Women, especially young women, can be real bitches.
Anyone who has attended highschool with girls knows that women fight differently from men. We use covert, stealthy tactics of manipulation and ostracism. While men will ask each other to ‘step outside,’ beat their chests and use their fists, we women will sneakily sabotage our ‘frenemies’. We keep our enemies close. And while we attempt to sabotage them, we will appear well-meaning and well-behaved, so as not to besmirch our clean reputations.
Because such forms of female aggression are universal and common, they are found repeatedly in stories and art. They are also found in fairy and folk-tales. Such depictions are often more than symbolic; they are a form of communication, or a lesson, about the real world.
Researchers Sarah Hrdy, Joyce Beneson and Anne Campbell have researched female aggression over the last three decades. They have found that females often use indirect methods to hurt and harm each other. Whether this is due to cultural reasons or selective pressures, is unclear. But what is clear is that women fight in less violent and less noticeable ways compared with men. Our aggression flies under the radar.
A recurring stereotype of female aggression is the wicked step-mother. The wicked step-mother wreaks havoc on Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel while sinisterly appearing in folk tales in over 20 different languages. “Better a serpent than a step-mother”! wrote Greek playwright, Euripides, 2,400 years ago.
In the 1990s, evolutionary psychologists, Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, completed study after study after study using cross-cultural data on what they called the “Cinderella effect”. They found that children were at much higher risk of abuse and neglect if one of their parents died. And if a step-mother arrived on the scene – with her own genetic children – that risk compounded significantly. Step-parents, sadly, have historically been one of the greatest dangers to orphaned or motherless children.
But before becoming step-mothers we females practice our aggression through forming coalitions with one another to lock out our sexual rivals. We use tactics such as cold-shoulders, ‘silent-treatments’ and gossip to stigmatise. We will derogate our rival’s personality, appearance, nurturing capabilities, faithfulness and loyalty all in an attempt to lower their value and raise our own. And we often do this in groups.
An artistic representation of this specific coalitional form of aggression is the coven of witches. Art history is replete with depictions of witches (real and imagined) in plural form. The ancient Greeks depicted “The Fates” as weaving the fabric of human life from birth. And bands of passively-powerful women can be found all over classical and ancient mythology and are reincarnated in Hollywood films such as The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick, and The Crucible.
In Arthur Miller’s classic play about witch-hunts, the nightmarish power of a girl gang is played out in its extreme. Young girls of Salem group together and wreak havoc on their village. Their power exists in their cooperation and their gender. Because their aggression is both collective and passive, and because they are both young and female, their wicked intentions are never detected. They are perceived as innocent and compliant girls and use this to their advantage. Together in a group, they are able to destroy their community from the inside out.
A real-life example of the girl-gang can be seen online in Twitter-feminism. Young women pillory each other for not being ‘intersectional’ enough; or for having too much ‘privilege’; or for ‘slut-shaming’; or for ‘victim-blaming’.
This activity goes on and on and on in an endless frenzy reconstructing the dominant feminist clique. Normal men and women watch this confused gender-based activism from the sidelines and recoil with distaste. Recent articles written by online feminists have agonised over the toxic, cannibalistic nature of their community; these can be found here, here and here.
Yet not all female aggression is acted out behind the cover of a girl gang. There also exists the female super-manipulator. She is the high-status woman who does not gain anything from forming alliances with lower status “friends” (who might flirt with her husband and tempt him with novelty). But she gains everything from brokering power deals in secret, or out of public sight. The super-manipulator controls and directs the power possessed by her male relatives and lovers. She is immortalised by characters such as Lady Macbeth.
Women. We’re crafty, intelligent and capable. The notion that women are not players in the game of life and are not playing the game to win is archaic and quaint. It is an artefact from a bygone era.