The (Myth of the) Catty Woman Epidemic
We are honored to co-create with the lovely Katya Andersson-Weiss about this hugely important subject. Are women really inherently catty or competitive? Read more below!
One of the many notions our society holds about women is that that we’re catty, competitive and full of drama. By women, I specifically mean femme women, because our society also doesn’t recognize the existence or validity of women who aren’t femmes*. There’s this idea that femme women need to frequently be lectured by others and ourselves to “build each other up instead of tearing each other down.” I want to pause from taking this at face value just for a minute and examine this notion a little more closely.
As soon as I think about this catty woman trope, my own bias comes up: I honestly don’t have any women in my life who are like this, yet I know that there are absolutely plenty of people who fit the stereotype. And while I don’t personally feel the need to compete with other femmes, I know I’ve felt those pressures to some extent in the past. So how much of this attitude is true, and why?
In order to dissect this phenomenon, we have to get all aboard the SJW school bus and talk about sexism. We need to talk about how women are taught that the most important thing we can be is beautiful and desirable (to men, specifically. Because along this line of thought, queer people don’t exist.) We are taught that our beauty and desirability are direct reflections of our worth. Let’s pause here- those are some high stakes! The idea that our whole worth as a human being hangs upon other people- whether or not they want us, whether or not they “rank” above us and make us less desirable by comparison- rather than being independent and intrinsic, is quite the loaded cannon.
In comparison, men are seen as aloof. They’re seen as not caring nearly as much. In reality, men absolutely can and very often do exhibit these petty, hypercompetitive social patterns amongst each other, because toxic masculinity socializes some very destructive standards into them as well. They’re socialized to believe that they need to be bigger, stronger, tougher, less emotional, more “successful”, more desirable to women, etc. and all of that takes a massive toll. That being said, men are also socialized to feel that their worth as humans goes beyond attractiveness and desirability to “the opposite sex.” As such, the stakes are lower.
Now let’s talk about drama. Drama comes from stakes being either high or perceived as high, particularly in a disproportionate way. In other words, we see someone as being “dramatic” when we feel they’re making a big, flashy deal about something comparatively small. We label social patterns as “drama” when we see them as being unnecessarily fraught. But again, what’s at stake beneath the surface here is a person’s entire sense of worth as a human being.
Lastly, we have to talk about competition. The way the concept of competition is gendered is fascinatingly contradictory. My favorite example of this is an internet thinkpiece written by a famous ultra-conservative figure arguing that women shouldn’t go into STEM fields (naturally.) One primary argument of his was that women are too soft and collaborative and just don’t have the gritty, ambitious, competitive nature to succeed in these fields. Just sentences later, he argued that the nature of women is too animalistically competitive amongst one another for them to succeed. When competition is positive and productive, it’s gendered as male. When it’s negative and petty, it’s gendered as female. The word “catty” itself is almost exclusively used to talk about women. I shouldn’t need to say that all genders of people are individuals and have different levels of proclivity towards different levels of competition in different realms, but here we are.
So what can all genders of people do to move beyond these patterns and/or keep them from playing a role in our lives?
-Be mindful of your environment(s) and the ideas pervasive in those spaces-
When our worlds are small and narrow-minded, it’s easier to fall into whatever patterns are expected of us and not question them. If the environment(s) you’re inhabiting and the communities surrounding you are ones which just reproduce dominant societal narratives without questioning or challenging them, it’ll feel like there’s no other way to be besides how you’re expected to be. In other words, if your surroundings- whether that’s a school, religious community, town, social circle, etc.- don’t include many different types of people with different ideas and ways of being, it’s easy to mistake stereotypes for common sense and allow them to take root in yourself as self-fulfilling prophecies.
-Taking responsibility for your own relationship to self-
Everyone has insecurities and as adults, we’re each responsible for our relationship with our own sense of self-worth. One of the biggest toxic thought patterns that most (if not all) of us fall prey to is the idea of “I’m not enough,” and that root fear can take shape in many offshoot thoughts, such as “I’m not attractive enough,” “I don’t deserve a job that feels fulfilling,” etc. One of the most crucial things anyone can do to grow as a person is to be mindful of these thought patterns and begin the conscious process of divorcing from them.
To begin the process of divorcing from our toxic, limiting belief patterns, we have to do exactly what we’re doing here with the idea of the catty woman epidemic: we pause from taking these ideas at face value, even if just for a minute. We call them in for questioning. From there, we start to see that they may not even be true, and then eventually we’re able to let them go and release their control over us. The best way I know to go about this process is to ask the Four Questions from The Work by Byron Katie: target a thought and first ask “Is it true?” Then ask “Can I absolutely know for certain and prove that it’s true?” Then ask “What happens/how do I feel when I believe this thought?” Lastly, ask “What would my life be like/who would I be if without this thought?” When we get used to questioning our limiting beliefs we become freer, more stable and more powerful than ever before.
If we are dealing with an unstable ego, it is on us to own that and do the work as opposed to taking it out on others. Whether we believe the “I’m not enough” lies because our parents were abusive or we experienced sexual violence or face many layers of systemic devaluation, we are the only ones who can heal our relationship with self. When insecurities are popping up, we have to be mindful of whether we’re letting that impact our relationships and interactions with others. Whether we’re verbally insulting someone because we feel threatened by them or just allowing unspoken tension to build and fester towards them, the fact that we feel threatened by their existence is not their fault. It is on each individual to do their own individual work, and to eventually come to understand that their worth has nothing to do with anyone else.
-Set your own boundaries-
If you are allowing yourself to be surrounded by people who resort to petty, competitive social patterns because they haven’t taken responsibility for their own insecurities, you will likely be consistently spinning your wheels. These toxic dynamics demand a lot of energy, which leads to feeling drained. If it feels right, you can choose to talk to people in your life about all of this and see if it makes an impact, but if the toxic patterns continue, it’s up to you whether you allow those people to continue taking up the same amount of space in your life.
The reason I don’t have women in my life who fit the catty and competitive stereotype is because the relationships I choose to build and maintain are those with healthy dynamics. If a person manifests toxic and draining interpersonal patterns consistently, I don’t choose to pursue platonic, professional, romantic, etc. relationships with them.
Most of us have a lot of agency to choose who is a part of our lives and to what degree, and it’s up to us to put that agency to use through boundary-building in order to honor ourselves.
-Recognizing and releasing internalized misogyny-
There’s an even bigger item on the to-do list here, and that’s to work towards dismantling sexism as a whole so that among other things, no one is socialized into toxic patterns of belief and behavior based on their gender. Kind of a big job, huh?
The work of dismantling sexism starts with our own perspective: this means addressing our own internalized narratives about women, and therefore about ourselves. Sexism itself is, among many other things, a set of limiting beliefs, and limiting beliefs are self-perpetuating cycles and excuses. When we tell ourselves “this is just how women are, therefore it’s ok and natural for me to be this way,” we allow harm to continue to come to ourselves and others. In reality, we can divorce ourselves from these ideas too. When we no longer take at face value what society says it means to be a woman, we can really get to know who we are as individuals.
It’s crucial that when we begin the work of challenging sexism in ourselves and in society, we see the big picture. If we are not acknowledging and working against the other parallel and intersecting systems of oppression such as racism, classism, homophobia, ableism and others, our work is meaningless, and we certainly have the power to do better than that. Therefore it’s important to acknowledge that a black woman or a trans woman, for example, faces even more toxic narratives being imposed on her by society because she’s facing both sexism AND racism or transphobia.
Women are people, prone to dealing with insecurities like all other people. Women are individuals, prone to manifesting those insecurities in an array different ways, like all other people. Sexism sets women up with particular challenges that are conducive to particular destructive patterns, but that doesn’t mean that these patterns are natural and inherent to womanhood. It’s easy to condescendingly remind femmes to build each other up rather than tearing each other down. What’s much more powerful is to do the internal work with oneself and the external work with society so that neither you nor others feel the need to compete in the first place.
*Important side note: there are women of all orientations who are not particularly feminine and men of all orientations who are not particularly masculine, and that’s okay. It’s not a failure on their part to tap into their feminine or masculine energies; it’s who they are.
About Katya ~