Disclaimer: This post features references to the greatest film of our generation, Mean Girls. If you haven’t seen it what are you doing with your life go watch it right now. If you have, get in loser, we’re going blogging.
The fanciest British journal ever, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published a special issue this fall on female aggression and its conclusions have been making their way across the web. Some of the scholarship applies science to the “mean girl” phenomenon so of course journalists are all a flutter to see who can cover the findings in the most annoying way possible. Contenders include a LiveScience post titled, “Mean Girls: Women Evolved to be Catty?” and The New York Times coverage.
Most of the coverage focuses on a single study from the special issue, conducted by Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma. To learn more about how women react to “rivals” the researchers placed two undergraduate women in a room together, ostensibly as part of a study on female friendship. Then they sent in another young woman wearing either khakis and a crew-neck shirt (Cady pre-Mean Girlification) or a short skirt, knee-high boots and a low-cut top (regulation hottie).
And of course, the researchers chose this model not because she fits a very particular cultural model of sexual attractiveness but because she “embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,” meaning a “low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.” It doesn’t hurt that she’s white, tall, blonde and has perfect teeth. Or maybe caveman were also particular about the hair color and orthodontia of their mates.
As researchers expected, reactions after the young woman left varied depending on the woman’s clothes. The jeans and polo shirt elicited little response. The “sexy” ensemble summoned their mean girl wrath:
They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One asked her in disgust, “What the [expletive] is that?”
…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.”
To explain this author John Tierney turns to evolutionary forces. On the evolutionary incentives to be indirectly aggressive:
“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.”
The piece seems to assume that evolution and primal mating calculi are the driving forces behind the forms female aggression takes, and at whom it is directed. Because science. To which I say, ugh.
Of course Mean Girls protagonist Cady Heron, being the daughter of anthropologists, understands the role of culture in shaping female aggression. Throughout the film she notes the way things would be handled “in the animal world” but reminds herself, and the audience that “this was girl world.” When Queen Bee Regina dangles her boyfriend (and Cady’s crush) Aaron in front of Cady to taunt her, Cady fantasizes about violently attacking her rival. But, because “this is girl world” she tells Aaron that his hair does in fact look sexy pushed back and continues to quietly plot (indirectly aggress) her revenge.
While I would be fine basing all of my repudiations of The Grey Lady on the wisdom of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, we can also turn to alternative coverage of the story. From io9
The problem with talking about humans, of course, is that we are not wild animals. As Stockley and Campbell are careful to point out, humans have been so influenced by culture that it’s very hard to tell if a lack of overt aggression among women is an evolutionary or cultural artifact. Because so many women are culturally trained to tamp down their aggressive urges, it’s impossible to call their behavior “natural.”
For their coverage, The Atlantic spoke with Agustin Fuentes, chair of the dept. of anthropology at Notre Dame, summarized here:
though this and other studies show how important physical appearance is to the way women respond to each other, there’s too much cultural baggage at play to say it all comes from our primate ancestors. The short-skirt-boots combo, for example, is already a “meaning-laden image,”
As Fuentes suggests, how women identify “competition” and thus who they direct aggression towards is fundamentally shaped by culture – cavewomen certainly didn’t wear knee high socks.
Though the researcher’s plant has the exact same “evolutionarily attractive” physical features in either outfit, she only elicits aggression in the short skirt which suggests that it’s not primal mating urges at work (or at least not just those urges). The outfit incites “indirect aggression” because it carries all sorts of cultural meanings, which women have been socialized to recognize and criticize for reasons beyond competition for mates.
The NYT piece also fails to note the similarities between male and female aggression. According to Fuentes girls and boys engage in equal amounts of direct aggression until adolescence, at which point it becomes socially unacceptable for girls to do so. And according to David Buss in the Atlantic, studies have suggested that adult men also engage in indirect aggression, especially once they reach the age at which it becomes socially unacceptable for them to engage in direct aggression.
Buss has found that men “bitch” about their rivals, too—they just tend to insult their lack of money or status, the things women traditionally have valued in mates, rather than their physical appearance.
Overlooking the use of the word “bitch” to describe something you’re trying to argue is gender neutral…it’s notable that men insult rivals for lack of money and status. Of course you could argue that cavewomen wanted mates with lots of buffalo-meat in the bank (I’m pretty sure that’s accurate anthropologically) but it seems absurd to try to explain this without acknowledging the social and economic context – particularly that women in recent history have relied entirely on men for financial support and equally troubling, that men have been judged primarily by their economic and professional accomplishments. It’s just as absurd to try to explain indirect aggression between women without at least considering the cultural context.
I’ll conclude with two quick insights from feminist theory. I don’t think either fully explain and they certainly don’t justify woman on woman hate but they do suggest that there is more to these interactions than biology. First, we might look to Sandra Bartky and Foucault, to understand how these responses are part of the process by which the cultural ideal of femininity is constructed. Insofar as that ideal demands the perfect balance of modesty and sexuality (walking the Madonna/whore line which this woman seemingly does not achieve), these responses serve to “discipline” the woman, encouraging her to fall in line. Second, à la Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs we might consider that women are viewing the sexy plant not just as an abstract threat to their primal urge to defend mates, but as a physical manifestation of the constant pressure women are under to be thin, blonde, beautiful, and above all sexy. “What the [expletive] was that,” indeed.