Skip to main content

Are women mean or just stating the facts?

By Peggy Drexler
updated 3:06 PM EST, Fri November 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A study shows women are hostile toward other women who dress provocatively
  • Peggy Drexler: It's no surprise that women often undermine each other
  • She asks what's the point of pitting women against each other in a situation?
  • Drexler: The mean girl vs. the slut just reinforces gender stereotypes

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- Study after study confirms that women backstab, undermine and put down one another—at work, in the PTA, out for drinks—basically taking every chance they can to act out the movie "Mean Girls" long past high school.

Such "intrasexual competition" pressures young women to act and look a certain way. It threatens self-esteem and destroys relationships. It is all that feminists have fought against.

In the latest study to call out the horrible species that is womankind, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario invited pairs of female students to a lab under the pretense of discussing female friendships. But the real test came when a third woman the researchers described as having a "low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin and large breasts" was sent into the room in search of a professor.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

In instances where this third woman was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, she elicited little notice and no negative comments from the other women. When she wore a low-cut, ill-fitting top and ultra-short skirt, however, she generated a far different reaction, categorized as hostile and aggressive, with the other female subjects staring, rolling their eyes or showing outright anger.

Is anyone surprised here?

The researchers suggested the reactions of the subjects—which were almost unilaterally negative—offered further proof that women, particularly adolescents and young women, try to take down other women they perceive as rivals for male attention, in order to "eliminate the competition." The results also offered additional evidence, they argued, of the notion that the more attractive a woman is the more likely she is to be a target for contempt.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

I'm not sure I buy it. In one observed encounter with the short-skirted woman, a female subject was verbally rude, asking her with disgust, "What the (expletive) is that?" In most cases, however, the students waited until the third woman left the room to laugh or express their disdain, in one case commenting that the woman's breasts "were about to pop out."

But is that mean? Or a statement of fact?

This study may confirm that college-age women aren't always sweet and kind—as if anyone thought they were. And it may confirm they speak their mind more often than not—an otherwise positive sign of progress. It may also confirm that young women are reading too many celebrity tabloid "fashion police" columns, in which famous women are routinely bashed for their wardrobe choices.

Are the comedians who participate in such fashion critiquing misogynistic mean girls? Maybe. But they're also reacting to poorly chosen outfits worn in public settings and, frankly, they often have a point. As the subjects of this study likely did, too.

Look, the news isn't good when it comes to women supporting women. But by parading a woman—low hip-to-waist ratio or otherwise—in a purposely provocative outfit around a classroom setting (instead of, say, a bar or a nightclub where such dress might be far less out of place) the researchers in this study were creating a setup that, at best, served to pit women against one another.

Then, when the students reacted quite predictably, the researchers condemned and labeled them—the mean girls versus the slut—reinforcing gender stereotypes in the process.

Perhaps the female subjects in this study are indeed evidence of a new breed of women-hating women. Or perhaps they were simply reacting (as most people might) to a peer dressed inappropriately for a situation.

In fact, it's probable the students might have had a similar dumbfounded response to an attractive, shirtless young man entering the room to ask where he might find his female professor. Or perhaps even to a female student wandering in dressed in a ball gown and full makeup. But were those scenarios part of the test? At the risk of sounding bitchy, of course they weren't.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT