Pre-Oscars red carpet viewing can add two, even three hours of rubbernecking to an already cruelly long night. In exchange, we get preening and posing and actors pulled between interviewers like circus animals on invisible leashes. Occasionally, the red carpet yields an unscripted moment of delightful weirdness – inevitably involving Gary Busey – but the exercise has become so carefully orchestrated that reporters don’t ask actual questions, except for the accidental uptalk: “You look amazing?” Ultimately, the red carpet becomes the Home Shopping Channel, where female celebrities – no one cares that Armani makes your suit, George – name-check designers in exchange for handbags and loaned diamonds.
From the comfort of our couches, the red carpet is equal parts boring and intoxicating, but is it bad for women? For their efforts, the actresses will be pilloried, compared and contrasted, forced into rivalries by bloggers and reporters citing dresses that are less ugly or more lame than some other starlet’s. It all seems like harmless fun, but it may be that the red carpet – and our fascination with off-carpet feuds – perpetuates the enduring, absurd idea that women hate women.
Rivalry is the raison d’être of the awards season, but for female celebrities, reports quickly segue from professional competition to cat fight. Occasionally, the animosity is real (Joan Crawford did diss Bette Davis’s dress when the latter won an Oscar for Dangerous), but most is manufactured (Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez presented an award together last year to defuse rumours of backstabbing). This year, the alleged girl-on-girl hostility is between Best Actress nominees Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. After Lawrence made a mild joke at Chastain’s expense on Saturday Night Live, gossip site Showbiz Spy reported a source who said: “Jessica can’t stand the fact that Jennifer is stealing her thunder!” The faux-questioning headline read: “Jessica Chastain Hates Jennifer Lawrence?” As each collected trophies at various ceremonies, their alleged sniping made news around the globe, reported from Ireland to India.
Impressively, Chastain confronted the rumours head-on. On her Facebook page, she complimented Lawrence and asked: “Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along?” She wrote that she had never fielded more questions about behind-the-scenes bickering than when she made The Help, a movie featuring a nearly all-female cast, ergo: cat fight!
Leora Tanenbaum's book Catfight notes that describing a woman with the word “cat” dates back to the 1600s (it was also slang for vulva), but the phrase “cat fight” – petty, titillating and jealous lady battles – didn’t get much use until the 1970s. The word is almost never applied to men: When Chris Brown didn’t rise from his seat after Frank Ocean won a Grammy last month, the moment was noted in the media as graceless, but no one made a “Meow!” sound and waved claw hands.
“Cat fight” trivializes relationships between women, reducing female competition to a giggling, sexually-charged spectacle. But it’s ridiculous to assert that women take inherent pleasure in watching each other fail, or always resent one another’s success. I’ve known and worked with too many supportive, generously-spirited women, and far too many cutthroat, devious men to believe that all women are one shove away from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
So who does it serve to stereotype women as rivals and enemies? American writer Susan J. Douglas documented how during the ERA movement in the U.S. in the 1970s, media and political opponents loved pitting feminist Gloria Steinem against conservative Phyllis Shlafly, distracting from the issue at hand, and even slowing down progress. Presenting women as emotional and furry makes it hard to take them seriously, and ensures the status quo.
This isn’t to deny that women receive warped messages about assertiveness. Too often, women learn early that to be overt about one’s ambitions is unfeminine. A “good girl” isn’t competitive, but selfless. If Jessica Chastain wants Jennifer Lawrence to lose, that makes her a bitch. If Joaquin Phoenix wants Daniel Day-Lewis to lose, that makes him human.
Competition is about scarcity of resources: The faux-rivalry between Chastain and Lawrence is a version of the “2 Stars 1 Slot” game that originated on the now-defunct website Fametracker. It’s as if there couldn’t possibly be enough room in Hollywood for two talented, beautiful, breakout actresses with the first initial J, so one must eat the other, like a hamster mom. Unequal access to power drives competition between women in workplaces, too: If many industries and professions are still dominated by men, women may view other women as rivals for fewer spaces, fair or not.
But this perception doesn’t help redress inequalities; women championing and mentoring other women might. At the risk of sounding a touch Kumbaya, women should be helping each other along, not pulling each other down – and they do, regularly. Unfortunately, women-helping-women is a less appetizing pop-culture trope than “cat fight.”
So despite the temptation, I’m going to resist the red carpet this year, where accomplished women are set against each other for entertainment. Unlike the young actresses trying to forge their careers, at least I have the option to turn it off.