Mean Girls by S. M. Hutchens

Mean Girls

Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry by Susan Shapiro Barash

St. Martin’s Press, 2006
(288 pages, $22.95, hardcover)

reviewed by S. M. Hutchens

From my perch in a public library I often come across fascinating titles that lead me from my accustomed browsing grounds into what is (to me, anyway) the morbid esoterica of life in the world created by the enlightened modern mind. Susan Shapiro Barash’s Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry is one.

Barash, a professor of Critical Thinking and Gender Studies at Manhattan Marymount College, speaks of female rivalry as a phenomenon both typical of and peculiar to her sex, contrasting it to male competitiveness in which men seem to enjoy a natural advantage through their ability to limit competition to discrete spheres of activity.

Rivalry practiced by women, she argues, tends to become all-consuming, growing into envy and jealousy that encompasses every area of life, alienating women from each other and dissipating the collective strength they might have had through the female solidarity envisaged by early feminism. Where men seem to be able to compete fiercely in business or on the athletic field, then retire to have a friendly drink together, women, to their immense disadvantage (against men?), once drawn into competition with other women—typically their “friends”—often will not be satisfied until they have destroyed one another.

The Female Superior

Although Barash has come to this as the result of her research, it is something observant people have always known, and one of the reasons women have tended to be relegated to subordinate roles not simply by the will of men, but of women as well.

There are good reasons both women and men tend as a rule to be more frightened and mistrustful of female superiors—the “female superior” being in all likelihood a competitive woman—than they are of males. There is something to the stereotype of the woman who, once threatened or alienated by competition or anything else, is an implacable enemy forever, while the man who, more abstractly goal than person-oriented, is able to leave these things behind, or at least re-order them constructively, and get on with business.

Despite the obvious risks male bosses pose to female employees they find attractive or male subordinates with whom they compete, it is more likely that both men and women will receive satisfactory treatment from the male superior—a commonplace of the workplace with which feminism is decidedly uncomfortable.

Men, in Barash’s study, appear in the eyes of competitive women in the dual role of sex-objects and the guardians of the privileged world to which women aspire, but from which they are occluded by the actions of men and their own lack of solidarity (a term used many times in this book). By “sex-objects” I am not referring to the simple sexual lust of males, but the wider erotic lust of females in which men symbolize not only physical satisfaction, but gain significantly for being rich and handsome, the potential providers of quality children, and perhaps most of all, for the ability to provide a well-appointed stability in the world.

S. M. Hutchens is a Touchstone senior editor.

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