I don't know about us, science. I like you a lot, especially when you're shedding light on the dark underbelly of our existence. But you're also just people, you know? And sometimes you come at things weird. Like this study that says women are catty because we evolved indirect aggression to compete but with a low cost of injury to ourselves. And that we do this to take out our sexual rivals because we are hardwired to hate anyone younger or prettier. Oh science. There, there. It'll be all right.
Here is the basic info, via LiveScience:
Though both men and women use such indirect aggression in relationships, women use backbiting to demoralize competition and take sexual rivals out of the picture, one researcher argues in a review article detailed today (Oct. 27) in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
"Women do compete, and they can compete quite fiercely with one another," said Tracy Vaillancourt, the paper's author and a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada. "The form it typically takes is indirect aggression, because it has a low cost: The person [making the attack] doesn't get injured. Oftentimes, the person's motives aren't detected, and yet it still inflicts harm against the person they're aggressing against."
In the past, the piece goes on to say, women needed other women to raise children. So when a woman took out a rival, it could really hurt that woman, and her offspring's, survival chances. For this reason, the researcher insists, women have to be "exquisitely attuned to such slights."
The result? Once you've been withered by a rival, you're now too fucking depressed to saunter out in the sexual marketplace. Which is a good thing, because by now, the dude you wanted doesn't find you as attractive anyway, especially if the girl who said you were a dirty skank is really hot herself.
This ABC News piece turns a more critical eye:
Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University, said he had reviewed the analysis and is skeptical of Vaillancourt’s views.
“Her work comes across as more opinion than review,” he said. “She cites no empirical data to back up her claims.”
Wallen said that Vaillancourt does not use a single statistic to support her theory and that many her references are also highly speculative.
Vaillancourt counters that the research is clear: Women are biologically programmed to perceive women who are younger, prettier or more desirable to potential mates as threats. To diffuse a threatening rival, women tend to employ passive aggressive behaviors. So rather than lift a finger, a woman will wound her opponent with contemptuous glances, unkind words and petty remarks. Men, on the other hand, seem programmed to use direct aggression techniques like shouting and physical violence to defend their social turf, Vaillancourt said.
So, trapped in a war of gender essentialism, he will grunt and strike, and she will insult and glare. Sounds like a match made in cave heaven. (Actually, prehistoric families are a lot more egalitarian than we like to think.)
Why do we always want to start from these places? We see a terrible act of human gargoyleness, and we want to confirm that this is in our DNA. Maybe it is, but maybe it's also like carrying genes for certain disease: Whether or not it's ever activated depends on whether it's given an environment in which to flourish.
To be fair, it's not that I haven't seen more men go to blows than women to resolve conflict, though where I grew up, I saw my fair share of chick fights, and was in a few myself. It's not that I haven't seen women resort to shunning or malicious gossip. It's not that I'm unaware of the power women have to vibe, on a level that can often go undetected by men entirely. I've seen it, and I've done it.
It's that I don't think it's about sex. I think it's about power. And I think it's a symptom of any group that is routinely denied power, or reduced culturally to having only one kind that matters, such as sexual power, and that, furthermore, is conditioned to never express anger or physical aggression, to come up with more indirect ways to express these human things.
Also, when mating is not the end-all goal for everyone, when offspring protection is the not the only level you operate from, doesn't it follow that there are bigger and often more important values that drive your actions with your fellow humans? It's not all fucking and breeding, you know?
Also, if women are the only gossips, how does word travel so fast if it can only speed around on the Boob Wire?
To this day, reality television and soaps continue to mine the image of women as catty, two-faced, jealous gossips. And it reinforces an old stereotype of women as very petty and small-minded, while men are off thinking More Important Thoughts. The funny thing about oppression is that it allows the oppressive party to stick it to the marginalized groups both ways. Women are too dumb to be educated, so then they aren't educated, which keeps them ignorant, which is how we know so well that they are ignorant. (All I know is when I haven't left the house for a week or talked to many other humans, I too can find a commercial for shampoo really fucking fascinating.)
But here's the bigger thing: Men are catty, too. Evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell, who wasn't part of this women-be-catty research, offered a more balanced take.
"There is virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression," Campbell told LiveScience. "By the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, men use this, too."
Oh, and on the down-low, that workplace? It's the same one that says it's still more acceptable for a man to express anger and ask for a raise or a promotion. Do you really think if women were truly equal that they would need gossip to exert influence? My guess is women would still use it insomuch as it is effective, just like men. Should I do a study? How much do female CEOs and politicians need gossip or vibing to communicate or exert influence as compared to their male peers?
And what of the word "catty" anyway? We hesitate to call men catty because it's a word we use for women, even though all of us knows a gossipy man, a catty man, a scheming man, an undermining man. Some people resort to these tactics when they feel they have no control over their lives. As this excellent piece on the subject backs up: The term "catty" is a sexually biased way of describing an unhealthy way women act on an otherwise healthy feeling of competitiveness.
But back to the earlier point that the use of indirect aggression is equal among men and women in adulthood — does this mean it's less equal in teenage years? There was a study recently that looked at the way popularity increases aggression in both sexes. One, it does. And two, among social networks where girls and boys played together more, everyone was less aggressive toward their same-sex peers.
That's right: Men and women being friends greatly diminishes the notion of Venus/Mars gender identity, and lowers aggression. This confirms that our notions of gender can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Declare men and women as vastly different, make them less likely to be friends, create greater confusion, keep men and women apart, then reassert their innate, irreconcilable differences.
Too bad for studies like this that we're moving away from this more and more, that we're sharing roles, and becoming more lax about what it means to be one thing or another. You just won't see as many studies a-ha-ing about it.
Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.