She undermines co-workers, tears apart relationships, and even sabotages friends’ diets: The specter of the competitive female is becoming ubiquitous, reflected in the antiheroines of the surging chick-lit genre or the anxious, preening contestants on the reality show The Bachelor. And though the spectacle of female rivalry provided by ABC is dismissed as televised manipulation by some tenderhearted viewers, it is all too real for Leora Tanenbaum, pop feminist and author of Catfight: Women and Competition.
Having written for publications from Seventeen to The Nation, Tanenbaum joined the Wolf-Roiphe-Wurtzel continuum of brash post-feminists with her 1999 book Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, an anecdotal study of the sexual stereotypes teenagers use to contain difference in their circumscribed world. Tanenbaum was particularly attentive to how girls themselves are complicit in this cruelty, plastering peers with enduring reputations as tramps. Since then, Margaret Talbot and Emily White have further exposed the cunning mechanisms of schoolgirl rancor. But what of the world beyond high school? In Catfight, Tanenbaum’s latest provocatively titled manifesto, her attention has graduated to motherhood, marriage, and career, where the venom is as acute as ever—and women have become their own worst enemy.
Catfight expounds Tanenbaum’s theory that while competition between men is natural and often productive, women have more at stake in such contests. Feminism’s advances have caught women “in a threshold between two paradigms, the old and the new.” As options multiply, so do the lingering questions: Motherhood or a childless career? Cultivation of beauty or confidence beyond appearance? Independence or romance? In a state of “perpetual vertigo,” Tanenbaum writes, many women yearn for direction and control. Self-conscious and defensive, they begin justifying themselves at each other’s expense, comparing clothes, bodies, careers, children, husbands. Tanenbaum’s horrible diagnosis only gets worse. This behavior, she argues, is often hidden and unacknowledged—all the more vicious for its disguises. Beneath the veneer of female solidarity, she locates the truth in “32 Flavors,” Ani DiFranco’s paean to jealousy: “Everyone harbors a secret hatred/for the prettiest girl in the room.”
For those who doubt that this secret hatred is anything more than a personal hang-up, Tanenbaum responds with a dizzying range of sources. She assembles psychology studies, interviews, literary history, and pop culture briefs on everything from Dick Ebersol to Glamour. For ballast, she throws in her reports from a beauty pageant, a singles night, and WNBA games. But this haphazard approach makes for an erratic read, veering from the convincingly sociological to the cringingly subjective. At the dismal singles party, for example, Tanenbaum apparently doesn’t speak with the women attendees. She still, however, offers some less than startling observations of female competition (women scrutinizing one another’s clothes and a chilly atmosphere in the club) and the unsubstantiated suggestion that many of the women went home “haunted by anxieties” about being alone.
Tanenbaum’s best when grappling with the conflicting demands of work and children. She describes the isolation of motherhood with particular care, exposing women’s reluctance to discuss postpartum depression or the frustrations of raising children for fear of appearing inadequately maternal. Drawing from both her own experience (she has two children) and the work of sociologists, she articulates how the pervasive ambivalence of motherhood—in which decisions about resuming work, breast-feeding, and even epidurals come laden with value judgments—drives women into further seclusion and antagonism.
Tanenbaum’s precarious tower of evidence collapses, however, when she turns to dating and beauty. Here, her arguments become reductive, and the hostile environment she describes seems highly personal. In the dating chapter, Tanenbaum theorizes that a woman’s distrust of her boyfriend’s ex (or any “Other Woman” who might steal his affection) is a crippling symptom of her misguided pursuit of a husband—as though men have never experienced such base resentment. In another jarring passage, Tanenbaum blames her own compulsive need to compare herself with other women on “our culture’s narrow conception of beauty,” which she equates with “being young, white, blond, fashionable, thin.” This definition must come as a shock to any man (or woman) who has idealized a dark-haired, dark-skinned lovely. Unfortunately, Tanenbaum’s account of the “American beauty ideal” is founded on such solipsistic observations. According to her methodology, discovering fashion magazines has made her competitive and self-conscious; the same must be true for all women.
Cramming every indication of female division into this conceit of “competition,” Tanenbaum overlooks signs of individuality (or individual neuroses, as the case may be), and sees instead a societal problem. Thus she offers concrete political solutions to the particular predicament of working mothers (better and more affordable child care), while her resolutions for the beauty and dating divides remain facile and downright embarrassing: “Refuse to buy clothing that requires a semistarvation weight. . . . Be friendly to your boyfriend’s ex.” Such dreary prescriptions are enough to make a girl crave the invigorating pleasures of a good, old-fashioned catfight.