Girl Vs. Girl
Everyone's experienced female rivalry, and now the movie Black Swan is taking it to new heights. Below, Naomi Wolf analyzes why we can't all just get along.
What was your earliest heartbreak? Was your first experience of emotional devastation caused by a guy? Unlikely. If you are a woman, chances are your first experience of emotional treachery was at the hands of another girl.
I recall being bothered by the fact that the adorable Mark C., the mop-headed sixth grader who resembled Speed Racer, was blithely uninterested in me when I was 11. But that discomfort was nothing compared with the devastation I felt when I slowly began to realize, as if I were in a horror film populated by preteen girls, that the cheerful board-game-playing trio I had helped create—of Claire F., Sarah D., and me—had somehow metamorphosed into a lip-gloss-wearing, cigarette-smoking, boy-kissing duo. It was I who was suddenly defined as being outside this charmed emotional space. It was not just the newly intimate friendship of my former two best friends that hurt so much, it was realizing how deliciously my exclusion, and their awareness of how I felt about my exclusion, added to the cachet of their new configuration.
I've seen this dynamic again and again. When there is a female rivalry, it is not done with dispatch; blood gets left on the floor. Men form rivalries or alliances with other men in order to achieve a goal: to take a battlefield or playing field. They don't need to do it in a way that leaves an emotional mess, tears, and recriminations. But when women are aggressive toward one another, the methods are stealthier and the fallout more bitter. Women tend to mix up love and longing with hostility, to be attracted to what they wish to condemn or destroy. It was for female friendships, not male, that the term frenemy was popularized.
And when women are in groups, often the jockeying for position, the alliance forming, the exclusion, and the power politics can be so savage that one starts looking around desperately for a whiff of testosterone just to calm things down.
Recently, a friend told me about her 15-year-old daughter, a bright, beautiful young woman who was savagely bullied by the alpha girls in her posh British prep school. They went after her clothes, her body shape, and her sexual behavior. The child changed schools—and a new group of alpha girls bullied her again. It was almost as if the new group had some unconscious primate ability to sniff out the injury and punish her all over again for her vulnerability.
I have witnessed this same dynamic repeated among adult women. They create intimate bonds that they then are appalled to find are betrayed or turned against them. I have often seen women's groups come to grief because a rivalry between two leaders and their followers becomes so rancorous that it shatters the group. I have seen the exclusion of one woman or group accompanied by so much glee from the others that it seems almost like a visceral behavior. I have even wondered if this reflex is evolutionary. Perhaps on the savannah, females had to form close, trusted groups to successfully gather food and rear children; perhaps they also needed to be able to brutally exclude a female outsider and her offspring—or a female perceived as threatening the group's survival—without regret, or recourse, when times were tough. If you look at when female alliances go bad, or when female rivalries become bloody, it is not usually about simple status, it is about a perception of scarce resources.
We rarely see this dark side of women's rivalry portrayed in the media; female friendships are often sentimentalized. In ads for Internet services or fashion or cosmetics, young women—usually in trios—dress up in miniskirts, laugh uproariously, and show one another images on their iPhones. We absorb narratives such as those surrounding the friendships in Sex and the City—in which the four female friends, though they may sometimes get on one another's nerves, are stalwart and loyal surrogate families.
Most scenarios of female rivalry in pop culture, where they do exist, are aimed at very young female audiences. In books and onscreen, the most elaborate dramas of female betrayal are aimed at preadolescents—the Gossip Girl series—and reality-TV audiences populated by young twenty-somethings. It is almost as if once you hit your mid-20s, you can't bear to look too directly at this kind of interaction anymore.
The upcoming movie Black Swan, with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, follows the rivalry of two young ballerinas in the heated context of the New York City dance world. Portman's character is virginal and shallow; her challenger, Lily, played by Kunis, is seductive, "darker" emotionally, and more sexually experienced, and Portman's Nina must absorb some of those qualities in order to achieve the coveted lead status in the ballet hierarchy. Coscreenwriter Mark Heyman drew on his memories of having been friends with a group of teenage girls who formed intimate alliances but also jockeyed for position and betrayed one another. "It was not as if they were not friends when there were these intense rivalries," he explains, intriguingly casting a male narrative eye on the hothouse nature of this kind of girl-on-girl combat. Heyman also notes that he was drawn to the material because there are so few treatments onscreen of major female rivalry (direct rivalry rather than a love triangle). Indeed, I could think of only one since The Women in 1939: Single White Female. He was also interested in the way the strict hierarchy of the ballet world threw this kind of power play into sharp relief, and he found it compelling that female dancers express their cutthroat rivalry in a context that is very indirect—that intense aggression is expressed in a way that is very polite and very restrained.
But adult women's rivalries can have tremendous power and fascination. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a thorn in the side of her quasi-sibling Queen Elizabeth I throughout both of their lives, until Elizabeth took the ultimate irritated-sister step and had Mary beheaded. Coco Chanel spent much of her career resisting the challenge posed by Elsa Schiaparelli. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis vied for the role of premier diva of their generation, and Jayne Mansfield famously tried to wrest attention away from rival sex siren Sophia Loren by using her impressive décolletage. We can recall the lurid drama of skater Tonya Harding, whose ex-husband attempted to disable her rival, the more aristocratic-looking, more privileged skater Nancy Kerrigan. And once when Christina Aguilera was asked about Lady Gaga, she slammed her: "Oh, the newcomer? I think she's really fun to look at."
Maybe, as women, we are finally becoming secure and self-aware enough to be willing to look at the real darkness behind this dynamic.
In any vividly felt female rivalry, there can be an element of identification and attraction within the overall sense of hostility between women. It may be part of why close female friendships can become so risky emotionally that aggression or betrayal is the only "safe" redirection of energies. In Black Swan, the lesbian subtext of this relationship between the battling dancers surfaces directly. The element of attraction in same-sex rivalry is worth exploring. Data from the front lines of psychology shows that while straight men respond to straight stimuli and gay men to gay stimuli, women of whatever orientation tend to the bisexual in their physiological responses, though this arousal does not always register on the level of conscious awareness. How many times in the tensions between ostensibly straight women has an untenable attraction been redirected into a safe resentment?
Do we become better people—better women—when we draw back the curtain on this painful, unflattering subject? Do we risk confirming what an antifeminist world wants to say of us—that we can't create workable teams, we can't lead effectively, and we are indeed treacherous and bitchy? Do we risk losing the victories of feminism in every previous generation because we can't for the life of us seem to be able to sustain a common cause without inevitably taking out the long knives?
I trust that in looking closely at this darker side of our own psyche, we will learn enough about ourselves to stop being held at the mercy of it. I trust that if you repress the dark side, it comes back to bite you, but if you drag it, protesting, into the light, that is the first step toward integration and perhaps a more real empowerment. Perhaps we should better learn which women around us are true friends and true allies and which women we should recognize for their alluring, socially cruel edge. And having recognized it, turn our backs on it and flee.