It seems to be a universally accepted fact that girls will repeatedly fall out with one another throughout their school years and perhaps, beyond. I have two daughters, and in my experience, I can attest to there being much truth in this. They talk behind each other's backs. They switch allegiance between best friends at the drop of a hat. They inexplicably blank one another. They take offence continuously. We’re told by wiser mothers (of daughters) and by our own mothers, that this is just girls. It's just how they are. And there's enough anecdotal evidence to more than back this up and so the maxim becomes self-fulfilling. We accept that this is the way things are, and consequently we often don't invest the time and energy required into teaching girls to build supportive, caring relationships with one another.
Do we live in a world that teaches girls to dislike one another, from the off? We certainly live in a world where girls are raised by women who have absorbed the message that other females are competition, and that this is completely natural.
As girls grow, they gradually internalise the two-fold message spewed out by the media and by society that decrees girls must be heterosexual and that males are a priority. Seeking a male partner, being attractive to males, being available to males; all these things are very obvious consequences of living in a world that prioritises the needs and feelings of men above all else.
Girls also grow up internalising the rampant misogyny that pervades our world, some of it glaringly obvious, some of it subtle but all the more insidious because of it. Let's take a look at the films and stories which are pushed at little girls; the Disney Princesses alone contain enough negative messages about inter-woman relations to be troubling. Consider who the villain of the piece is in Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Enchanted? Not only is it a woman, but the motive for her antagonism is often jealousy.
So we are feeding our little girls the message that not only is it imperative that they be beautiful (because only beautiful princesses get their Prince) but that women (usually older, embittered women) will envy you for this. More modern cinema may have tried to redress the balance with films like Frozen and Maleficent, both depicting love and friendship between women, but this is a very recent phenomenon and not one that’s likely to have a huge impact on ingrained behaviours overnight. Also, in both these movies, the friendship between the women is treated almost as a novelty, precisely because the viewer doesn't expect women to behave like this towards one another. So, for example in Maleficent we are to be surprised that true love's kiss comes from the embittered Maleficent towards the young and beautiful Aurora, and similarly, it is an unexpected plot-twist that the act of true love in Frozen is between two sisters, and not, as the plot sets up for us, between Ana and Kristof. Thus, the twin expectations of men being a priority and women being unable to get on with one another are reiterated, albeit subliminally.
Boys, on the other hand, are fed a diet of camaraderie and friendship, as depicted by anything from Thomas and his Friends, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Spiderman and his buddies, Shrek, and the X-Men. Heck, even the Minions are all male, and despite the odd fisticuffs (because boys will be boys won't they?!) are a tale of teamwork and group harmony.
Boys are encouraged to take part in group games and sports, which undeniably helps foster unity and a sense of shared purpose. The vast majority of sports on television are still male dominated, whether it's football, cricket or rugby. Young boys aren't short of examples of male teamwork and bonding in our culture, yet despite small advances in this area (such as the recently high profile of the women's England football team), girls are massively deprived of such role models. Indeed, they're encouraged to take part in activities that are overwhelmingly to do with their physical appearance, be it clothes shopping or pamper parties. Even dancing; which is a common and traditional pursuit for little girls, is pervaded by restrictive physical demands. Ballerinas in particular are expected to be pretty, docile and slim. By the way, I have girls and boys, and I see little external encouragement for girls to participate in activities which are collaborative and which encourage healthy group dynamics to develop (except with the possible exception of Rainbows, but let's not forget that the male counterpart for this group is Beavers, a word which conjures up busyness and industry, whereas the word Rainbow conjures up colourful prettiness. Language has power, people.)
What of older girls then, in the teen and pre-teen age group? What positive examples of female harmony and friendship do they encounter in the wider world? We see women fighting, both literally and figuratively, on film, TV and in music videos. I remember this song from 2005; currently being used on the Money Supermarket advert - Don't Cha' (wish your girlfriend was hot like me?) by the Pussycat Dolls. Explicitly spelling out why other women are to be regarded with suspicion, and how being hot is paramount for hooking a man, regardless of how this might affect another woman; it's her own fault for not being hot enough, after all.
Consider the more recent examples of Taylor Swift's Bad Blood – laughingly touted as Feminist, despite the fact that this video contains image after image of highly sexualised women and concludes with them beating the crap out of one another. Yay, Sisterhood. Or Rhianna’s latest offering,BBHMM (content warning for sexual violence),which is problematic for many, many reasons, but which is also a violent example of misogyny perpetrated by a woman against another woman. I wouldn't go so far as to say that these artists are causing girls to turn on each other; rather that their existence is symptomatic of the misogynistic world that we live in, where hatred, envy and distrust of each other is normalised. Girls see this, they absorb it and it becomes truth. As parents who grew up in the pre-internet age, I don’t think we've twigged yet just how all pervasive this kind of content is in the lives of our children. It can - and is - accessed twenty-four hours a day, by phone, by iPad, by laptop. And if you're keeping an eye on what your child sees on the internet, you can bet that the parents of at least one child in her class aren't. She'll see things you don’t want her to see; it's utterly unstoppable. We’re feeding our girls a steady diet of misogyny; and it's making them sick.
Let’s resist. Let’s teach our daughters about collaboration, teamwork and mutual support. Let’s teach our girls to love one another, and not envy each other. Let's teach them not to distrust each other, but to value their shared girlhood for the unique, unifying gift that it can be. Let's teach them that together they are stronger; that they needn't fear each other. That in friendship and sisterhood there is real power and strength, and within each of them they have the ability to overcome the things that this world will throw at them.
This advice goes for us all. If you're not a feminist already, I strongly urge you to immerse yourself in Feminist theory and thought, for at the heart of this movement is a powerful Sisterhood, comprised of women who know exactly what you've been through and they feel your pain. We are all unwilling contestants in a never ending competition, with men judging and keeping score, and doling out the prizes. It may seem like there are winners, but ultimately, we’re all losers in the end.
(I've written here about the things we can do to help girls to get along with one another.)