Skip to main content

Are women mean or just stating the facts?

By Peggy Drexler
November 22, 2013 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT