a panel of talking heads starting with one woman telling another woman something, then she tells another woman, then that woman tells a man, and it keeps on going as people pass it on over the phone and in person, until eventually we see a man shocked to hear something about himself and then pointing the finger at the original woman at the top of the panel

Gossip by Norman Rockwell

Mateship is a bond so sacred we want it recognised in the Australian Constitution but female friendship is something nasty and undermining. Apparently this is because female friendships are distracted by competition for men.

Oh, this kind of shit doth weary me. (From the San Fransisco Chronicle via the Sydney Morning Herald ).

We all know her. The “frenemy” who hugs you at parties, yet spills your secrets when you turn your back. The female boss who won’t cut you a break. The feminist who scoffs at your fishnet stockings, or the stay-at-home mum who pities your childlessness.

Whether it’s the mean girls on the playground or at the office, females leave lasting scars that make it difficult for adult women to form strong female friendships, according to the book Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships.

For a much more critical review of the book see the piece here at The New York Times, which highlights among other problems the fact that survey results are made or broken by their techniques and non-randomised surveys particularly, are way open to bias. Take a survey result that finds that 84% of women experienced emotional wounding from a female friend, as the author in Twisted Sisterhood claims: is this a higher result than would be found for men in their friendships? Is this result more than women experience in their friendships with men? Is there a difference for heterosexual and lesbian women in their friendships with women and frequencies of emotional wounding? Do the results actually mean anything – how many women have also experienced emotional wounding at the hands of their children, siblings, colleagues, bosses, teachers, neighbors? What kind of language was used in the survey? Was it gender-neutral? Did the words test the stereotypes or reinforce them? Do all women feel this way or are you more motivated to complete a survey when the subject matter relates to your bad experiences? Are women who have close friendships more likely to have experienced an emotionally wounding episode in their friendships, and is that necessarily worse than someone who only maintains surface friendships and never gets emotionally invested enough to be hurt? While the survey had respondents from different class backgrounds was the spread representative or were certain characteristics over-represented (which happens readily when surveys are non-randomised)? How were respondents located, did they know what the survey was looking for?  Could they have selectively recalled memories to please the researcher? And on and on and on the list of potential problems go. Although naturally this hasn’t stopped the article from vigorously pursuing the idea that women’s friendships are ‘catty’ – they have an author with a survey to prove it.

The SMH article is riddled with sexist stereotypes – too many for me to bother with. But this is the bit I want to focus on here because I see this notion repeated a lot:

“When daughters see their mothers gossiping, see them bonding with other women over it, see how they reap social rewards by laughing together at someone else’s expense, that’s sending a powerful social message about how the world works,” Valen said.

Let me tell you something, daughters of the world. I have spent almost all my working life in very male-dominated workplaces, from the time that I was a ‘promotional girl’ for a beer company to the times I taught economics at university, all the way through to now when I work in the most male-dominated section of a male-dominated work environment, and I can tell you.. men love to gossip. Alpha males – men’s men – love it the most and generally have the best gossip. I’ll bet they also reap social rewards from sharing it. That’s right, daughters, Dad likes to laugh at someone else’s expense from time to time, too.

And that’s the way the world works!

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: Culture, gender & feminism, language, Life, media, relationships, Science, skepticism, Sociology


14 replies

  1. Are women who have close friendships more likely to have experienced an emotionally wounding episode in their friendships, and is that necessarily worse than someone who only maintains surface friendships and never gets emotionally invested enough to be hurt?
    I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now (I’ve been asked to write an article on the subject, hooked to an upcoming film that thankfully takes a more nuanced view on the issue than it sounds like this book does), and I’m leaning towards this explanation. The friends I’ve had the biggest blowouts with – the ones who have hurt me the most – have always been the ones I’ve cared about most. They’ve had the capacity to hurt me (and I to hurt them) because I love them. Same with any other intense relationship – romantic, familial or otherwise.
    I was chatting about this with a friend this morning after she sent me the above article, and we also wondered if part of this angst might be related to women being socialised to want relationships to always be happy, pleasant and conflict-free.
    Obviously, these are all generalisations and this is a complex topic (as well as a problematic one – why are we so interested in discussing what’s “wrong” with women anyway?), but I do reject this idea that women are somehow either innately, or socialised to be, these horrible, catty, competitive-in-a-bad-way creatures. I’ve had my share of trouble with female friends over the years, but I’ve also had some incredible, amazing, really loving friendships – often with the same people. And even in the midst of those blowouts, I still had enough emotional intelligence to recognise that my friends were still in many respects great (if flawed – as am I) people.
    Anyway, tricky topic to write about – due to the innate problems in the framing – the San Fran writer seems to have been pretty lazy and uncritical in her approach. I’m hoping that my desire to reframe the question will get me closer to something that reflects the complexity of women’s emotional relationships, though… or that at least doesn’t rely petty stereotypes and gender blaming.

    • Looking forward to reading your take on it, Rachel.
      It is a tricky topic, but to me part of that trickiness seems to be the cultural willingness to view a single woman’s experience is if is says something universal about all of us, or to present certain adolescent female cliques as somehow intrinsically different from the many adolescent male cliques that abound in high schools and set up other students as targets of mockery and ostracism. Perhaps it also relates to some people’s (inexplicable to me) tendency to talk about high school or college/uni as a time that is supposed to be the best years of one’s life, and perhaps resent anyone who they feel ‘ruined’ that experience for them?

  2. Rachel – I think your article sounds fascinating too. It is a terrific and complex topic.
    I think a big part of female friendships is that the level of intimacy many of them enjoy means that the level of vulnerability is far greater when things go wrong.. I, too, have had some heartbreaks over female friendships going sour/breaking up.
    Cat’s Eye is a fabulous book by Margaret Atwood if you want to read about toxic friendships.

  3. Thanks for the post. I have been puzzling over a related question lately: what are the social benefits of gossip? I remember reading an essay ten years back (so no hope of remembering the author or title!) about how gossip is denigrated in our culture as a way of controlling women, but how it does help in forming social bonds.
    I’ve also been thinking about how men’s and women’s experiences of the social context around them may be drastically different, based simply on their elementary school experiences. Are women and men socialized to play by different rules?

  4. The word gossip has a really interesting history. Up as far as the early 17th century it was a gender-neutral word for godparents. Then it began to mean the women a woman had around to support her during childbirth and with a new baby. It morphed into meaning someone’s close female friends, and only much later accumulated any negative connotations.

  5. Some of the most toxic verbal bullying I’ve come across in the last few years has come from male friends and colleagues.
    It’s one of the reasons why I don’t gig much with male musicians any more (as leaders that is – I seem to get on fine with other side-persons.)

  6. @Kristin, the social rewards of gossip are generally in terms of reinforcing cliques, and advancing along the pecking order within cliques. Who gets listened to and has their suggestions followed, who gets ignored/sidelined, who gets tapped for mentoring by a leader – the way people gossip to mock/shame others shapes all of that.
    @orlando, Falstaff gets called an old gossip at one point, doesn’t he?
    @blue, @Helen, I’m always astonished at the folk wisdom that men don’t gossip and use it to shame and exclude others (not just women). Do people simply not actually look at what is really happening?

  7. @blue, @Helen, I’m always astonished at the folk wisdom that men don’t gossip and use it to shame and exclude others (not just women). Do people simply not actually look at what is really happening?

    Isn’t that just ‘male bonding’? Our capacity as humans to completely ignore what is happening in front of us never ceases to amaze, and in some cases sadden, me.

  8. @tigtog – yeah, the reinforcement of cliques, that makes sense. But does it also serve a function for people who are outside of cliques – to gain an understanding of the social landscape around them, or to resist the power of the cliques?

  9. @Kirstin I think you’re right. There’s some interesting discussion that gets classed as ‘gossip’. Some of it is awful, and clique-reinforcing – body shaming, slut shaming, just-about-every-other shaming there is. But I think that, sometimes even when it *is* that, gossip can act as a space where people work out how they think, open up their own thoughts to approval or disapproval, or further exploration. I’ve called out people for shaming people through gossip before (gently, obvs), and had others do the same for me, offering explanations for someone’s behaviour that helped me to work through my unhappiness with them. Amongst my friends, there’s as much discussion of how to handle difficult relationships with other people as there is catching-up-by-proxy (‘so-and-so has moved to Harriedville; more money must be nice’). I try not to shame people, but I likely do, especially as often chatting over how I feel about a particular situation is part of how I work out how to let go of something that’s bugging me about someone else; my reactions to people can change a lot during a ‘gossip session’. I really appreciate this space, because it can help me to unpack some of the dense stuff that’s going on in a relationship. I’m generally pretty good at seeing a range of sides, but I miss them sometimes. Besides, there have been times when I’ve been too quickly reconciled to someone else’s bad behaviour; if I didn’t gossip, I wouldn’t have spotted that tendency in me…
    Of course I’ve been hurt by friends, quite badly – intimacy is double-sided like that – but I don’t have this strange ideal that says friendships should never be hard, so I’m a bit bemused by the article discussed!

  10. @Wildly – I found an article that talks about some of it. It’s a research article commissioned by a cell phone company, so I’d take everything it says about texting with a grain of salt! But here is one insight into the benefits of “negative” gossip:
    “The main benefits are rule-learning and social bonding. We all have to learn the ‘unwritten’ rules of our society or social group, and critical gossip helps us to discover, negotiate, transmit and reinforce these rules. Negative evaluations in gossip teach members of a group what behaviours are considered unacceptable, or allow them to negotiate about what should be approved or disapproved. If you want to become an accepted member of a new social group (e.g. when you start a new job, or join a club) or more popular within your existing social circle, listen attentively to critical gossip: you will find out exactly where the boundaries are, and how to avoid overstepping the invisible marks.”
    – from “Evolution, Alienation and Gossip” by Kate Fox – http://www.sirc.org/publik/gossip.shtml
    I went searching for articles on gossip because I had a niggling feeling that the *suppression* of gossip contributed to the dissolution of an activist group I was in, because it left some of us unable to map out the social landscape and the power dynamics involved.
    My post about it is here:

  11. Mmm, although that description of ‘negative gossip’ is a little different to what I meant. I don’t like the idea that there are these invisible and uncritiqued rules that it’s *good* for us to learn, but not to challenge or discuss (which has to do with being accepted, right? Don’t challenge them = easy acceptance?). And I think that my friends, at least, *do* tend to think over those rules and renegotiate them through gossip. But then, I tend to think that we have a bit of a strange way of thinking about community as only happening through commonality, which then means that reproducing homogeneity (say of ‘good’ behaviour) is a good thing. I’m less convinced of that, so my commitments to the positive effects of gossip are a little different (i.e. I don’t think that ‘adopting the rules’ is really that positive a thing, though knowing what they are might be…?)

    • Using gossip as a way to know where the boundaries are is definitely one of those mixed bags, isn’t it? Knowing where the boundaries are is great for those who are fully on board with the in-group and wanting to conform to its mores, but it really, really sucks for those who are in the outgroup and maybe just want to be left alone but who keep getting stared at, whispered about, shamed and bullied.
      P.S. not all ingroups are into shaming and bullying, some are just into not accepting unkindness, which is fine (in my book). i.e. outgroupers can have their own ingroups

  12. You have all turned this into a truly fascinating discussion, thank you. I have been very much enjoying the comments.
    A couple of things I should add here that have unfolded at my own site where I cross-posted:
    Firstly, the author of the book being reviewed in that article stopped by my site and in recognition of her comment there I should add clarification here that I haven’t read the book upon which the article is focused so my criticism is really of the article and not the book. Hope I made that clear.
    Also, the most vile gossip tends to be the victim-blaming and slut-shaming variety which I would never try and defend, but as pointed out here in the comments thread, a lot of gossip isn’t that at all and is really pretty benign. THe sharing of gossip is subsequently not always a negative social activity.
    And just to emphasize once again, because it came up over at my blog – male gossip isn’t readily identified as such and that is why the myth persists that men don’t gossip – some examples I heard at work last week that I used over at my blog in response to a comment from a man saying he has rarely heard men at work gossip: telling stories about other men’s drinking escapades, telling stories about times wives got cross at those men for staying out and getting drunk with work-mates, telling stories about who is in line for which new job and how they think that was wangled, telling stories about which politicians are having affairs.. And another example shared by a reader was the sports pages of newspapers which read very much like gossip columns only without the usual gender markers.
    Anyway, thanks for the great analysis here in the comments.

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