Jodie Marsh said Katie Price was as “thick as sh*t”. Jordan called Kelly Brook a “heifer”. Jasmine Lennard said on Twitter that Kerry Katona was a “degenerate peasant.”
The ‘hills of celebrity’ are alive with the sound of name-calling, and, if the media is believed, it’s mostly woman versus woman.
From films Carrie to Heathers and the eponymous Mean Girls, the trope of the ‘mean girl’ is established in Hollywood, prompting Roger Ebert to comment, when reviewing Sleepover, in 2004: “I take it as a rule of nature that all American high schools are ruled by a pack of snobs, led by a supremely confident young woman who is blonde, superficial, catty, and ripe for public humiliation.”
In her bestselling self-help book, Queen Bees and Wannabees, Rosalind Wiseman said teenage girls were socialised into a superficial world that prized physical attractiveness above all, leading to rumours and backstabbing.
A teacher at a mixed primary school in Birmingham told the Irish Examiner she could see a gender difference in how her pupils dealt with confrontation. “The boys are inclined to air their grievances more openly and will try to resolve the issue, there and then.
“In my experience, the girls tend to be far more aware of unspoken classroom dynamics, causing them to become more secretive, and almost manipulative at times.”
A psychology professor from the University of Ottawa, Canada, says it may be genetic.
In a review article published in the journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Tracy Vaillancourt says women are ‘catty’ so they can express their anger without becoming physically aggressive. “Women do compete, and they can compete quite fiercely with one another,” said Vaillancourt.
“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,” said Vaillancourt.
These verbal attacks are more damaging to women, who historically depended on each other for help with child-rearing. Being shunned could affect their (and their children’s) chances of survival.
Anne Campbell, an evolutionary psychologist at Durham University, says that “social exclusion and talking behind someone’s back allowed women to work out conflicts without endangering their bodies.”
Campbell says this is not the sole domain of women, telling LiveScience that “by the time you get to adulthood, particularly in work situations, there is virtually no sex difference in indirect aggression.”
Kim Wallen, a psychologist at Emory University, is also sceptical of Vaillancourt’s claims, calling her article an “opinion piece” and saying, “sadly, no empirical data are ever presented that are relevant to the central claim.”
We all know women who are proficient in the art of subtly vicious comments, but many men are, too.
The author, Tracey Moore, says that ‘cattiness’ has less to do with gender than with a feeling of powerlessness: those most associated with this kind of behaviour are women and gay men, two groups marginalised by society and reduced to stereotypical clichés in popular culture. (The nagging girlfriend, the camp queen, etc.)
But the term ‘catty’ is indelibly associated with the female. It is, clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone says, “a sexually biased way of describing an unhealthy way women act on an otherwise healthy feeling of competitiveness.”
For any human being, feelings of competitiveness are inevitable, but it is more socially acceptable for men to directly express their competitiveness. Women have been raised to be more passive, to be ‘nice girls’ and to be ever cognisant of the feelings of others, sometimes at the cost of their own.
They can be uncomfortable with their competitive urges. So, when a co-worker with great legs wears a short skirt, instead of honestly acknowledging their jealousy, a woman might make a nasty comment about inappropriate office attire.
Envious thoughts are acceptable, but cruelty is not. Instead of making a bitchy remark, pinpoint the underlying feelings that are causing you to feel this way, and acknowledge them, without judgement, by ignoring any social conditioning that implies that anger or jealousy are ‘unfeminine.’ By being assertive and refusing to be manipulative, women can compete directly for the things we want in life and give ourselves the best possible chance to succeed.