temporary egocentric stage of development.