Women never support one another.
Why is it so hard for women to trust other women?
Sisters just don’t work together well. What’s up with that?
At some point in your life, you’ve been guilty — no judgment here — of being, well, not so nice to other women.
I know I have.
I’m embarrassed to say that some of my most antagonistic behavior was rooted in competition. Like many of my sisters, I was competing to be the prettiest. Or the skinniest. Or the prettiest. Or the smartest. Or the most desired. Did I say the prettiest?
This training starts in middle school and seemingly never ends. Why? Because today’s pretty girl can easily be usurped by tomorrow’s pretty girl, and so on and so on.
But there is hope that this centuries-old prettiest girl drama is in the beginning stages of petering out for good. I can see the tide slowly shifting under our manicured-for-summer toes.
Although we are only six months into 2018, it’s proving to be a bedrock year for girl power as more and more women are using their pop cultural platform to show that women can enjoy their femininity without having their success solely judged by it.
Coming off the Harvey Weinstein scandal, actresses attended the Golden Globes dressed in black to celebrate their own beauty and form a solidarity within the industry. This led to a somber, less sexy season for the red carpet, the center of competition and see-me beauty. We’ve never looked at men on the red carpet like this, partly because what more can we really say about a standard black-tie tux? But the problem is that with men, the conversation never stopped with, “Who are you wearing?” It’s not that I don’t love the glitz and glam but there is a problem with the present-day construct, when we never ask women about more, compare them on a surface level, and crown one woman the ultimate victor.
I’m not immune. I get paid to write red carpet commentary and determine who is best-dressed. I know I’m ultimately giving my own version of a crown based on a slit or a well-placed bow. But recent conversations have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this seemingly innocuous judgment is certainly part of the problem.
By exposing unspoken consequences of the patriarchal power structure, Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and other egregious #MeToo offenders have surely caused us to rethink the superficial standards by which we judge and treat women. But they are not the only cause behind this shift. Many Hollywood projects, for example, were green-lighted months before the scandal broke. Black Panther did a lot to show how sisterhood, rather than competition, is key to saving a society under siege.
And last weekend’s success of Ocean’s 8, the all-girl action movie starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, and Rihanna, grossed $41.5 million, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for the Ocean’s franchise, proving that people want to see women work together on screen to plan heists rather than forever be the girls who pine for dudes.
What I find most promising in the shift in pop culture optics — away from women competing to be the most beautiful — are the big changes in the Miss America pageant.
Before the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, before Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, before Playboy, there was Miss America, making a business of putting women’s bodies in competition with one another, even if the competition was only in our minds. Started in the 1920s as a beach community end-of-festival-season event, Miss America had become a commercial enterprise by the 1950s, according to Kathleen Brown, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women.
And at the center of that enterprise was its swimsuit competition.
Last week — on the heels of its own scandal over the scathing emails former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell wrote that sought to toss the women off their pedestals — the Miss America organization did away with the swimsuit competition. Organizers also expanded the evening wear competition to include more time for women to talk about how they would advance their social-impact initiatives.
“We are no longer a pageant,” Gretchen Carlson, chair of the trustees, said in a news release. “Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment.”
Axing the swimsuit competition that, like it or not, played a major role in promoting the objectification of women, is just one part of the victory. Miss America helped commercialize competition between women. But wait a minute? I can hear some of my more cynical readers saying, “You’re OK with Cosmo, the raunchy mag that gives women tips on how to have the big O, but you have issues with Miss America?”
Yes, I am. The roots of Cosmo — whether you are down with the sex or not — is about girl power, but the roots of pageants are about pitting women against one another. In Cosmo, everybody wins. And in pageants, only one girl wins.
Therein lies the problem.
After the Miss America organization made the announcement, some women lamented they don’t belong anymore, like former Miss Pennsylvania Lea Schiazza, who argued that she worked hard and was at her all-time peak of physical fitness. “I can tell you that I worked out every single day leading up to that pageant,:” Schiazza wrote in an op-ed for the Inquirer.
I believe her.
The issue here is that this was actually something women competed in. Why is it fair to set up women like this? And now that we know better, why do we keep doing it? Is this kind of competition so ingrained in our society that some of us believe it’s the only way women can excel and be seen?
I agree with Brown that this entire event is outdated. Smart women, she says, can find other ways to get scholarship money. Ditto for athletic women and for those with musical talent.
But that’s a lot to swallow in one fell swoop.
So for now, I’m content with the incremental changes, no matter how small, that are trying to foster the notion that women don’t have to compete. We can just be.