An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
After the 1977 death of longtime rival Joan Crawford, Bette Davis had this to say: “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good … Joan Crawford is dead. Good!”
Their feud was the kind of scorched-earth battle that continued to the bitter end, and that is precisely what makes it so special. The two women never went to Shake Shack, admitted to their mutual insecurities, and became BFFs. And according to Feud, the FX take on the classic Hollywood catfight that ended last weekend, this is a tragedy about the forces that prevent women from being friends.
The series earned praise for putting a feminist lens on the two actors’ rivalry, and it did feel good to watch a show in which many incredible 60-something actresses explained (many times) that patriarchy pits women against each other to stop them from getting ahead. Considering how gleefully un-feminist Davis and Crawford were back then — Davis once accused Crawford of sleeping with “every male MGM star except Lassie” — the show’s perspective was carefully woke.
But I had quietly hoped it would present a less conflicted celebration of female rivalry, because the subject is one of my passions. Watching two women compete for status thrills me in a way watching men do the same fails to, which might explain my lack of interest in historical nonfiction. Women’s altercations seem more nuanced and, because I care more about what other women think, the stakes of female-female conflict feel higher. And I’m not alone in this: There’s a reason Mean Girls has become a generational touchstone film.
“Catfight” has a sexual connotation that, historically, feminists said was used to demean women’s anger. But sexual tension often feels absent from what you might call “classically female” aggression: gossip, social manipulation, strategic vulnerability, poisonings. Evolutionary psychologists say that women developed nonviolent combat skills because, as child-bearers, we needed to live to childbirth to pass on our genetics, whereas men could inseminate and die. But social psychologists point out that girl toddlers don’t hesitate to throw a punch. They learn not to fight, because society has policed female aggression since at least the witch hunts. (Seriously: there is a theory that the witch hunts persecuted women not for magic, but for bitching out men in public [spell-casting], and destroying each other’s property [“cursing” livestock].)
Even if women’s manner of fighting is less lethal, it’s still completely devastating. What else could possibly explain the Real Housewives’ stamina for minuscule grievance? And the male gaze tends to be absent from these nonphysical forms of female altercation. Maybe, back when men controlled everything, a man could imagine that when two women jockeyed for status it was really all about him. But now, he’d have to be kidding himself. All but the most boring modern catfights (i.e. The Bachelor) pass the Bechdel test. When women aren’t fighting over men, or for men’s approval, they’re recognizing each other as legitimate powers vying for supremacy. In other words, a female feud means that two women are successful in the same arena at the same time. Plus, it means both women are secure and bold and DGAF enough to risk the damage that comes from going to war. Far from demeaning women, public feuding glorifies them to me.
This might explain why Remy Ma’s Nicki Minaj diss track “ShETHER” was so exciting. While Ma was incarcerated, Minaj was more or less alone as a top woman in hip-hop, which sometimes made her seem like a token or a mascot. Suddenly, here was Ma, back to take Minaj seriously as a rival in a way male rappers never seemed to — either out of some form of chivalry or because they weren’t paying close enough attention.
I had a visceral, physical reaction to some of Ma’s burns, especially those aimed at Minaj’s self-proclaimed business savvy and sexual confidence. Ma didn’t accuse Minaj of selling out, as male DJs have. She accused her of signing an unfavorable record deal. In the same vein, Ma didn’t accuse Minaj of having butt implants. She accused Minaj of not offering then-boyfriend Meek Mill other women when complications from her butt implants prevented her from having sex. Insults this cruel require a level of obsession and insight those of us without enemies may never know.
I saw the event as a clear-cut win for Ma but, on BuzzFeed’s Another Round podcast, she expressed mixed feelings. “It just bothers me that picking apart another female is what went viral,” she said. “We could have done this working together.” It’s a common refrain among female celebrities lately that they feel unnecessarily thrust into competition with other women. It started a few years ago with Taylor Swift, and her paraphrased “special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” It was then taken up by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba, who call comparisons of their competing personal-care sites misogynistic. Today, even women with no known feuds bring it up.
Their complaint — which seems to have informed the attitude seen on Feud — makes sense. Yes, in Davis and Crawford’s day, there is all too often still a male studio or label head who profits off of the publicity associated with a catfight. And on a personal level, I can appreciate that (however entertaining for onlookers) competition can be miserable for the competitors. It’s probably uniquely exhausting for women, who, according to research, are viewed negatively for betraying competitive or aggressive personality traits. Girl-squad feminism, in contrast, is cool and fortifying; it brings you closer to other women, whom you can put in your music video. (This is why I have attempted to outsource the female conflict in my own life to Bravo.) But claiming sisterhood in the face of legitimate conflict lately feels like a cop out. In the media alliances of celebrities, feminism is a way to evade the ugliness of competition without doing anything to correct its messed-up stakes. Reduced to its most superficial meaning, “sisterhood” sometimes feels like yet another clique: one that strictly polices women who break the rules, so no one woman gets ahead of the other women.
Is there anything to be gained from embracing the ugliness of competition? I think the real-life Crawford and Davis would say yes. Asked about her rivalry with Davis, Crawford said that she loves competition. Never mind that Davis was the one who, in the end, got the Oscar nomination for their joint effort, What Happens to Baby Jane?. “I really think that competition is one of the great challenges of life. And we must have challenges. Otherwise, we don’t grow. I think with Bette Davis, in Baby Jane, was one of the greatest challenges I’d ever had.”