Susan Shapiro Barash has exploded the myth that women help one another, are supportive of one another, and want each other to succeed. Based on interviews with women across a broad social spectrum, she has discovered that the competition between women is more vicious precisely because it is covert. She tells us:
* Why women can't and won't admit to rivalry.
* How women are trained from an early age to compete with one another.
* In which areas women most heatedly compete.
* How rivalry is different among women than among men.
* The differences between competition, envy, and jealousy.
* When competition is healthy and when it isn't.
* Why women find it irresistible to "trip the prom queen."
* Useful strategies to stop the competition and forge a new kind of relationship with other women.
Whether you've tripped the prom queen or been tripped yourself, you will discover an engrossing exploration of this female phenomenon, as well as a beacon of hope for better, more fulfilling relationships.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Tripping the Prom Queen
The Truth About Women and Rivalry
By Susan Shapiro Barash
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Susan Shapiro Barash
All rights reserved.
The Myth of Female Solidarity
When I began my research, Clara was one of the first women with whom I spoke. She was an urban working woman of fifty-two, twice divorced, who told me frankly that she had always considered herself superior to other women. So I admit to feeling a bit disappointed when she said emphatically, in her silvery, aristocratic voice, "I know female rivalry exists, but I haven't had to deal with it. I am lucky because I have never felt that way about anyone. I doubt I'm much help to you."
I thought perhaps I was on the wrong track, after all. Perhaps what I would find as I worked my way through my study was that female rivalry was a relatively limited problem, one that may have affected the women whom I'd studied in my previous books, but not really of general interest.
A few days later, I had occasion to speak with Marie, the woman who had recommended Clara to me in the first place. "How did it go?" she asked. "Did Clara give you some good material?"
"Actually," I admitted, "she said she's never really encountered female rivalry. For her, it doesn't seem to be an issue."
Marie burst out laughing. "That's ridiculous," she said when she finally caught her breath. "Clara is the most jealous woman I know. That's why I thought her interview would be interesting."
Apparently I had learned more from Clara than I had bargained for. I found out what a charged topic this is, and how few women want to acknowledge the presence of envy, jealousy, and competition in their lives. Yet over and over again, even as women insisted to me how much they valued their girlfriends or how rarely they had ever felt jealous of another woman, they went on to share scenarios like these:
The Women's Charity Luncheon
You walk into the huge hotel conference room filled with large round tables covered with white cloths and adorned with centerpieces of demure pastel flowers. The noise is deafening as women, mostly aged thirty-five to sixty, talk hurriedly in small clusters, eager to get in as many minutes of networking as possible before the program begins. Only the most secure stay in one place for long; the others move abruptly from group to group, frantically trying to check out the other guests while allowing themselves to be seen. The competition begins here: who approaches you, and whom do you approach? Important messages about each guest's status can be read in the urgent traffic patterns,
Everyone is dressed to the nines, further evidence that women dress for women and not, as the official story has it, to attract or impress men. The competitive juices are flowing as women covertly scan their rivals. Who looks younger than last time, and why? Was it botox, collagen, a minituck? Who are those younger women in the corner — how did they get invited, and whom do they know? Who here might help you get your child into the right private school or college, or perhaps offer your offspring a prestigious summer job? Are there any business contacts here who might be useful to you or your husband?
Afterward, you're exhausted. It's partly the fatigue that comes from knowing that the slightest details of your face, your body, and your personal life have been under scrutiny from several dozen people who see you as their rival, if not their enemy. (You may see them that way, too.) But even more disturbing than the relentless competition is the mask of friendship beneath which it hides. You wouldn't mind the contest, you find yourself thinking, if only it were out in the open. But having to pretend that you're all friends is a tricky business.
You're a woman somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and sixty, and you're at this event looking for a date. You haven't wanted to come alone, so you've brought a couple of friends — both women, of course. That's why you're here, because you're having trouble meeting men,
The event planners seat you all in a big circle and ask you to take turns giving a one-minute introduction. Although you're supposed to be keeping track of potential partners, you find yourself so preoccupied with the other women that you barely notice the men. Who here is younger than you? Prettier? Sexier? Thinner? Whose introduction is funnier? More inviting?
Then it's time for people to circulate, meeting the partners of their choice. You manage to approach a few guys, but you can't help noticing the other women in the room, many of whom seem to be standing in the midst of a small circle of admirers,
As the event is winding down, you find your friends. One says scornfully, "I didn't meet anyone — what a bunch of losers!" The other says, "Oh, I found two guys I really like, and they both asked for my number." You and your fellow rejectee roll your eyes, trying not to let your more successful friend see your response. Afterward, the two of you will engage in a long, consoling phone call in which you agree that your other friend is far too easily satisfied, Beneath your remarks lurks a sense of betrayal. You went to the event together to help each other. But your third girlfriend "put herself first," succeeding on her own rather than failing with you,
It's your first day at work. You're nervous as you walk into your new office, but you relax a bit when you notice how many other women work here. At your last job, your colleagues were mainly men, and while you got along fine with most of them, you couldn't help feeling a bit left out. You expect that things will be different here,
Your colleagues seem quite nice. Throughout the day they take turns coming over to your desk and asking you lots of questions. Are you married? Divorced? Do you have a boyfriend? How did you get this job? Where did you get that great skirt?
They're all so friendly, you find yourself telling them about your terrific boyfriend, the night-school classes that will be your ticket out of here, and the new diet you're on. You're thrilled to be in such a warm, supportive environment, and you look forward to being friends with all of them,
The next day, some question comes up about an office procedure. "Why don't we ask Lana how to settle this?" a woman suggests, pointing to you. "When she gets her wonderful new degree, she'll be off to a better job, so we should take advantage of her while she's here!" Your boss, who didn't know about your plans, gives you a funny look. You wonder if the coworker let the information slip on purpose,
Later that week, another colleague stops by your desk. "I know you're dieting," she says sweetly, "but I just had to bring you one of my homemade muffins. Don't you just love chocolate?" When you try to refuse the temptation she places in your path, you can see how hurt she is — or is she angry? You begin to wonder if maybe you've been too friendly,
As I spoke with the women who responded to my query, I heard story after story like these. Women seemed to compete with each other in every conceivable realm, from third-grade quarrels over who was most popular to elderly women comparing their grandchildren. I heard about women competing over clothes, hair, and makeup; boyfriends, female friends, and popularity in general; colleagues, employees, and bosses; children, siblings, and parents. Women compared themselves to other women at home, at work, on vacation, even in terms of death. For example, one woman told me a harrowing story about becoming a widow in her midfifties, explaining that her husband's funeral had more guests than the funeral held for her friend's husband. Both women were relatively young widows, but instead of banding together, they competed — first over the number of funeral guests, then over their relative degrees of pain: the first widow insisted that her widowhood was more harrowing than her friend's because she'd been so much closer to her husband and her marriage had been so much stronger.
Then there were the two sisters who competed over planning their mother's funeral. As Edie, a thirty-nine-year-old postal worker, explains it, her older sister, Leeanne, took all the credit for the arrangements:
My mother would have wanted us to share this ordeal equally. I was closer to my mom ... but Leeanne was the daughter who had done better, who had married a wealthy guy and lived a certain lifestyle. So Leeanne kept saying to me that our mother would have wanted everyone to come to her house to pay their respects, that it would have made Mom proud. She kept saying that my home wasn't acceptable, that it would actually shame our mother to receive the funeral guests there. I felt like I couldn't win — and I didn't understand why this had to be a competition ...
She acted like it was her mother, not our mother, by the end. ... It's hard to believe it came down to this. In my mind it should have been the two of us getting through the week together, each using our own strengths.
Clearly, female competition — that great, unstudied subject — is a powerful theme in women's lives. The topic is all the more powerful, I realize, because for most of us, it has been taboo. Like Clara, we have insisted that we ourselves had never been jealous, envious, or even competitive with a female rival. Instead, we clung for all we were worth to the myth of female solidarity.
Catfight or Dogfight? How Male and Female Competition Differ
Some women, of course, did come clean. When I first described the idea for this book to a close friend, for example, she readily agreed that women are often rivalrous, and even shared a couple of anecdotes with me about her own bouts of envy.
"But, Susan," she went on, "aren't men even more competitive?" After all, she pointed out, men are the ones who devote themselves to sports, who seek to get ahead in their careers, who have it drummed into their heads almost from infancy that "real men" are winners, programmed to avoid at all costs the shame of losing. Why write about female rivalry, wondered my friend, when it's men who've raised competition to a fine art?
At first I was taken aback. Certainly I, like many others with feminist leanings, wanted women to have the opportunities that men had always had. If competition had been a part of male success, perhaps female competition was a good thing, a sign of our success. And isn't competition in general simply a part of life, particularly in our individualistic, achievement-oriented society?
Then I looked at my data and realized that there are two problems with the way most women express their rivalry:
1. By and large, women compete primarily with each other. In the heady days of second-wave feminism, many women imagined entering the workplace and the political orbit, competing against the men who had previously refused them entry. In this optimistic scenario, we were each other's natural allies, helping one another to get ahead, while men were, if not our enemy, at the very least, our rivals. Many of us imagined a powerful network of sisters cheering each other on as we finally got the positions, money, and power that men had always had.
Unfortunately, my research suggests, women mainly compete not with men but with each other. In a law firm for example, some women partners may indeed be at the top of the hierarchy. But most firms usually operate to the tacit understanding that only a few partner slots are "reserved" for women, so that every woman must compete against her "sisters" for those few places. It seems unthinkable that 40 or 50 percent of the partners might be female, let alone 60 or 70 percent! Thus virtually every successful woman I spoke with told a story like Theresa's:
I've been at this law firm for ten years, and I have seen some of the men make partner while I am waiting. Yet the men don't bother me, because in a sense, there is nothing I can do about their success — it's a given. There are three women in my position, all waiting to find out if we will be chosen ...
We've been envying each other all along. If a senior partner even looks in someone's direction, the other women lawyers envy that person. ... Every move that is made in this firm puts us on edge and makes us think that another female ... has something over us. So I admit, I can be envious of a younger female attorney who walks in and gets everyone's attention. And I can be envious of the women lawyers on a day-today basis ...
Theresa says that the relentless competition on her job extends to the off-hours as well:
I'll go out at night with my friends who have high-powered jobs, and then everyone is envious of the person who makes the most money and has the best title. The only time any of us really rallies for another is if someone hits hard luck. If I am passed over for partner and this other woman gets it, then I know my friends will be there for me. If I get the job and get a raise, they'll be envious.
Early feminists believed that once our generation became successful, we older women would mentor the younger ones, using our power to make it easier for the next generation. What they didn't count on was the queen bee syndrome — the tendency for a powerful woman to get used to being the only female in the group and to decide she wants to keep it that way. Many women told me stories about female bosses, teachers, or senior colleagues who were actually less helpful to them than their male counterparts. Theresa herself admits to envy of her younger colleagues, particularly since they do enjoy more advantages and acceptance than she had at their age.
Besides competing at work, women also compete over boyfriends, husbands, and children — but once again, their rivals are only women. High school girls rarely go out for the football team; they're trying to make cheerleader. And even when the new generation of female athletes manages to bond over soccer or basketball, they're still competing off the field over weight, hair, clothes, and (if they're heterosexual) boys.
Competition doesn't stop in the teen years. When heterosexual girls grow into women, they compete with other females for that hardest-to-find of all commodities, "the good man." When they have children, they ask not "Who's the best parent?" but "Who's the best mother?" In virtually every sphere of competition, men are irrelevant, only women are each other's rivals.
2. Female competition tends to be total, extending to every detail of a woman's life. Guys compete, sure, but their contests tend to be specific, goal oriented, and limited. They may fight to the death over who scores the most points in a pickup basketball game, who snags a much-desired promotion, or drives the bigger car, but these contests are generally limited to one specific area of competition, and when it's over, it's truly over. The networking at business lunches may be as relentless as at the charity affair I described. But while men are cutting each other out of deals and potential clients, they're usually not also looking at who's gained weight, whose kids are failing geometry, or who's having a bad hair day. Women's competition, by contrast, extends simultaneously into all realms, so that the women in the office scenario, envious of "Lana's" bright future, fight back with high-calorie muffins as well as sly insinuations to the boss.
Why is female competition so totalizing? I think it's partly because, despite our many gains, we're still socialized to view ourselves in relational terms. In too many cases, our currency remains who we are rather than what we do, Because men's competition tends to be about external achievements, they can go out for a beer with their rivals after the contest is over. Even if men never feel quite safe with their buddies, hiding their vulnerability at all costs, they still tend to create "no-contest" zones where certain aspects of their lives are protected. Women's competition, by contrast, is about our identities — and, unlike men, we tend to expect total union and sympathy with our same-sex friends. We have a much harder time setting boundaries to our competition, which makes it all the more destructive.
I also believe that most women are still struggling with the good-girl role that forbids us to be angry or competitive. Men tend to accept their competition as a natural, even a healthy, part of their lives, and as a rule, they're less afraid of their own anger and ambition. Because we're less comfortable with our ambition, our repressed desire for power, money, or success finds expression in all sorts of inappropriate places, including contests over looks, men, and children.
Excerpted from Tripping the Prom Queen by Susan Shapiro Barash. Copyright © 2006 Susan Shapiro Barash. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction Facing the Dark Mirror,
Part 1 From Diapers to Dior,
1 The Myth of Female Solidarity,
2 Mommy Dearest and the Evil Sister,
3 Mean Girls and Heathers,
Part 2 Best Rivals and Worst Friends,
4 The Perpetual Beauty Contest: Envy over Appearance,
5 Magical Theft: Envy over Relationships,
6 Snow Queens and Soccer Moms: Envy over Children,
7 Working Girls and Bossy Women: Envy on the Job,
Part 3 Revolutionizing Rivalry,
8 Dispelling the Demons: How to Spin Competition, Jealousy, and Envy in Our Favor,
9 Resisting the Urge to Merge,
Conclusion A Better Mirror,