Two score and a few years ago second wave feminism hit America’s shore. The most sophisticated feminist thinkers of the time based their theories on radical leftist mythology.
If the proletariat was not going to be the vanguard of the Revolution, perhaps another oppressed group, women, could do the job. In place of the class struggle of workers against their capitalist oppressors, feminists created a new story about a the new story where women were struggling against oppressive patriarchal males.
Same story; different characters.
To make women a political force, radical feminists had to make them into a class. To do so they touted the virtues of sisterhood. They saw all women connected by virtue of their chromosomal makeup and promoted solidarity among women. They argued that all women had to join together to fight and defeat the entrenched interests of the patriarchy.
Women were exhorted to see men as the enemy. They were taught that women had to join the fight against those who wanted to oppress them, to abuse them, to crush their dreams, to kill their hopes and to consign them to a life of domestic drudgery.
Obviously, the radical culture warriors did not produce their longed-for Revolution, but they have succeeded to some extent in creating a block of progressive women voters who spring into action the minute they hear that the Republican Party, the party of the patriarchy has declared war on women.
It was, and still is, a fiction. Of course, fictions can be powerful. If you become convinced of their truth you will reconfigure your life in order to live them.
To sell the fiction, feminists were obliged to ignore reality. They were not going to sell the myth of sisterly solidarity if they accepted the simple and basic fact that women compete against other women. It was easier to blame men.
The latest research has borne this out. John Tierney has reported on studies conducted by anthropologist Sarah Hrdy and by researchers Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma. It’s not about male dominance, but about female competition.
Underlying his article is a single theme: much of what today’s culture blames the account of the patriarchy is really a part of female psychology.
One suspects that women would be better able to deal with the problems if they had not been taught that to blame others for their problems.
The existence of female competition may seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a singles bar, but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety. Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.
Everyone knows that men compete for women. How many people are aware of the extent that women compete against each other for male attention and affection?
In Tierney's words:
The old doubts about female competitiveness derived partly from an evolutionary analysis of the reproductive odds in ancient polygynous societies in which some men were left single because dominant males had multiple wives. So men had to compete to have a chance of reproducing, whereas virtually all women were assured of it.
But even in those societies, women were not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners and more resources for their children. And now that most people live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men. In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many college campuses with more women than men.
If women are competing for men they are, intrinsically, more than just passive trophies, the spoils of male gladiatorial combat.
How did the researchers study the question? In one study, an attractive, voluptuous young woman was sent into different rooms, each of which was restricted to women. Sometimes the voluptuous woman was dressed in jeans; sometimes she wore a short skirt.
If she was dressed in jeans the women in the classroom did not really notice her. But, if she was dressed in a short skirt, looking that she was seeking to attract male attention, the women in the room expressed hostility toward her as soon as she left the room. In particular, they derogated her appearance.
Most of the aggression, though, happened after she left the room. Then the students laughed about her and impugned her motives. One student suggested that she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another said that her breasts “were about to pop out.”
The results of the experiment jibe with evidence that this “mean girl” form of indirect aggression is used more by adolescents and young women than by older women, who have less incentive to handicap rivals once they marry. Other studies have shown that the more attractive an adolescent girl or woman is, the more likely she is to become a target for indirect aggression from her female peers.
It ought not to be a surprise, at least to long time readers of this blog, that slut-shaming is usually is visited by women on other women. Women compete with other women by speaking ill of certain kinds of women, thus to lower their value in the eyes of men.
“Women are indeed very capable of aggressing against others, especially women they perceive as rivals,” said Dr. Vaillancourt, now a psychologist at the University of Ottawa. “The research also shows that suppression of female sexuality is by women, not necessarily by men.”
Stigmatizing female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other research suggest the stigma is enforced mainly by women.
“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. 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.”
Women who offer sexual favors on the cheap disempower other women. Thus, it makes sense that women are especially intolerant of promiscuous women.
A similar dynamic is involved in women’s concern about being thin. It ought to be obvious that men prefer a woman’s natural curves than in her skeletal thinness. Therefore it makes little sense to blame women’s low self-esteem about their bodies on the male gaze. It makes even less sense to blame it all on the media portrayal of the female body.
If men are to blame, then women should not trust what men say and how men feel. If they do they will ignore men's preferences and join a sisterhood that is defined in opposition to men. One should notice that women who suffer eating disorders develop bonds of sisterhood, competing with each other in a race to lose weight. Besides, if you want to blame the media, it is necessary to note that the people who edit the great fashion magazines are almost always women.
On the larger point, Tierney summarizes the research conducted by Christopher Ferguson:
Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say that it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images.
“To a large degree the media reflects trends that are going on in society, not creates them,” said Dr. Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University. He found that women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies did not correlate with what they watched on television at home. Nor were they influenced by TV programs shown in laboratory experiments: Watching the svelte actresses on “Scrubs” induced no more feelings of inferiority than watching the not-so-svelte star of “Roseanne.”
But he found that women were 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, like the assistant to Dr. Ferguson who ran an experiment with female college students. When she wore makeup and sleek business attire, the students were less satisfied with their own bodies than when she wore baggy sweats and no makeup. And they felt still worse when there was an attractive man in the room with her.