Women are my one true passion in this world—a point I try to casually slip into conversation as often as I can. I first started doing this whenever I was talking to women I didn’t really know. There’s always a bit of uneasiness in the air when new women meet each other—the type of uneasiness that comes with walking into a situation of which you don’t know the outcome. The sad truth is that women are on guard around men, but also around women. Can you blame us? Our feeds are full of feuds, fights, rivalries, and bad blood (dammit, T Swift) between girls. Rather than seeing queens supporting each other and achieving together, we’re fed the narrative that women are catty, nasty, jealous, and vengeful. And many of us feel like we have to compete with women as a result of this perception. So yeah, meeting new ladies is a bit of a loaded situation. Hence my blunt proclamation of love. As soon as the words leave my lips, though, I always feel the air change. Guarded smiles turn to genuine ones.
Pitting two women against each other removes focus from the women as individuals, and reduces their identity to an event. It incites insecurity, anger, and jealousy between the two women. And it upholds the idea that women need to compete with each other if they want a seat at the table. Really, the digital age is to blame. While social media allows women from around the world to discuss issues, share art, and show support for one another, it’s also a breeding ground for toxicity. As the founder of Salty eloquently put it, “the patriarchy is in the algorithms.”
In fact, the patriarchy creates the algorithms—literally. Machines are programmed by humans and learn based on what those humans teach them. So far so good, right? Wrong. The tech industry has a serious diversity problem, and while it’s getting better, the majority of people doing the programming are still cisgender, white men. That’s not to say that all cisgender, white men are racist or sexist, but there’s an implicit bias present which is then learned by the machines. One study found that “by teaching an artificial intelligence to crawl through the internet—and just reading what humans have already written—the system would produce prejudices against black people and women.” Fack.
This applies to the creation of algorithms as well, algorithms which are hugely influential on the type of content we see and interact with every day. A system designed by the patriarchy will undoubtedly perpetuate patriarchal ideals, like the comparison, degradation, and minimization of women. Not to mention the whole concept of competing for “likes,” which are basically akin to points for who has the best-looking life—not exactly what young women need to experience during their developmental years. “Things like popularity used to be abstract … [Thanks to social media], now there’s a tangible measurement,” says media researcher Carmen Papaluca. Factors like this contribute to the higher rates of depression among women who use social media as opposed to men.
Even as a granny millennial who is way past her painful pubescent years, I can safely say that the pressure to get those nuggets of digital validation and present myself as the “cool girl” is inexorable. Social media provides the perfect environment for women to be pitted against each other, both online and in real life. So how do we stop the girl-on-girl crime in the face of such insidious, sexist forces? We fight their misdirection with introspection and redirection.
We’re all guilty of the occasional “Ugh, I hate her” sighed shamefully under our breath. And if we’re not guilty of it, we’re certainly set up to be capable of it. I know I have. I’ve been guilty of some serious girl-on-girl crime in my life, which will most likely eat away at me into eternity. But because of my desperate need to atone for such atrocities, I’ve created a system of questions which I ask myself whenever I feel those four words come bubbling out of my throat:
Sometimes it takes me a few attempts to really be honest with myself, but once I get there I proceed to the next step.
I can’t say this is a perfect system—but sometimes genuine thought, emotion, and analysis help to delay and even reverse the poison that gets pumped into us every time we look at a screen or step outside our homes. Ladies: we’re living in a world that has been created for and by men. We all know, whether consciously or subconsciously, the pressures of the patriarchy. We need each other for companionship, intimacy, support, comfort, empowerment, strength, knowledge, and safety. That’s what we need to move toward. That’s where our power is.
Illustration by Laura Callaghan for The New York Times.