Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
What's the origin of the "Mean Girls" phenomenon? That's the subject of a new issue of the scholarly journal Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society, which includes a number of articles entirely devoted to the study of the evolutionary origins of woman-on-woman competition. For a long time, not much was known about female aggression because most research was carried out on and by men. Now, however, researchers have been focusing specifically on how and why women can become hostile toward one another.
"The existence of female competition may seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a singles bar," writes The New York Times' John Tierney, "but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety." That competition is key to understanding social standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance, says Tierney.
Tierney points to one study in which young women were secretly observed after being confronted with a woman who embodied many stereotypical aspects of beauty — a stranger with large breasts, clear skin, and a slim waist. Sometimes she was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and sometimes she wore a revealing blouse and skirt.
In the latter case, the young women in the study reacted with hostility, sometimes outrightly. "[We] found that almost all women were rated as reacting negatively ('bitchy') to an attractive female...when she was dressed in a sexually provocative manner," the study authors write.
One of the authors, Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, explained to Tierney that this kind of "slut-shaming," while often blamed on men, can also be carried out by women. "Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous," said Vaillancourt.
That only explains part of female-on-female aggression, though. What about the taunts and jibes thrown at women who don't meet certain expectations of beauty or body type? Some of that is self-enforced, as "more likely to feel worse when they compared themselves with peers in their own social circles, or even if they were in a room with a thin stranger," writes Tierney.
These studies, though focusing on evolutionary origins of female aggression, shouldn't necessarily validate that aggression. If anything, they highlight the continued importance education and advocacy around acceptance of many, varied perspectives on sexuality and body types. Events that turn slut-shaming on its head, like cheekily named "Slut Walks" attempt to take power from the term. The idea of "bitchiness" and female-on-female aggression — whether it's related to sexiness or weight — is one that holds a lot of power in our culture. And, thoughtfully subverting these age-old ideas about how women relate to each other is necessary to begin to change. (NYT)