Wednesday, November 27, 2013

One is Not Simply Born a Mean Girl

Exactly one month ago, the Daily Mail published a predictable analysis of female behavior titled "Young women use gossip to shun pretty rivals when looking for a sexual partner." And then they explained how women are smart, diverse and complicated, living anything but a monolithic experience. 

Just kidding. 

The anonymous Daily Mail reporter led with the truism, "All's fair in love and war – and women aren’t above using  dirty tricks such as gossip and spreading rumours to get a man, according to research." 

That's right-- research. Thanks to Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, you might think the movie Mean Girls was re-released as a documentary. 

After studying the way 20-25 year old undergraduates react to a scantily clad peer, Vaillancourt concluded all women use "indirect aggression" to police the sexual behavior of others. This includes laughing, eye-rolling, and statements suggesting their adversary is ugly, slutty, or the well-known hybrid "fugly slut." 

Identifying competitors as unattractive or unchaste is how women limit "the sex." Keeping supply low and demand high, the vag becomes an all-important tool to negotiate with men, and the world makes sense-- according to heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.  

When it comes to clickbait, nothing beats bad science supporting widely-accepted beliefs. This media pastime generates headlines with sweeping generalizations, like poor people are lazy. Or millennials are entitled. Or women are bitchy. 

Once the Daily Mail struck familiar narrative gold, the appropriate reaction came from an unlikely place. Controversial new addition Bustle delivered the sharp wit and logical arguments one might expect from, well, any other feminist blog. 

Premiering as a laughable institution of mansplaining, Bustle's ability to identify and dismantle patriarchy came as a pleasant surprise. Elizabeth Brown not only questioned the data, but evolutionary psychology as a whole, with a heavy dose of sarcasm:
And if women are being nasty to other women, it must ultimately relate to the deep and almighty quest to keep them from stealing the sperm we have an eye on. Everything in ev-psych basically comes down to women's quest to get pregnant and then keep a mate, and men's desire to spread their seed far and wide.
Brown argued the women in this study were set up to react a certain way. Vaillancourt crafted her experiment to yield the results she desired. But more importantly, the Daily Mail failed to mention opposing viewpoints, which were readily available. 

Other evolutionary scientists believe adult men and women use equal amounts of indirect aggression, especially at work, or anywhere it's unacceptable to be confrontational. And with that, the study was dismissed as nonsense rooted in ridiculous sexist stereotypes. 

Just kidding. 

Last week, the Atlantic expanded these ideas in "The Evolution of Bitchiness," with more input from additional scientists. Olga Khazan even used a source Brown suggested. Unfortunately, Khazan misinterpreted the research, weaving a tale that merely supported her seductive headline. 

Contrary to Vaillancourt's methods, a psychologist at Durham University carefully considered the affects of both evolution and culture on women's intrasexual aggression. Dr. Anne Campbell's conclusion stated that patriarchal cultures treats women's aggression as unnatural, even pathologizing it, and societal constraints drive women to participate in indirect aggression instead.   

So "bitchiness" isn't really evolving, it's being socialized. And it isn't reserved for matters of the heart. But Khazan dismisses Campbell's cultural arguments, keeping her story rooted in essentialism.

Even after talking with an anthropologist from the University of Notre Dame, she remains unmoved. Despite Dr. Agustin Fuentes' insistence that slut-shaming is a social construct, and men gossip too, Khazan still ends the piece "Human nature is a bitch," re-committing to her theme. 

The next day, the Week picked up where the Atlantic left off-- offering one important reality check. Until data proves indirect aggression can successfully eliminate the competition, we cannot call it an adaptive trait. And that means it's not really evolution.

Still, Emily Shire built "The evolutionary roots of Mean Girls" around (you guessed it) the movie Mean Girls. But the pop culture reference doesn't exactly parallel Vaillancourt's evolutionary study.

While scientists said women attack each other's fidelity and appearances, this isn't how Regina George thwarted Cady's budding relationship with Aaron Samuels. By exaggerating Cady's amorous feelings, Regina painted Cady as a weirdo, and Aaron ran right back into Regina's arms.

Secondly, the movie's "bitchy" circumstances were not always sexual. The entire Burn Book was devoted to classmates admittedly weaker than the plastics. Cady even "burned" Ms. Norbury, a teacher who gave her a bad grade. These young women employed indirect aggression in every conflict, usually as a way to reassert their power.

Lastly, for all the direct comparisons to  Mean Girlsit seems the media forgot the premise of the cult classic. Living in Africa and being home-schooled did not prepare Cady for "girl world." She's unfamiliar with the rules, because talking shit and spreading rumors to achieve desired results is a learned behavior. If evolution had anything to do with it, we would all be quoting a very different movie.

Despite the many holes in Vaillancourt's theory, this never-ending story managed to stay relevant one more week, which says more about our fascination with gender-specific behavior than its actual newsworthiness.

On Monday, Businessweek asked "Why are women so 'bitchy' to each other?" while describing this skewed science as somehow empowering.

After quoting Vaillancourt's belief that her work is forcing the scientific community to take women's evolutionary traits seriously, Claire Suddath warned women that bad-talking each other will only get you enemies, not boyfriends. Yet another assertion that women's brains will forever function like teenage girls, because biology.

Supposedly, we're born this way. But bitch, bitchy and bitching are all gendered words. Openly ascribing them to the behavior society demands of women reveals more about the evolution of our culture than the women who live in it.

Unfortunately, when women's disagreements are "cat fights" and the tumultuous relationships of real housewives are "typical," those messages are internalized. Women end up believing all women act this way-- even themselves.

This distorted reality might lead a woman scientist to unknowingly manipulate her own study of other women's behavior. And this self-fulfilling prophecy might encourage women journalists to present those findings as the truth.

Unless they work at Bustle, where evolutionary bitchiness is so last month.