‘All women hate each other,’ or so the saying goes. This is a view of women many instinctively agree with and it was the focus (and title) of a panel I recently took part in at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, with Germaine Greer, Eva Cox, Dannielle Miller and moderator Jenny Brockie.

From the sports field to the boardroom, male ambition and competitiveness is praised, yet the term ‘ambitious’, when it describes a female, is often used with ambivalence. There is a terribly nasty side to female competition and aggression, we are told. The perils of female-on-female cruelty continue to be widely discussed by academics and journalists, and frequently portrayed in popular entertainment, from the breakout 2005 comedy Mean Girls, to reality shows like Real Housewives. It’s widely understood that women are ‘their own worst enemies’.

Interestingly, facts do not support these claims.

Don’t get me wrong – mean girls exist and they are mean. In some cases the negative social behaviours of females can have terrible consequences, encouraging eating disorders, depression and in extreme cases even suicide. Yet this focus on female cruelty seems curious, when you consider that ’mean boys’ are far more likely to cause physical injury and death. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, males are 400% more likely to commit an offense intended to cause injury than are females. About 90% of homicides are committed by men, and 80% of domestic homicides involve a male perpetrator and female victim. Men are also 2800% (28 times) more likely to rape than are their female counterparts. Although there has been a marked increase of female prisoners since the mid-twentieth century, as of 2011 there were still thirteen times as many men in Australian prisons as women.

The fact remains inarguable – dangerous social behaviours and acts of aggression and harm are overwhelmingly perpetrated by males.

As I wrote this, a headline caught my eye. Violence broke out in a Sydney suburb on the weekend, including a brawl, stabbings and two drive-by shootings. The trigger for all this violence? A compliment paid to another man’s wife. Now imagine the headline: Woman Pays Compliment To Other Woman’s Husband – Violence Ensues. Such a scenario seems absurd, yet the notion of women competing ruthlessly with one another for the favor of men is a common narrative in pop culture. And somehow we’ve bought into it.

Samantha Brick became a household name in April this year when she wrote a piece in the UK’s Daily Mail attacking women for hating her on account of her beauty. ‘I know how lucky I am,’ she wrote of being good-looking. ‘But there are downsides to being pretty — the main one being that other women hate me for no other reason than my lovely looks.’ The Daily Mail published a plethora of images of her to accompany the article, just begging for a response. They got their wish. The article went viral and thousands of people commented, the vast majority ridiculing Brick. Men’s comments were largely along the ‘I wouldn’t f*** you’ theme, and she was fodder for (mostly male) comedians for weeks, yet once again, it was the unkind responses of women that remained the main focus of debate. Months later, Brick continues to claim that ‘women do not like other women who are more attractive than they are.’

This is a classic generalization about women. In this common narrative, women exist to be beautiful and to compete for the attention of men, whom they are lost without. Women’s looks are their most valuable asset in this quest for a man, an asset they’ll do anything to hang on to (‘Who’s the fairest of them all…?’). Women must have a man and they must also bear children, without which they are – again – lost. Women don’t have value so much on their own, but rather in what they can attach themselves to – a male partner and family unit.

Where do we get these ideas? A likely culprit appears to be popular entertainment created by – interestingly enough – men.

Countless studies examining the effects of media exposure have shown that it has a measurable influence on behaviour and perceptions, regardless of the accuracy of those media portrayals. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 93% of working directors are male, 80% of producers are male and 87% of writers. Of the films up for the recent Palme d’Or – the highest prize awarded at the Cannes film festival – not one was directed by a woman. It took 82 years for any woman to win an Oscar for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010). There are also nearly 5 men to every 1 woman working behind the scenes in film and television.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we overwhelmingly see our entertainment from a male perspective. Female characters are outnumbered on screen about 3 to 1, a ratio hasn’t changed since World War II. In many popular genres, like action films, the imbalance is obviously more skewed. This male to female ratio isn’t much better in popular literature, or even in children’s books, as Dr. David Anderson and Dr. Mykol Hamilton showed by examining hundreds of award-winning and top-selling children’s books over several years. There were nearly twice as many main male characters as female and males appeared in illustrations 53 percent more often. We are so accustomed to this androcentrism that most of us don’t even notice it. It is unconscious.

What we miss out on most in these skewed portrayals are the different types of women that exist – the variety of occupations, achievements, attitudes, personalities, experiences, sizes and shapes real women have.

From 2006 to 2009, for instance, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family film as a business leader, in law, in politics or in the field of medical science, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In these films over 80% of all working characters were male, which is a contrast to real life statistics in the western world, where women comprise half of the workforce.

Female characters on screen speak to one another so rarely that it spawned the Bechdel Test, created by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. To pass this simple test, two female characters need only talk with each other at some point in the film about anything other than a man. Of the nine films up for best picture at this year’s Oscars, only two clearly passed.

Naturally, the other thing we miss out on in these stories are normal portrayals of female friendship. Female friendship is an important part of life for most women. Most of my friends, my mentors and most of my supporters – personally and professionally – have been women. Yet I’m unlikely to see these kinds of positive female interactions reflected in mainstream entertainment.

According to the study  ‘Mean Girls? The Influence of Gender Portrayals In Teen Movies On Emerging Gender-Based Attitudes And Beliefs’ published in 2008 in the academic journal J&MC Quarterly, female characters portrayed in the top grossing teen movies were ‘significantly more likely to engage in socially aggressive behaviours than males’. The study concluded that ‘teen films have a tendency to rely on the stereotype of teen girls as ‘mean girls’’ and ‘the more emerging adults identified with teen movies and characters and the greater the exposure to teen movies, the more likely they were to report negative perceptions of their friend’s friendship behaviours.’

Let’s consider the hotbed of toxic behaviours one would expect in, say, a school full of nothing but teenage girls interacting with one another. Curiously, numerous studies have actually shown that all-female environments in schools lead to better results in exams, not worse. Professors Myra and David Sadker, who have also been examining all-female school environments for the past ten years, summarized their ten years of study in one sentence: ‘When girls go to single-sex schools, they stop being the audience and become the players.’ This is in part because teachers in mixed-sex schools were more likely to call on boys in class.

An exaggerated notion of female cruelty is nothing new. In 1893 famed criminologist Cesare Lombroso wrote in La Donna Delinquente (The Criminal Woman) that women’s ‘evil tendencies are more numerous and more varied than men’s, but usually these remain latent. When awakened and excited, however, these evil tendencies lead to proportionately worse results.’

Just what qualifies as worse is clearly subjective, as men are 10 times more likely to murder than are women, and among that most extreme and frightening of killers – the serial killer – women are exceedingly rare. Over 91% of serial killers are male, and those who are women are more likely to murder for money rather than sadistic pleasure, and are therefore far less likely to torture, rape, beat, mutilate or dismember their victims.

Men not only commit over 90% of homicides, but they are also far more likely to be murdered. In 2010 in Australia, males between the ages of 15 and 24 were more than twice as likely to be murdered as females in the same age group. Overwhelmingly, the killers of these young men were other men.

You know what they say, all men hate each other.


* A version of this article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept 29, 2012.

* Watch a full recording of the session ‘All Women Hate Each Other’ with Tara Moss, Germaine Greer, Eva Cox, Dannielle Miller and moderator Jenny Brockie, at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas website.

* For more on women’s representation in the media, entertainments and politics, read my blog The Invisible Women.

* Read a wrap-up of the All Women Hate Each Other panel at Paperbag Princess.