We’re walking past the breastaurant Hooters in Singapore and I stop to watch a tourist group comprising three or four middle-aged, Indian couples walk into the bar. There’s no way they know what they’re doing, I think. Except, they do. The men walk into the centre of the restaurant, gleefully waving to the Hooters Girls. Their wives meanwhile choose a corner by the window, sit and proceed to stare down the young women in orange shorts and tank tops. These young women sign contracts requiring them to “acknowledge and affirm” that “[t]he Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and entertaining conversations are commonplace.” Even if they were aware of this, the ladies seem, to the casual observer, to be here only to ensure the safety of their helpless men vs the Hooters’ hussies.
Women hating on other women because of sexual insecurity was a common theme in the women’s magazines my mother subscribed to – “Does she want your boyfriend?” “Ten ways to make sure he doesn’t stray” “How to cheat-proof your marriage”. It’s enough to make you believe that 30 years or so ago, all women were a little like Dolly Parton, keeping busy begging Jolene not to take their man, while getting breast implants as insurance.
But even today, rivalry between women is usually reduced to competitive fertility issues or primal fears about potential loss of a caretaker. It’s like every day, women must slap on some make up, stuff their boobs into push-up bras and play War of the Wombs. You’re supposed to operate under the assumption that any male in-charge of giving you a job, an airline upgrade or a penny for your thoughts will do so only upon favourably evaluating you as a mother for his hypothetical child.
Seeding sexual rivalry amongst women has been pure gold for the double standards of the patriarchy. In the realm of attire and behaviour, the “modest” woman distrusts the “immodest” woman. In the workplace, the successful woman may be accused of sleeping her way to the top. And woe be unto you if you’re a single, sexually active woman because everyone knows those sluts are man-eaters!
A lose-lose situation
The most insidious and toxic of all though is sexual rivalry’s ability to make women just plain stupid. An APA Task Force published a report on the sexualisation of young women and the effects of self-objectification. In an experiment, college students, male and females, were asked to try on either a swimsuit or a sweater and evaluate their own appearances. They then took a Maths test. There was no difference in the men’s results but the young women in swimsuits performed far worse on the tests than those in sweaters.
Further studies showed that self-objectification led to impairment in cognitive domains like logical reasoning and spatial skills. It gets worse. Women, concerned about how attractive they looked even began to “throw like a girl” – not using their entire bodies, just the mobility of their arms. So eventually, sexualisation can limit a woman’s physical ability too, draining her self-confidence and leaving her less likely to be able to defend herself from attack or abuse.
It’s a lose-lose situation, ladies.
There is no winning the Objectification Olympics. No matter what their attributes, Hillary Clinton couldn’t escape the sexist slurs, Michelle Obama was subjected to a baffling “beauty contest” with racist overtones and Melania Trump, who by those same sexist standards should have been the winner, was the focus of predictable misogyny with a side order of lasciviousness.
Focusing on mere sexual rivalry distracts us from the fact that outside of the influence of patriarchy, women can be more competitive than men and yet manage to build solid sororities. Of course, each has its own special handbook. In these man-free situations, if you play by the rules, you have much to gain. In some you will find support for your issues with your mother-in-law but perhaps none for your work woes, in another you will find feisty political debate but no room for talking about cake. Admittedly, not everyone survives the ones where you’re not allowed to challenge the Holy Writ of WhatsApp.
There is an obvious thrill to being accepted by a sisterhood. The competitiveness is fierce but friendly as they compare waistlines and cookie recipes, success in the corporate world and/or mother earthiness, the value of handbags or the achievements of their children.
But who can deny there is also a thrill in being viewed as a threat? “When you first walked in,” A at my exercise class told me, “I said, here comes the bitch. We now have a class bitch.” I giggled nervously at the suspicion, the hope, that this was going to turn into some sort of statement of acceptance.
We’d all like to think we’re above rivalry, especially the sort instigated by the patriarchy. We’re absolutely sure she wasn’t talking to us when Sunny Leone, encouraged by a man, addressed the women of India to reassure them that she did not want their husbands.
But even though we’re too evolved for beauty contests, something else might become the pinch in our Achilles Heel. Like when my husband and I discovered Amy Schumer and took to watching her every evening, laughing madly. Until I realised my husband was laughing longer, harder and much more loudly than I was. Over time, given a choice, he was more likely to choose her over other comedians sitting in our inbox. Inexplicably, I started finding her less and less funny.
It’s easy to dismiss sexual rivalry as insignificant, a reason even to feel superior to other women in the “cool” competition. But it still creates unproductive otherness. It’s worth remembering, that unlike with competitions for social acceptance, being an active part of a support and general camaraderie, when you win the sexual rivalry contest, your prize is a man. Just that man. Still probably thinking about those Hooters girls.
It’s worth the effort of acknowledging rivalry as par for the course to increase the quantity and quality of your interactions in the sisterhoods. A at the exercise class concluded her masterclass by saying conspiratorially, “Ya, you are a bitch, but you’re okay.” I was in!
And so while I’m ashamed to admit it may not have anything to do with the patriarchy and I miss watching her show, I think I’d still like Amy Schumer to reassure me she doesn’t want my husband.