American singer/songwriter Beyoncé’s song “***Flawless” uses several samples from a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We Should All Be Feminists”, while Beyoncé herself sings about her struggle to be seen as a legitimate artist in her own right and not just her famous husband’s wife. Beyoncé, who is regarded as one of the most acclaimed and influential artists of the 21st century,intersperses her lyrics with snippets from Adichie’s talk, which describes her experiences as a black woman and feminist in Nigeria and the USA.
A particular snippet from “We Should All Be Feminists” that Beyoncé uses in the song caught my attention. In the sample, Adichie says, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments/Which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men”. As a young woman myself, I had never thought about competition in this way. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that there was a ringing truth to Adichie’s statement.
Adichie brings up this particular aspect of competition among women in the context of the ways in which boys and girls are raised differently from each other. She acknowledges that there are, of course, biological differences between the sexes which had resulted in rudimentary divisions of labour in the past, but also notes that times have changed and the way we look at ideas and ideals of gender and leadership must also change accordingly.
In a New York Times article on why women compete with each other, screenwriter and producer Emily V. Gordon admits that “Women compete, compare, undermine and undercut one another — at least that is the prevailing notion of how we interact … Feeling on guard around other ladies is normal for a lot of women, and it’s exhausting. I exhausted myself for years trying to understand how other girls could have gone from my closest allies to my scariest foes”.
She discusses the theory most widely-held by feminist psychologists, which “chalks up this indirect aggression [towards other women] to internalising the patriarchy”. By raising women to see other women simply as competitors for the attention of men – which, according to evolutionary psychology, may also be a natural imperative to protect oneself (or one’s womb) from physical harm and thus alienate other women – and not collaborators, we pit young girls against each other from an early age. This leads to girls feeling the need to establish themselves as being “not like other girls” in order for boys to like them and talk to them over other girls. This phenomenon is only exacerbated by media such as films and television, which show an exaggerated and toxic version of rivalry among women for the attention of boys or men.
Another familiar refrain I heard from some of my female friends during high school was, “I’m mostly friends with boys because girls cause too much drama”. The idea that girls cause drama also stems from the fact that women are generally only taught to see themselves the way boys would – as objects of romantic and sexual interest, not necessarily as equals – and thus competitors with each other for the male gaze. This typecasts certain women into certain roles and disallows them from seeing themselves as capable of others,due to the fact that only some kinds of women are seen as being “ideal” and “appropriate” for certain positions, and that other women need to compete with them in order to be seen as “equal to the men”.
This sort of unhealthy competition also inhibits women from being their true selves – it is ludicrous that women regularly tend to deride other women for being both “too sexual/bold/aggressive” and “too submissive/docile/innocent”. Women on either side of the spectrum aren’t in the running for the attention of men, who “prefer” a perfect, pleasant balance while barely living up to their own standards.
Thus, women aren’t seen as being capable of collaborating with each other, because they are raised to see each other as competitors. It is expected that they cannot get along professionally and are expected to be catty and constantly put each other down in order to achieve their ambitions. In career arenas such as the corporate sector and show business, female leaders are especially expected to put each other down and pander to their male superiors in order to be “successful”.
More and more women are challenging the expectation of cutthroat competition and are choosing to speak out against this typecasting of women; celebrities and artists such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Jessica Chastain in Hollywood, and Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, and Kareena Kapoor closer to home, choose to regularly collaborate with other women and encourage female-led projects. A fictional example of this change that always comes to my mind is the movie Legally Blonde – the protagonist, Elle Woods, initially sees her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend as a rival for his affection and romantic interest, and vice versa.However, Elle soon befriends her rival and realises that the competition between them is trivial in the face of their friendship and work. The two women then eventually leave the ex-boyfriend behind, focusing instead on their future careers as lawyers and their strong friendship.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Washington University adds greater credibility to the importance of collaboration over competition among women, concluding that competition is more detrimental to creativity and productivity among groups of women than collaboration and cooperation. According to Dr Markus Baer, the study’s lead author, “Men are the only beneficiaries of head-to-head competition”, while women do not flourish under the same circumstances. He adds, “the reason lies deep within … gender stereotypes”. The study claims, “Given that women represent a growing portion of the workforce, using competition as a means to enhance the creativity of groups …implies that the creative potential available to businesses is seldom fully realised.”
Thus, it is pertinent, in conclusion, to consider what Gordon has to say about fostering female friendships and support: “We don’t need to lower the stock of other women, either for the future of the species or for our own psyches. When we each focus on being the dominant force in our own universe, rather than invading other universes, we all win.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists”Emily V. Gordon, “Why Women Compete With Each Other”, The New York TimesSamantha Olson, “Women Work Well in Groups Unless There’s Competition; Men are Complete Opposite”, Medical Daily
By Rutvi Zamre
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.