Monday, 7 May 2012
Unless you have been living under a rock or in a very isolated cave, you will have heard about the Samantha Brick furore or what happens when a conventionally pretty woman takes to the Daily Mail to announce that her looks open doors with men all the time, make other 'shorter, uglier' women jealous, forming together to make a band of ladieez that gang up and ostracise her, thus proving that all women are catty and horrible and can't be trusted.' It was the perfect media shitstorm of misogyny, feminism, bodysnarking and everyone having an opinion, all helped along by the fact Samantha Brick wrote several follow up articles to reignite the embers.
I don't really have an opinion I care to share about Ms Brick herself (although I probably will in the course of this piece. It's the new media equivalent of trying not to chew a Fruit Pastille. You just can't quite stop yourself.) But it got me thinking about those women who don't like other women, either painting them all as horrible harpies intent on ruining each other's lives or announcing that they prefer to be one of the boys and hang out with men instead. The media particularly loves this trope, always producing 'catfight' headlines about environments where women work together (remember the SATC spats? The Desperate Housewife debacles? The TOWIE tirades?) and occasionally running stories about genuine female friendship with the tone of incredulity you display when you find a body hair that's longer than you thought than humanly possible on your own anatomy. Everything features rivalry, high dudgeon and strategic bridesmaid choices. But is it true? Are women more often than not ghastly to each other?
Well, if you'd asked five years ago, I'd have said yes, that women are naturally inclined to be shitty to each other. While I would never have described myself as a man's woman, I was quite convinced that women were much more prone to, to the point of doing it constantly, undermining each other. This is because a) I was very depressed and thought everything was utterly bleak and crappy and without positivity, b) I was still in my twenties, c) was working in fashion and d) had very low standards in friends (and my self esteem) and e) didn't quite realise misogyny wasn't just something that affected men. I was very sceptical that women could be genuinely supportive of each other and felt that the best tactic was to hug my female friends while keeping one eye out for my back.
I went to an all girls' school from the ages of 11-16 and it was a hotbed of oestrogen and angst, the flames of which were fanned by the fact that teenagers can make a drama out of anything. Long before Mean Girls hit our screens and without the chance to compare the situation with how teenage boys behaved, I internalised the idea that women fight dirty, using words and carefully orchestrated actions to wound rather than fists and frustration. It all seemed more premediated and cruel and I believed it was true because I took to such tactics myself like a duck to water, gliding through BFFs and social groupings in an almost disposable fashion, looking for a place where a socially awkward teen with red hair, bad teeth, acne and a taste for alternative music could fit in properly. Bullied by some of my peers for the things I couldn't change and the things I'd chosen, I felt victimised and hard done by and totally failed to realise that I actually gave as good as I got and landed many a hurtful blow myself, but preferred to see myself as some kind of martyr in braces. This competitive atmosphere with everyone trying to get to the top of the puppy pile was for me compounded by the oddly laissez faire attitude my grammar school had to academia, always hinting there was no point aiming for an A when a B would still get you into uni where you could meet and marry a nice doctor and leave time to get your hair done. Already ambitious for something alongside marriage and babies, this didn't sit well with me and with relief, I left as soon as I could at 16.
I moved to a large co-ed school to take my A-Levels and immediately thrived, finding their academic slant more to my tastes at the time and feeling that the presence of my male peers diluted the maelstrom of female relationships massively. I found myself making friends with a wide variety of girls and feeling very relaxed and comfortable around them, despite realising I was hugely awkward around the boys, not having any great experience of talking to them having not met many and gleanng most of my knowledge of men from books (which bearing in mind my taste for Enid Blyton novels skewed things further). But despite them having some mystical quality to me I thought they were also all powerful in calming the drama that had beset the past 5 years of my life. It never occurred to me that I had achieved that myself by growing up a bit, improving my self esteem, removing myself from an environment where I behaved badly for a variety of reasons including boredom and concentrating my attentions on things like working and studying instead of gossip and mindless competition.
Sadly my sage outlook didn't last past leaving school. I was unhappy and lacking in confidence and lacking great insight into a newly developed chronic illness and some serious lifestyle upheaval, I somehow associated it with my life being almost entirely lacking in men. My internalization was spectacular. One of the reasons my life was without male influence at 19 was that my dad had pissed off to take up with one of his students. Instead of seeing that the rock dropped into the pond was what had hit me, I thought I was drowning in the ripples. So instead of copying my mother's excellent example of finding a close knit coterie of supportive women (and the odd man) as a liferaft, I grabbed hold of the nearest Regina George type and plunged into a pool of needless drama and self promotion similar to that of my first school, but with added boys and booze.
As you can imagine, it went swimmingly. Without any great attempt to question my own behaviours, I got most of my influences for the next few years from these friends and from that bastion of feminist empowerment, Vogue. While still studying and interested in persuing an academic path, I sought a normality in things that were quite shallow and easy to dip in and out of like shopping and make up and going out several times a week. I took to it so well that I was more likely to get A grades in bitching, gossiping, catfights, quiet resentment, well placed put downs, small talk and airkissing than the subjects I'd been repeatedly studying for 5 years. This kind of low level unsupportiveness was fine when nothing in life was really that much more important than scoring tickets for DJ Shadow or deciding who to split a bottle of gin with on a Saturday night. But I certainly made the mistake of mistaking drinking buddies for BFFs and was surprised when the friendships started to crack under the pressures of early adulthood as we moved all round the UK and one girl gave birth to her first child and another had a serious accident leaving her unable to walk for six months.
By now, I was living in London in a big shared house, equally split between boys and girls and felt that balanced up the worst of that bitchiness I felt women were so prone to. I also had a few male friends, mainly gay, but still taking me outside that entirely female world I disliked but kept returning to (especially in my job at the time). Things reminded me of that nice time in my life when I was sitting my A-Levels. I felt all grown up and secure in my choices. Then I was raped in the kitchen of my house and everything changed. I discovered that the friendships I cared about so much were built on foundations of sand. Those friends from Belfast who I'd shared so many formative nights with disappeared from my life like snow off a ditch. The boys in my house either washed their hands of me, ran away or bought my rapist a drink for what he'd done. The girls who I had lived with for three and half years threw me to the wolves faster than the speed of light and I was out on my ear. I'd have been on the street if it wasn't for one friend who offered me a sofa to sleep on.
I clung to the lifeline, becoming completely emotionally dependent on her over the next few months, relying on her to be my buffer when I returned to Belfast for the first time after both attacks to find that my rape, homelessness and nervous breakdown had become the hottest gossip in town. Surprisingly, I was shocked. Yes, we'd gossiped about everything to do with anyone when I lived there, but I'd justified it as being silly inconsequential things like who was dating who. Somewhere I'd thought there were rules where life changing things would be off limits. And maybe they would have if I hadn't taken my turn having opinions about everyone else. It was payback time. And everyone had a very unflattering opinion of me and what had happened, led mainly by a Hydra of girls ready to hunt me like a pack and bring down whatever last confidence I had in myself. Instead of walking away calmly from this maelstrom of gossip, blame, recrimination and deceit, I went out like the harpy I knew so well how to be, flinging a pint of Guinness over the girl I'd considered my best friend and never speaking to any of them again.
A month later I moved into the sanctuary of my flat and felt much better about my life, venturing out a few days later like a cautious post hibernation creature and surveyed my lot and realised that essentially I had no friends left. Everyone had either walked (or run) away or had fallen by the wayside while I was preoccupied or simply weren't reaching out to me anymore, except one person who lurked in the shadows. She was the girl who had been my buffer and given me that sofa to sleep on. We had drifted apart but when my life became more stable she washed back up on my shore. And since life was so rocky I welcomed her in. And thus began three years of the most toxic female friendship ever to exist. In amongst the lovely afternoons perusing vintage stores and snapping up bargains at jumble sales and reading the papers in gastropubs, two things loomed over us: both of us thought the other was a liar and neither of us trusted the other as far we could throw them.
She had been there the night I was raped in Soho and her original reaction to everything unfolding was so evasive my instincts told me she knew a lot more than she was letting on. But utterly emotionally battered and bruised, I didn't trust myself to be able to judge anything and it seemed too unlikely and too hard to take that she might have been involved so I suppressed those feelings and carried on as normal as best I could. Which unsurprisingly wasn't very well. Almost everytime we had a drink and her tongue started to loosen, I invented potential scenarios about that night to see if I could get her to trip herself up and unlock the mysteries. It didn't work. She never admitted anything, but the fact she thought I was full of shit probably told me all I needed to know but didn't want to admit to myself. I persevered as I thought it would be a colossal failure to allow that rape to split up a friendship. It was an irrational preoccupation that was easier to concentrate on than the pain of the police complaint and my increasingly poor mental health.
This dance of mutual dislike, riven with competition, desperation, power struggles and envy, strangely enough carried on through the most uncertain times of my life, only buckling and breaking as stability loomed onto the horizon. We fell out finally over something incredibly minor I can't actually remember now, having limped through me sleeping with her ex-boyfriend or her stealing money out of my purse, and the remaining veneer shattered. I discovered she'd kept in touch with the friends who evicted me, had told a different tale of her role in the night of my rape to every person around and was so oddly jealous of my council house and benefits that she called me 'the scrounger' when I was out of earshot. It was to me the confirmation of all I had always thought: women are terrible to each other. They just can't be trusted.
But since men had been also been unspeakable to me, I didn't feel I had much choice but to simply loathe the human race with all its shitty traits and appalling habits. To complete this descent into bitterness and wallowing completely I needed to knock the last shreds of self esteem out of myself and for some unfathomable reason I've written about before, I went to a meet up of internet people and encountered a myriad of well informed women with many alluring qualities and despite myself was dazzled and drawn toward them even though I was secretly sure they were all wolves in feminists' clothing. And an odd thing happened. I made new friends, almost exclusively female, and they restored my faith in myself and my gender with each time we met or talked. They were calmly non-judgemental toward me and reassuringly self contained. Through them I started blogging and then Tweeting and more and more women came into my life in the same quiet, non dramatic way and offered me support and encouragement in a multitude of ways. A community formed that cheered each other to our personal finishing lines, picked up the pieces when they fell and formed a safety net if we fell with those pieces. I felt so fortified by these women that I did something I never thought I would do and volunteered to peer support other women who had experienced sexual violence. I felt ready to close a circle and offer back some of the love I'd been shown.
I am now privileged to be surrounded by women I imagine will continue to be in my life for years to come. I've met many men through them too who've helped tackle some of my scepticism about that 50% of the population, but it's women I feel most differently about. I find it hard to remember why I doubted and disliked them so much. I'm not sure I'd go as far as declare there to be an actual sisterhood, but I do feel like when left to their own devices and removed from external factors, women show their true colours and care about others who show promise or genuine friendship toward them. In other words, they act like human beings. They do not respond well to being held to a higher standard than anyone else and told they must be unconditionally supportive of their fellow females just because they share sex characteristics. They do not have to be all forgiving of the men in their lives. They do not have to put day to day emotion behind the building of this mythical sisterhood and neglect their own needs for the greater good. They don't have to be preternaturally good and never do anything that might let another woman down. They are entitled to their own feelings and actions and can only try their best. It makes me sad that I spent so much time expecting more of the women in my life. Those expectations could never be fulfilled and I was left disappointed in myself and them. Yes, lots of girls and women I know did shitty things to me and around me, but just like I've done shitty things to them, it wasn't because I was a woman that those things were done. It was because my eye was off the ball and instead of being a decent person, I was dressing everything up in gender instead of sheer humanity. It takes effort to be a nice person and it's hard to dedicate time to it when you're picking a camp to belong to.
I assumed that realisation comes to every woman as they get past the frantic drama of their teens and twenties, but recent events and articles remind me that no matter how much women might want to buck the handbags at dawn stereotype, there is a lot of external influences there needling and coaxing and perpetuating the cycle of women criticising women for doing something while being a women and it's hard to get past. But if we allow men to have opinions about other men while being men why can't we apply the same rules to women and dial the expectations and rules down a bit and let women be the individuals they are as long they aren't deliberately being shitty to anyone? Maybe I've got such a dose of the warm fuzzies from my entente cordiale with feminity these days I'm mistaken, but I imagine if we expected less from other women, we'd achieve more.