Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why are Women So Cruel to Each Other?

Women can be very mean to one another.  Why is this?

In books, movies, and on television, they depict women as living together in harmony.  It is a nice fantasy.  The sisters of the traveling pants or whatever get together and rent a beach house and bond together as women in a platonic quasi-Lesbian way.  It is a heartwarming Hallmark moment.   But while women like to watch movies like this (derisively referred to as "chick flicks") the reality for many is quite the opposite.  Women can be cruel to each other in a manner which would make grown men cry.

When I was in college, circa 1985, I worked as an intern at Planned Parenthood.  Don't ask why.  It was a job and it was educational, although perhaps not in the ways intended.  My job was to reorganize their library of sex books and I think I did a pretty good job of that.  The first day I arrived, several of the women there greeted me.  They were all about 40- 50-something women, fairly affluent and liberal, mostly volunteers who believed in the cause of preventing teenage pregnancy (which is a good cause).  So I naively expected them to be "liberated women" - liberated from preconceived notions of gender identity.

But one of them welcomed me with the comment, "Great!  It will be so nice to have another MAN in here!" 

I was a bit flabbergasted.  No men worked here?  "Well, we have janitor," one woman explained, "He does all the cleaning and lifts the heavy boxes for us."  And she said that with no trace of irony.

"And the Director, of course!" another chimed in.

"What do you mean 'of course'?" I replied, "Wouldn't a woman's health center be run by a woman?"

They all laughed and exchanged knowing glances with one another.  A kindly older woman, about the age of  my Mother, said to me, "Oh no, Bob, we couldn't have that.  If we had a woman running this place, the rest of us would spend all our time trying to tear her down!"

And they all laughed and nodded their heads in agreement.

I was amazed at this statement - and the candor with which it was made.  And when I tell this story to some women, they also nod their heads in agreement.  What is up with that?

My boss elaborated later - stating flatly that in an organization like this, having a male leader made things easier, as the women working there did not feel that "one of their own" was being elevated above the others.  I was floored.  Did people really think this way?

But I learned a few other things there as well.  For example, that women's menstrual cycles will synchronize after a few months, if they work together.  That was, frankly, kind of freaky - like some supernatural power.  But it illustrated how subtle our minds work, and how we pick up cues subconsciously, sometimes from things as under-the-radar as pheromones.

Our society has made great advances in providing equal opportunities for both genders, just within my lifetime.  When I was born, for most women, the only option in life was to marry well, and marriage was for life.  If you picked an abusive husband or an alcoholic, that was it.  You were basically his punching bag and his property.  Divorce was out of the question.  And a career?  Not likely, unless you wanted some "traditional" woman's job, likely to be very low-paying.

While things are not quite "Even-Steven" today, women are starting to dominate the professions - More women than men graduate every year as Doctors and Lawyers.  And only a few decades ago, men would tell jokes about going to see "one of those lady doctors."  Imagine That.  I try to explain that to young women today, and they give me blank stares.

Of course, men still make more money than women today, and in many (but not all) cases, this is due to discrimination.  But every year the gap closes, and today, paying women less to do the same job is grounds for a very serious lawsuit, as Wal-Mart is finding out.

We are told, regularly, of course, about how men are all beasts and treat women poorly.  And for the most part, this is indeed true.  In terms of discrimination, spousal abuse, sexual abuse, assault, and rape, it is the male who is the perpetrator in the overwhelming majority of cases.

But how do women treat each other?  From an emotional point of view, I think poorly.  And why is this?

Well, to begin with, while we are doing much better in terms of providing equality in opportunity in this country, women and men are still raised differently and/or are inherently different from one another.  Whether it is socialization or genetic programming of the brain, women and men are different, and women are usually the first to point this out.

And while most of my women friends want to believe in the mythology of the sisterhood, most of them are the first to report that it is mostly bullshit.

For example, I have one friend who grew up in a Steel Magnolias kind of town.  Every year, she gets together with all her "girlfriends" from the fourth grade.  They have stayed in touch, all these years, and once a year, they all get together for a little "girl time."

And she hates going.  But she doesn't want to not go, lest the others talk behind her back.  As you might imagine, after 40 years or so, you tend to go different ways than the people you met at age nine.  And that is normal and nothing to be alarmed about.  We all have different motivations in life, different experiences, and expecting friendships from elementary school to flourish for a lifetime is a bit naive.  This is not to say it doesn't happen, but it is not common.

Anyway, at these girly luncheons, the other women try to impress each other with their financial prowess, either by showing off how much they earned as "career girls" or by how much they have made by marrying wealthy men.  My friend, who is just a regular human being, doesn't have a fancy handbag to show off, names to drop, or the latest cell phone.  And as you might expect, her "friends" devastate her with condescending comments on her life, clothes, accessories, and even the car she drives.

So why does she go to these ego-bruising events?  "Oh, I have to!" she says.  As a male, I cannot figure it out.

And perhaps we are raised differently or our brains are programmed differently.  Men tend to figure out a pecking order, I think, early on in a relationship with other men.  Top and bottom, dominant and submissive.  Abbott and Costello.   Most traditionally male-based organizations are laid out this way, with a strict hierarchy of who is on top, and who is on bottom - as in the military.  And perhaps this is one reason why the military fought bringing women into the ranks - a fear that they would not fit into this male hierarchy.  But it appears that fear was not well-founded, and women seem to "fit in" well in the military.  And perhaps the structured hierarchy is an advantage to them, compared to the traditional ways that women interacted with each other and with men, in the past.

But as a male, I guess I care a lot less what someone else thinks of me.  Bruising comments and condescending remarks have a lot less impact.  You just shrug your shoulders and say "Well, he's an asshole" and you don't hang with them anymore.  Only women go back to the well for yet more and more abuse.

And nowhere is this more true than in family matters.  As I noted before, my late Sister spent an inordinate amount of time trying to "understand" her relationship with our Mother.  She felt that as a woman, she should have this special bond or understanding with Mom.  And I guess our media sells this idea on a regular basis.  But to me, there was not much to understand.  Mom was an alcoholic, bi-polar schizophrenic, closeted Lesbian, (in no particular order) who was basically insane.  Yes, it was a tragedy, but there wasn't (and isn't) a lot to "understand" when it comes to batshit crazy.  You just move on.  Putting your hand on the hot stove time and time again is not going to help you "understand" the stove more.

Or, as a reader recently wrote, Mothers-In-Law can be very cruel to their son's wives, often meddling in their marital affairs and trying to be a third party to the marriage.  And foolishly, some men allow this to happen.  And I will say this again, to all you Momma's Boys out there - when you get married, your primary family responsibility is to your wife and your new family.  If you want to marry your Mother, then do that.  But don't torture some innocent woman by marrying her, and then ganging up on her with your Mother at every turn.

But it is a two-way street, of course.  Not only is the Mother-In-Law evil for meddling in her son's marriage, the daughter-in-law is partly culpable by giving a rat's ass about it.  It takes courage, but sometimes you just have to go up to people, get right in their face, and say "Fuck you.  Get out of my house, get out my life, you mean-spirited, miserable excuse for a human being."  Men have less of a problem doing that than women, who are trained from birth to "be nice" and "play nice".  But as I noted in another posting, sometimes you are just plum all out of nice.

Of course, the women I am writing about are all of my generation - raised in an era where boys wore blue and girls wore pink, which is still somewhat true today.  But times, they are a-changing and Bob Dylan is 70 freaking years old (and looks 120).  Maybe today, young girls don't put up with this nonsense anymore.  Maybe women today are more assertive and are not as devastated when some other woman makes a snide remark about their shoes.

I certainly hope so, anyway.

What does this have to do with finances?  Well, we all take our normative cues from our peer group, and oftentimes allow this to overrule our own instincts and desires.  And when you give too much weight to what other women think you should be doing, you may end up doing things that are not in your own best interests.

So when you go to the "BFF Luncheon!" and one of your so-called "best friends" makes snide remarks about the car you drive or the handbag you are carrying, and this devastates you emotionally to the point where you think about leasing a new Lexus to "show her" - you are letting someone who is basically a stranger dictate how to run your life.

Or if you let your Mother-In-Law run your life and tell you what to do and how to raise your children, you end up doing things against your own best interests.  And no matter what you do, Mothers-In-Law (or Mothers, for that matter) are never satisfied, even if you jump through every hoop.  There will always be another hoop to jump though, like a trained circus animal.

And of course, Men do fall into this trap, too - often basing their purchasing decisions on the normative cues they receive from their peer group, or family members.  And perhaps men are just as affected, but perhaps complain about it less and internalize their anger more.  That is a distinct possibility.

But, if you are a woman, and your relationship with other women isn't like in the movies and on TeeVee, don't fret about it.  Those are just stories, not reality.

Regardless of your gender, be your own person, and believe in yourself, and do what you think is best.  In the long run, you will be happier and have better relationships with others - relationships based on a peer-to-peer level.  And just walk away from toxic relationships that make you unhappy and uncomfortable, even if they are your "best friends" or family members.  It is OK to do so.  Give yourself permission!