I went home a few weeks ago for a belated birthday celebration with my family in Cincinnati. I’m too afraid of everything to get on a plane without several doses of Dramamine and a Vodka Tonic in me, so I took the early morning bus, waking up at the crack of dawn to have someone wantonly drool on my shoulder while I tried to finish my copy of The Lonely Polygamist. I was seated across from two girls who spent the entire trip kiking, gossiping and drinking what appeared to be a Southern Comfort mixer out of their water bottles. I only brought books. I was not adequately prepared for this.
Over the sound of X’s Los Angeles on my headphones, I listened to my two friendly Indiana aislemates shittalk what had to be almost every woman they’ve ever been acquainted with — especially Brooke, who had committed the cardinal sin of being both a “psycho bitch” and a “total slut.” I looked up from my book. Psycho bitch? I was puzzled. That was the way my father talked about my mother after their divorce, and it was strange to hear his words and his misogyny casually fall out of someone’s mouth. It’s like seeing someone else wear a shirt you own in public, as if they discovered a guarded secret of yours without even realizing it. It’s disconcerting.
Because I’m a technology addict (in recovery), I vented by status updating about it on my phone: “These two girls next to me have been doing nothing but trashing other women for a straight hour. It’s International Women’s Day. You’re not supposed to do that today! Womenfolk, be good to each other. Tina Fey is watching you.”
For anyone familiar with the context (which should include most people on Earth by now), the message was a reference to Tina Fey’s speech from Mean Girls about our lady hate epidemic and the internalized patriarchy and misogyny that women experience every day. Fey reminds us, “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores! It just makes it easier for men to.” The movie itself is a spot on critique of our culture of female competitiveness and the hostility it breeds amongst young women, who find themselves always competing against each other for resources and men. Being a young woman today is like being on Survivor.
Yet for women and everyone who supports them, there’s a danger here. A friend of mine pointed out to me that our constant critique of women critiquing each other often serves to perpetuate that very cycle of behavior. Even if we’re criticizing women for criticizing women, aren’t we still criticizing? She reminded me that the best thing sometimes is to let women simply be and allow other women to lead by example — and that doubly applies to men, who might mean well but often simply affirm that internalized shame by calling out lady hate. Misogyny is the slipperiest of slopes.
To clarify before the internet gets angry at me: I realize lady hate is a problem. It’s a huge fucking problem for everyone — women, men, gender neutral sky beings like Tilda Swinton, dogs, babies, flowers, kittens, sunshine and rainbows. It’s a problem we all need to face up to by doing our best to affirm women — because a society that better supports women better supports everyone.
But that does not get better by my male friends saying to each other, “Wow, isn’t it sad that women hate each other! Those crazy women.” It would be like your friend walking up to you with a broken arm and thinking you can fix it by saying, “Wow, isn’t it terrible that your arm is broken? That looks like it hurts.”
Misogyny hurts everyone, including men, but it hurts women who are constantly expected to be perfect at all times.
In addressing this issue, we must remember to let women be flawed without looking at their behavior as a proxy for all women. In a video that went viral this week, the late film critic Roger Ebert (my forever hero) chastises an attendee of the Sundance Film Festival for expecting the film Better Luck Tomorrow to be a universal representation of all Asian Americans. Ebert reminded him that we would never expect that of a movie about white people, and we need to let the movie be the story it wants to be.
Sometimes I wish we had the same respect for women, who are constantly expected to be ambassadors for their gender, rather than simply letting them be. The most obvious instance of this is Girls; I’m not commenting on it’s racial critiques (which are valid) but the idea that Lena Dunham has to provide us with a proper, “good” example of all young women everywhere. The show is too this or that; there’s too much sex, too much bad sex, too much swearing, too much nudity; Lena Dunham doesn’t know how to write women, she doesn’t know how to write men. She’s probably a Satanist.
Why do we expect the representation of imperfect people to be perfect? We allow men to be flawed. Why not women?
I find Girls refreshing because unlike most shows about women, we don’t always have to like them or root for them. I can’t stand Hannah and don’t relate to her, at all, but that’s okay; I can still enjoy watching her without endorsing her behavior all the time. When I watch a Judd Apatow movie about men, I’m rarely asked to endorse their behavior, and the movie Bridesmaids was such a breath of fresh air because it didn’t call women out for hating each other. Instead, it showed empathy for Kristen Wiig’s Annie and her struggles to become a better person.
Young Adult was revolutionary simply because it allowed Mavis not to get better and didn’t shame her for that. If Mavis wanted to a “bitch,” it’s her right to choose. Donald Trump is a professional asshole, but no one expects him to be a good representation of men. We need to level the playing field.
My friend Emily Heist Moss (who you should be reading, if you aren’t already) discussed our expectations of women this week in a column for Role/Reboot. Rihanna has often been criticized for not being a “good role model for young girls” because of her decision to go back to Chris Brown — which, whether you agree with it or not, is her choice as a woman. Moss argues that the reason we don’t allow her to have the agency of her own decisions is that so few women are in positions of cultural power and authority, so successful women have an added burden on them.
However, as Moss argues, that’s not fair. We allow men to be bad boys or rebels without demonizing them for their transgressions, and Charlie Sheen’s public breakdown only helped him become more rich and successful. The man got an 80-episode deal with FX for Anger Management, a critically reviled show that regularly makes light of his history of abuse. Where’s the concern for young men who might watch that show and think it’s okay to lock a prostitute in a closet and assault your ex-wife? I hear crickets.
If it sounds like we’re in between a rock and a hard place, it’s because we are. Our culture’s relationship with women is complicated, and the solution should be, too. Of course, we shouldn’t let people of any gender off the hook if their behavior actually harms themselves or other people, but continuing to aggressively and wantonly police female behavior only perpetuates the feelings that women are always being watched and judged, as if society were a giant beauty pageant where no one wins. Our gender panopticon doesn’t help anyone.
I wish I could tell you what the solution is and wrap this article up in a nice bow, but I can’t. I don’t think it works like that.
However, I know where we can start. We can start by simply having empathy for women and struggles they face, whether they are cis, trans, of color, differently abled or a woman of size. (Or more than one.) We can start by checking our own privilege and recognizing the roles we all play in perpetuating a system of patriarchy and oppression and take ownership over our ability to change our own behaviors. We can start holding those of us around us to a greater standard of empathy and broaden the conversation we have about women.
All of us need to allow for greater, more diverse representation — in every way possible — and uphold the right of women to make their own choices, even ones we don’t like or agree with. This hate starts with our need to approve of and validate women. It starts with us. If we want to dismantle our culture of lady hate, we must not solve hate with more hate, using the master’s tools. To inspire positive change, we need to be our own masters and create our own.